Today's date:
Winter 2012

Chongqing Rising in the West

George Yeo is the former foreign minister of Singapore.

Chongqing—Before the new Party Secretary Bo Xilai arrived a few years ago in Chongqing, the plan to root out organized crime was already being worked out in detail. In one night, thousands were rounded up. The operation must have been planned in absolute secrecy in Beijing. The city’s police force had been so badly penetrated, information would have leaked out quickly if more than a few had known beforehand. Recently, Chongqing has been voted the safest city in China. Everywhere there are new police kiosks, providing a friendly local police presence. If there’s rain, you can borrow an umbrella, with an astonishing return rate of 85%. 

China’s system of centralized rule goes back many centuries. To prevent high officials from being overly influenced by local interests, it has become accepted practice that they themselves should be from elsewhere. For this reason, the party secretary, who is the top leader of a province, is almost always never from the province itself. While in position, however, he is expected to do his best for the province, taking into account the national interest. Upon this performance will be decided his next promotion. Some scholars have therefore described China as a bureaucratic state.

Without such a system of governance, a monumental project like the construction of the Three Gorges Dam could not have been conceived and implemented. Never in human history has such a massive planned relocation of human beings been carried out. Over a million were affected, ten times more than that caused by the construction of the High Dam in Aswan.

The project caused huge controversy in China and remains controversial to a degree. After years of study and debate, it was finally approved by the National People’s Congress. The engineering work was of high quality. None of the projects associated with it suffered significant damage as a result of the massive Wenchuan earthquake in 2008. What is more impressive was the resettlement of population and the creation of new urban centers. Yunyang, which is all new, looks like a pretty Swiss village by the lake. Because of strong economic growth, employment has not been a serious problem. Still, for the older folks, a way of life has changed. At Wanzhou, I saw hundreds of senior citizens out in the public square singing and dancing, which they do on their own every evening when the weather permits. Party Secretary Bo had been encouraging the singing of revolutionary songs, which appeals more to the old than the young.

In 1997, Chongqing City became directly governed from Beijing with provincial status. It was the fourth, after Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai, and the first deep inland. It was carved out from Sichuan Province with a population of about 30 million. The objective was not only to pay particular attention to the areas affected by the damming of the Yangtze River but also to develop a national growth pole for the opening of China’s great west. It was not a role which Xian, Chengdu, Changsha or Wuhan could play because they were already provincial capitals. Also, Chongqing has the tradition of being an international city. During the long struggle against Japan, it served as China’s wartime capital and drew people from all over the country and from abroad. With the rising of the water level, navigation up the Yangtze has also improved considerably.

For Chongqing to succeed, it has to attract talent from China and from the world in large numbers. Healthy urbanization is key. Everywhere, emphasis is placed on Chongqing being liveable, healthy, peaceful, accessible and forested. The core objective is to foster integrated urban-rural development. The main urban area of Chongqing itself is expected to double in size over the next ten years. Like other parts of China, urban growth is planned for in a way no other big country is able to do. It is in China that the supercities of the 21st century are being built.

In five years, an astonishing 700,000 units of low-cost apartments will be built in Chongqing, served by a comprehensive network of urban rail and highways. I visited a neighborhood which was recently completed, one and a half years from groundbreaking. Being skeptical about the quality of construction, I asked to see some facilities and invited myself to an apartment. They were not bad at all. In the square, there was a large red banner encouraging new residents to register as voters in local elections.

Chongqing’s future prospects will be greatly improved if the land routes to Europe and the Indian Ocean are opened up. A recent agreement among five Eurasian countries allowing containers sealed in Chongqing to travel all the way to the European Union without intermediate inspection will be a great boon, halving the time it would take by river and sea. Once Myanmar opens up, the route to India by way of Kunming would also become feasible.

All this requires peace and cooperation with neighboring countries. China’s promotion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and of good relations with ASEAN is not only good politics, but also good economics. Indeed, when the coast was controlled by Japan during the Pacific War, it was via these overland routes that inland China was kept supplied. In the Joseph Stillwell Museum in Chongqing, there is a picture showing Chinese soldiers onboard an aircraft bound for military training in India (Ramgarh in Bihar).

Only China with its centralized system of governance could plan long-term on so vast a scale. But problems on the ground are not always attended to. The speed of development creates all kinds of imbalances which officials are often unable to address fully. While waiting for the high-speed train at the railway station in Chongqing to take us to Chengdu, my wife sat next to an elderly lady carrying an empty wire-mesh basket. She told my wife that she was travelling to the next station to buy a hundred eggs from a nearby village. She could not trust the quality of the eggs in Chongqing – some were fake, others contained chemicals. They would be harmful to her precious two-year-old grandson. While her fear might be exaggerated, what she felt and did told a story about the love of a grandmother, China’s one-child policy, business ethics or the lack of it, and of development racing so fast ahead, regulators are scarcely able to catch up.

China is an unfolding drama but one filled with excitement and hope for the future.