Middle city

Published : Jul 13, 2007 00:00 IST

Chongqing municipality in southwest China is clearly a megalopolis on the move, urbanising at a breathtaking pace.

PALLAVI AIYAR in Chongqing

RISING from the hills that line the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialiang rivers in southwest China is one of the largest urban agglomerations in the world. Yet, few in the world would have heard of Chongqing, a municipality that is home to 32 million people, more than the population of Peru or Australia.

Driving into the municipality's metropolitan centre from the newly renovated high-spec international airport, one can find billboards for luxury villa-style developments dotting the road. "Palm Springs: Life is a Status" reads one.

In the city proper, a ceaseless aural assault awaits. Through the haze that almost perennially blankets Chongqing, the vrooming of motorbikes clashes with the cluttering of cement mixers. The disco beats of the 1980 hit "Funkytown" boom out of a hairdressing salon. The sizzle of spicy noodles being ladled out; the creak of construction cranes; the thud of wrecking balls - everywhere the sounds of trade and movement, of the old giving way to the new, abound.

Chongqing is clearly a city on the move - upward and forward - and on a scale that is breathtaking.

It is also a city that more than any other in China exemplifies in dramatic relief the broader issues that characterise the contemporary Chinese condition, such as urbanisation, industrial development, inequalities, dislocation and chronic pollution. The ability of the municipality to resolve contradictions, meet challenges and channel its energies is likely to be a key indicator of the success with which China as a whole is able to draft its 21st century legacy.

Given its location on the middle reaches of the Yangtze, Chongqing has historically been a trading hub for the landlocked and impoverished expanses of western China. Its fortunes took a dramatic turn in 1997 when it was separated from the Sichuan province and given the quasi-provincial status of an independent municipality, somewhat like a Union Territory in India.

Since then Chongqing has urbanised at a frantic pace and become the fastest growing urban centre on the planet, absorbing some half a million people into its cities every year.

The core 500-square-kilometre area of Chongqing's main city, which the municipality's urban planners refer to as the "megalopolis", is populated by six million people. But the megalopolis is expanding almost daily, swallowing up surrounding areas of what was once countryside into a single gigantic conurbation already comprising around 10 million people.

According to Chongqing's Vice Mayor Huang Qifan, by 2020 another 10 million farmers are expected to move to Chongqing metropolitan areas taking the total urban population to a mind-bending 22 million.

In mid-June, as Chongqing celebrated its 10th anniversary as an independent municipality, the 82,000-sq km area was nominated by China's central government as a pilot for "coordinated rural and urban" development. The idea behind the pilot is for the municipality to experiment with doing away with the distinctions between the rural and urban populace that have characterised China for most of the Communist era.

From the 1950s on, rural residents in China were barred from travel to and residence in urban centres, enabling city-dwellers to enjoy a cocooned and privileged existence, including access to better education and health care. Even today, despite the relaxation, to a large degree, of these strictures, the urban-rural divide in China is dramatic.

In Chongqing alone, the per capita income of urban residents in 2006 was renminbi (RMB, or the people's currency) 11,500 ($1,500), four times more than the equivalent for rural areas, which was only RMB 2,875 ($375).

Across China income and regional inequalities have become the focal points for the coalescing of an array of discontents resulting from the economic restructuring the country has undertaken over the past 30 years. Ever chary of risking the kind of widespread social instability that would undermine its legitimacy, China's Communist Party has thus begun to make tackling of inequalities a policy priority, emphasising social justice and equity over sheer growth.

However, Chongqing's strategy on how it plans to achieve the goals set for it by the centre is revealing. Huang, the Vice Mayor, says that rather than focussing on developing the rural areas, the municipal government will aim its energies squarely on "helping farmers to become city dwellers" and building a "stronger and bigger city".

The municipality wants to develop what it calls a "one-hour economy circle" agglomerating all the satellite towns and villages within an hour's driving distance from the main city itself into a single gigantic whole.

The local authorities are thus enticing peasants to give up leases on their rural plots of land in exchange for urban residency permits that offer legal residence in cities and access to schools, hospitals and other social services that were once out of reach for farmers.

Huang admits that achieving the municipality's urbanisation goals will require Herculean efforts entailing provisions for housing, pensions, education and sanitation for millions of newcomers. But the Vice Mayor is confident that the authorities are up to the task. "There will be no slums in Chongqing unlike in India or Brazil," he boasts. "I can guarantee that."

The primary reason for his confidence, he says, is Chongqing's rapid economic growth, which in the first six months of this year touched 14 per cent. "The important thing is that our city can provide jobs for all the new arrivals," he explains, adding that housing and other infrastructure are being developed at a pace that matches the rate of urbanisation.

