Chongqing has been in the news these past few weeks, but only as the backdrop to political rivalries that ended in the city’s famous princeling boss Bo Xilai getting the sack yesterday. The succession politics are important and help to paint a picture of China’s general direction over the next few years, but far more important to the average inhabitant of Chongqing and environs are the plans for a massive economic zone that stretches from Chongqing across into Sichuan Province and engulfs several small cities on its way to Chengdu.
Sure, it’s more exciting to talk about scandals and princelings and sudden sacks during China’s most important political meetings, but when those rumors have swirled away into the wind, it will be business as usual in China. And business as usual means jumping headfirst into the 21st century sea with urbanization in one hand and globalization in the other.
The plan to fuse the two major cities of southwest China with a band of iron, steel, concrete and asphalt may have had its origins in the 1997 split that created Chongqing municipality out of the jungles of eastern Sichuan. At that point, the goal was to break off chunks of what was then China’s most populous province and develop them in that oh-so-efficient, top-down macro style that has made the Beijing Model so famous. Three years after the split, the Develop the West Campaign was announced to great fanfare in Chengdu. The goals of that campaign were (and still are) to make Chengdu the hub of everything in western China and use the hub to develop the rest of the region.
So now, fifteen years down the road, Chengdu has become the hub it was meant to be and Chongqing has emerged as a manufacturing powerhouse. A star-crossed couple if you ask me; we talked about these two cities a while back and if you think of them as a nobleman and a steelworker, then no, they do not seem star-crossed at all. But a noblewoman and rugged laborer …..?
Two Cores, Five Belts
As you may have guessed, the two cores of this great plan are Chongqing and Chengdu. The belts extend like a web between them, with little nodes acting as hubs for their own little region. The five belts are:
- The region along the Yangtze River
- Chongqing-Guangyuan-Dazhou cities
The Yangtze River region includes the town of Yibin, which is about three hours southeast of Chengdu. There are few details out yet as to what will be developed along this region and how, but the government documents available describe a mixture of basically everything, with a focus on cargo and tourism. Utilizing the river to develop southern Chengdu seems like common sense. The government has also, in every document that describes this plan (and others), insisted that the ecological health of the region and sustainability as a whole be a major priority.
Chengdu-Mianyang-Leshan is a looping northeast to southwest corridor that will presumably be linked by the same high-speed rail that will eventually link Chengdu with Leshan. Leshan and Mianyang are already thriving cities, close enough to Chengdu to benefit from the hi-tech and services-based development that has helped Chengdu grow, but far enough away to be their own (semi-) independent entities. As such they act as catalysts for the growth of the still-poor countryside that surrounds them.
Chengdu-Neijiang-Chongqing and Chengdu-Nanchong-Suining-Chongqing are clear bands of east-west development that link the two major cores. Nanchong, Neijiang and Suining are a notch below Mianyang and Leshan in terms of overall development and they should benefit greatly from being pulled into the fold. These are the regions that require the most help and stand to gain the most from the new economic zone. Gangster-plagued, slightly-isolated and struggling to emerge out of the last century’s economy, these three towns are no doubt happy to be on the team.
The Chongqing-Guangyuan-Dazhou belt is for me the most interesting. Guangyuan is actually a very nice city with what seems to be a good pace of development and little in the way of nasty corruption, gangsterism and pollution. The city has a fascinating history and a great climate. A highway links Guangyuan with Chengdu and to the north lies the huge northern Sichuan-southern Shanxi mountainous region that was once the cradle of Chinese civilization but has since slipped into irrelevancy. Dazhou is in northeast Sichuan and has always been in its own little world. Shanxi has nothing to do with the place really, it’s very far from Chengdu (7-8 hours) and it is separated from Chongqing proper by the hills and jungles of the rest of the municipality. It will be interesting to see how this belt develops in the future.
Check below for a Google Map of the Chengdu-Chongqing Economic Zone:
View Chengdu Chongqing Economic Zone in a larger map
The Plan Overrides All
So the governments have the blueprint and now comes the tough part. Putting it all together. What the plan calls for now and over the next 3-5 years is the creation and nurturing of demonstration zones, in Guang’An city for example, that show that the two governments can work together to develop the tiny towns that dot the region between them.
A lot of the work in the next few years deals with the ability of the two governments to work together. If seen in this light, then the scandal with Bo Xilai might be serious from an overall developmental stand-point as well. How can we know what Bo did or did not do to further the goals of this long-term plan to develop this region? Was he too busy chasing gangsters and singing red songs? We cannot know. But the overall policy, handed down from the central government, calls for Sichuan and Chongqing to join hands and demonstrate that the development of the little guys is a major priority. It seems safe to assume that anyone getting in the way of that plan will be steamrolled.
This “cooperation” work between the two entails endless meetings and the formulation of Lord knows how many documents with titles like, “Decision on Boosting Construction of the Chengdu-Chongqing Economic Zone and Coordinated Regional Development in Sichuan Province,” “Suggestion Pertaining to the Implementation of the Chengdu-Chongqing Economic Zone Regional Planning,” and overarching terms like “One center, one base and three zones” that help to simplify what is in actuality a mindboggling undertaking.
Even now, after all these years, I still find it fascinating that these documents and phrases and strange vague proclamations can actually create the economic miracle we see today. Taken together with the chaos and slippery nature of life in China, watching these plans unfold is truly something to behold.
The Mighty Macro Hand
One of my favorite passages in a recent document presented to the press by the Sichuan government is as follows:
Sichuan has started 407 major projects pertaining to infrastructure, people’s livelihood, social undertakings and environmental protection. A total of 328 billion yuan has found its way into the projects. Fifty-eight projects have been completed.
Thanks to support from ministries and commissions under the central government in the past year, Sichuan has accomplished great achievements in implementing the national planning and building the Chengdu-Chongqing Economic Zone. Initial statistics show that in 2011 the GDP, added value of above-scale industries, fixed asset investment, general budgetary revenue of local finance, urban residents’ per capita disposable income and farmers’ per capita net income in 15 cities included in the “Chengdu-Chongqing Economic Zone Planning” rose by 15.4%, 22.1%, 18.5%, 34.7%, 16.3% and 20.9%, over the previous year, higher than the national average and contributing to the exceeding of 2 trillion yuan in the provincial GDP
I have no doubt that the material lives of millions of residents of cities between the two cores has improved greatly. We can see the evidence of that all around us. But just a closer peek at even one of these projects would do more for Chengdu’s PR than one hundred thousand pages of the above. I wonder if a closer look would really make us feel as good as the above statistics. Poverty alleviation, urbanization and industrialization are complex processes that are not exactly zero-sum. There is a give and take that happens and the evidence of that is all around us as well. The government’s insistence on macro approaches to development has led to success on many fronts, but without the soft hand of micro investigations to go in after the heavy hand of macro policies, authorities risk a backlash that they find bewildering and often threatening.
This is now China’s fourth decade of development. The question is not, Will it work? That has been answered already. But How can it work even better? With this new economic zone, Sichuan and Chongqing are giving themselves just under a full decade to get it right and they are starting off using the right language. It will be a testament both to China’s policies and to Sichuan and Chongqing’s status as trailblazers to se this project achieve exactly what it is setting out to do.