China Power

Will Chongqing be Great?

Chongqing has a population of 32 million, yet many outside China have never heard of it. Why?

The new issue of Foreign Policy has a fascinating feature on what it describes as ‘the biggest city you've never heard of’.

Of course, readers of this blog will have heard of it because that city is Chongqing, which is headed up by Bo Xilai, the Communist Party Chongqing Committee Secretary and instigator of a major crackdown on gang activity in the municipality who I’ve talked about a couple of times.

But it’s fair to say that the city’s relative geographic remoteness from Beijing and Shanghai has meant that it has received less attention than might be expected of place with a population of 32 million and which, as the article notes, is ‘growing so quickly its maps are already out of date by the time they are printed’.

The images alone in the accompanying photo essay are worth taking a look at—mile after mile of high-rise apartment blocks leading down to the banks of the massive, murky Yangtze River. But to really get a feel for the changes that are taking place there I decided to ask Robert A. Kapp, president of Robert A. Kapp & Associates and a long-time China analyst, to share his thoughts on the city.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Kapp, a former president of the US-China Business Council who has visited Chongqing a number of times since first venturing to the city in 1980, has recently returned from a trip there. The city has, as FP points out, grown from an ‘obscure port of 200,000 in the 1930s to a city of 2 million in 1967 to a sprawling mega-metropolis’ that has been dubbed ‘the fastest-growing urban center on the planet.’

So what’s changed in the 30 years since Kapp was first there? He was understandably keen to point out that, in his words, ‘It’s very possible in China for a foreign visitor not only to miss a great deal that’s only slightly hidden from view, but sometimes to miss even what’s staring him in the face. A one-week visit to Chongqing can only provide relatively shallow impressions, even to one who has visited China dozens upon dozens of times for nearly 35 years.’

But asked to name some of the changes that stood out most, he told me one was the sheer density of the high-rise construction and what he describes as the ‘relative conquest of vertical space.’

‘Chongqing was traditionally extremely hard to get around, because of the steepness of the terrain from the river banks to the upper portions of "downtown." While the terrain is still steep, the combination of elevated highway construction and widening of major winding arteries has made the downtown area much more navigable by modern means of transportation,’ he told me.

‘Similarly, large numbers of high rises have gone in on very small footprints—one marvels at the engineering challenge of delivering building materials to building sites (presumably in the wee hours of the morning) when surrounding sites are already built and adjacent streets are winding and sometimes narrow…The climax of all this is the auto-free, tree-lined plaza running several hundred yards out from the centremost point of the city, the so-called “liberation monument.”’

Another thing he noted was the ‘look’ of the people. He says that Sichuan—and Chongqing—really are, in his words, ‘the provinces’ and that those in the east coast development belt that includes Beijing and Shanghai tend to regard the Sichuanese as ‘country cousins.’

‘Certainly, the per capita incomes of people in the west, including Sichuan and Chongqing, are far lower than those in the east,’ he explained.  ‘But a week in and around Chongqing showed a dense mass of people decently and often well-clothed. The working-level people on the street had the look of urban workers, not the look of peasants adrift in an alien environment… It was striking to me that I was in a modern Chinese great city, more akin (in superficial appearances, at least) to the major cities of the coastal region.’

Aside from orchestrating a roundup of triads, Bo Xilai has also pledged to improve citizens’ quality of life by encouraging more green spaces in the city. I asked Kapp if there was any sign so far that this pledge had been followed up on. He told me:

‘Vast “green spaces” in the core of the core are perhaps an impossibility: that core is extremely densely packed and is being built upwards at a rapid rate. On the other hand, the climate of this area is just unbelievably lush: everything grows there, as evidenced by the quantity and beauty of available foods. So, when you head out of the core of the core of the core and west to the university area of Shapingba, for example, you encounter lovely university campuses.The booming suburban region of Jianbei, across the Jialing, is far more spacious in atmosphere, and I would expect that it would include somewhat greater quantities of leisure space, if not literally 'green space.

So what were his overall impressions of that elusive issue of ‘liveability’ and ‘draw’ that make a great city? It’s a hard question to answer—what makes a big city a great city? And what do we even mean by that word ‘great’?

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In Chongqing’s case, as Kapp put it, ‘you know you are far from the coast. You realize, if you know anything about the city and its region, that Sichuan and Chongqing form a geographic unit distinct from, and somewhat isolated from, the rest of China…So, if you’re expecting Chongqing to be Shanghai, you’ll be disappointed, just as you are sure to be disappointed if, upon moving from New York to Houston (or Houston to New York, for that matter) you expect your new location to be just like the old one.’

But he notes that Chongqing has, in his words, made ‘wonderful progress in thrusting itself into the ranks of internationally-considered cities’, noting that it’s now linked by superhighways to other points in ways that could hardly be imagined even 20 years ago. 

Ultimately, he says, ‘Chongqing is proving that it’s possible to be, and to become, a "modern city" without becoming a coastal Chinese metropolis. Just as it’s an idle exercise to expect, say, Dallas or St. Louis be New York or Los Angeles, it’s a waste of time to wait for Chongqing to become Shanghai. But it’s equally fatuous to write off Chongqing's aspirations to critical economic roles in 21st century China. Much will depend on whether, and (more realistically) how quickly the levels of income and the living standards of the Chinese interior rise. As they rise, Chongqing's position will rise even more dramatically than it has already.’

And on that question of ‘liveability’?

‘Chongqing is on the path.  If “liveability” requires the presence of tens of thousands of expatriates from Western Europe, the US, Japan, Korea, and Australia, the path will seem long. But as the city exerts itself to build the conditions of that liveability, and its economic bases continue to expand, “world citizens” will flow in. With them will come kids, restaurants, foods, books, entertainment. Those urban enhancements are already underway, and "liveability" is certain to deepen in the years to come.’