Huang says Chongqing will spend RMB 650 billion ($84.4 billion) over the next five years on industrial development aimed at transforming the municipality into the primary industrial base in China's west. Another RMB 600 billion ($78 billion) will be spent on expressways, water treatment and sewage facilities, railroads and port development.

Already the city adds around 137,000 square metres (14,74,655 sq ft) of new floor space for residential blocks, offices and shopping malls every day. With a gross domestic product of RMB 348.62 billion ($45.27 billion) in 2006, the municipality boasts 1,000 km of expressways, 1,500 km of railroads, ports with the capacity to handle 60 million tonnes of cargo and an airport that welcomes some 10 million passengers a year. The majority of the infrastructure was developed in the decade since Chongqing became a municipality.

Chongqing's road map for achieving the target of "coordinated" rural-urban development thus does not quite match what most analysts claim Beijing's current policy priority of building a "new socialist countryside" to be.

Rather than slowing down growth in the cities and distributing the gains of urban development to the countryside by concentrating on investment in health, education and pensions, Chongqing's plan is to speed up economic growth so that the momentum of development can support rapid urbanisation.

During his two-hour-long interaction with journalists, the Vice Mayor barely mentioned public health or the environment - the current buzzwords in Beijing. Instead his focus remained on old-style parameters such as foreign direct investment and infrastructure.

Half an hour away from the Hilton hotel, the venue for the meeting with Huang, Chen Zhun Cai, a 32-year-old real estate agent, sits behind a scratched white plastic table in the 15 sq m space that is his office. Between June and August, he says 40-50 new buildings are going to go on the market in Chongqing.

Chen is typical of Chongqing in that he is a migrant from the countryside of Sichuan. He moved to the city in 1998 and says he has never been unable to rent out a property in his hands. "There are so many people moving here the demand always matches the supply," he smiles. He rents out around five apartments a day on average, the majority of them to migrants from surrounding areas.

It costs between RMB 800 and RMB 1,000 ($100-130) for a 40 sq m (430 sq ft) apartment in an average part of the town, Chen says. Back in 1998, when he started in the business, the same houses went for RMB 300 ($40). Chen plans to stay in the real estate business if he can. "It has a bright future," he says.

Out on the street at the busy bus stop by Chen's Zhang Zhou Real Estate Agency, the arrival of every bus is greeted by a gaggle of dishevelled but sinewy "bang bang" men - a unique Chongqing institution. The bang bang men are human pack mules, a 100,000-strong group of porters who bear the weight of the city's commerce up and down the hilly streets, on their shoulders.

Comprised of peasants with little education, these porters have few job prospects in the city save picking up a bamboo pole (called bang bang in the local dialect) and rope, and carrying heavy goods around for a small fee.

Dong Ren Wei, a 44-year-old bang bang man, says he makes almost RMB 50 ($6.5) a day carrying around loads of vegetables and building materials. Dong moved to Chongqing from the Sichuan village of Xu Xian 10 years ago. Some of the heavier loads he carries weigh up to 70 kilos but he does not mind. There is much more money in the city than in farming and at least his four children have the chance of a decent education. Dong's eldest son drives a taxi and his 19-year-old daughter is currently in high school. "Maybe she can go to university," Dong grins, revealing a mouth full of rotten teeth. The bang bang man himself did not finish middle school.

Much of the economic buoyancy that attracts Dong and other migrants like him to Chongqing has resulted from large-scale economic reforms that have in the past 10 years seen the share of the private sector in the municipality's economy grow from 25 per cent to well over half. As a result, industrial sales have quadrupled over the same period and despite its somewhat awkward geographical location in China's interior, the municipality has emerged as home to some of China's most successful private companies.

One of these is the Lifan group - the country's top exporter of motorbikes. Yin Mingshen, Lifan's founder, spent 20 years in jail for his "capitalist outlook" in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, he ranks as one of the richest men in the country. Sitting in his office in the newly built Lifan Sedan factory located in Chongqing's Special Economic Zone, Yin says his time in jail only strengthened his resolve to succeed. Despite having been persecuted during Mao Zedong's reign, the 69-year-old insists that he owes much to the founding father of Communist China. "I learnt from Chairman Mao that you should only fight those you are confident of defeating and retreat if the enemy is stronger," he chuckles. A strategy, he says, he has always applied to his business, with much benefit.

In 2006, Lifan sold 1.3 million motorbikes in over 125 countries. The factories alone provide some 10,000 jobs in Chongqing.

However, as elsewhere in China, economic reforms, like the streamlining of state-owned enterprises (SOEs), have created painful social dislocations in the city, which are exacerbated by the disruptions caused by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydroelectric project. Chongqing guards the upper stream of the 690-km long reservoir that winds behind the dam. Since the start of construction of the dam in the mid-1990s, some 1,400 enterprises and 1,425 villages in the municipality have been submerged, causing the relocation of over one million people.

Wang Yongchen, a journalist and founder of the non-governmental organisation Green Earth Volunteers, has spent the last few years working with dam-affected people. "The authorities always promise that dams will make a region rich, but local people do not believe they will become rich as a result of dams. They think that it is only the local governments that will become rich," she said. Wang pointed out that the main objection activists like her had to big dams was that people affected by large infrastructure projects were not allowed to participate in the decision-making process.

At the recently opened Three Gorges museum in Chongqing's city centre, a 360{+0} panoramic theatre shows a film about the dam in which the narrator extols the "bravery and courage" with which the dislocated populations "face the future". "We are sentimentally attached to the old cities" (which will be submerged by the dam), the narrator continues to the background of stirring music, "but we also feel the power of the Three Gorges; a glory of the nation."

But despite such appeals to patriotism, protests have broken out across Chongqing in recent years, with demonstrations against layoffs at SOEs, forced relocations and illegal land grabs. Following the general trend in China, the municipality has disinvested from hospitals and schools, driving up medical expenses and school fees even as the majority of citizens lack health insurance or pensions.

Countrywide, less than 10 per cent of China's rural population and only 50 per cent of its urban residents have medical insurance. According to China's official 2003 National Health Survey, 64 per cent of the people in cities who required hospital treatment said they chose not to be treated in hospitals because of the cost. In the countryside, this figure was 75 per cent.

In Ciqikou, one of the few remaining pockets of Chongqing's old city, 57-year-old Song Gang Lin, a retired welder, rails against what he perceives to be the injustices of modern Chongqing. "Twenty years ago the city was not as `developed' but if you needed to see a doctor, your work unit paid for it," he says. "Today when we are sick we ourselves must pay and it has become so expensive that we just can't afford it. Any visit to the hospital sets us back RMB 800-1,000 and the doctors are only out to make a profit," he concludes.

His wife, Li Sao Hua, is uncomfortable with Song's attitude. "Everything is better now," she says contradicting her husband. "The roads used to be so bad it took me three hours to get to work. Now you can make the same journey in under one hour." "Don't listen to her," interjects Song. "She only likes to talk about the bright side."

Possibly the biggest cost of urbanisation and industrialisation, in both economic and social terms, has come from chronic pollution.

Liu Juan, an English-language student at Chongqing University, who is for the most part blithely optimistic of her city's future, is less optimistic when she talks about her hometown in the municipality's Xiu Shan county. "The Mei Zhang river there, which we called our mother river, became black ten years ago. It was the chemical factories," she says.

Wu Dengming, the city's leading environmentalist and founder of the Green Volunteer League, talks about the pollution caused by the strontium mines in Tongliang county, where water pollution is believed to have caused a sharp rise in cancer rates apart from the death of farm animals. Villagers have protested time and again, he says.

Wu has helped organise villagers and petition the government with a degree of success. Several of the chemical factories and mines in the area have thus closed following his efforts. However, protection from certain local officials allows other factories to continue operating in flagrant violation of pollution norms, Wu says. However, he adds that the last five years have seen an improvement in terms of both the government's commitment to the environment and the ability of public opinion to shape official policy.

The amount of coal being used in the municipality has decreased by 10 million tonnes since 2000, he says. The city has also built huge garbage disposal plants for the 3,500 tonnes of junk generated by Chongqing's megalopolis every day.

Wu, a former university professor who was sacked for his controversial views, is interrupted by the ringing of his mobile phone. After a brief conversation he hangs up and, smiling broadly, announces that the caller was a farmer from Tongliang county who has just received compensation from the local government for damage caused to his crops by pollution. The compensation is in the form of rice.

Wu is sitting in a restaurant in a new riverside development called Hong Ya Dong, the gathering place for Chongqing's hipsters and the new rich. The complex houses a Starbucks coffee house, designer boutiques and a four-star hotel. In the parking lot outside the restaurant where Wu waves his farewells, a Jaguar rubs bonnet with a BMW SUV. Closer to the river, several bang bang men slouch around like deflated balloons. It is night time and Chongqing's Hong Kongesque skyline is lit up in a blaze of neon.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment