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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Changing Chengdu

Air Date: Week of

As development in China soars, it's also spreading westward. Chengdu, a backwater city in western China, became an urban metropolis overnight. Jean Kumagai reports on the newest Chinese boomtown.



GELLERMAN: So far, nearly all of China’s industrial development has taken place along its eastern coast. But recently, the central government has been pushing investors westward into the interior, underdeveloped provinces. This "go west" policy has, in just a few short years, turned the backwater city of Chengdu into a hi-tech boomtown. Jean Kumagai visited the city and has this reporter’s notebook.


KUMAGAI: Chengdu isn’t on the way to or from anywhere. It’s in the middle of a wide, flat plain at the foothills of the Himalayas, 900 miles southwest of Beijing, a thousand miles northwest of Shanghai. Early on in its 2,400-year history, it was renown for its silk brocades, lively trade and intellectual life. But with the fall of the Shu Dynasty in the third century, Chengdu became a sleepy provincial backwater. After the Communists came to power in 1949, they sited their most sensitive military work here because it’s so cut off from the world.


KUMAGAI: Then, five or six years ago, the Beijing government launched the Western Development Strategy. Billions of dollars flowed into the hinterlands, extending new highways, rail lines, international airports and telecom links. Hundreds of multinationals flocked to Chengdu and the city was reborn.

I’d wondered what life was like in this sprawling city of 11 million at the literal frontier of China’s tech revolution. I figured I’d find a wild, freewheeling, anything-goes kind of place. Instead, I found darkness.


KUMAGAI: It was close to midnight on a Saturday, and I rode in a leather-upholstered sedan, exhausted and jet-lagged, on my way from the airport to the hotel. I gazed out the window only half-seeing the place. And then it hit me: there were no streetlights, no store lights, no lights at all. Just the darkened outlines of apartment buildings and office complexes stretching on for mile after mile like a modern day ghost town. Except for the car’s two headlights on the road, it was utterly dark.


KUMAGAI: Later I learned that, like every major city in China, Chengdu doesn’t have enough electricity to go around. Though the province boasts an abundance of natural gas and hydropower, its electricity is shipped back to the power-starved east coast. Chengdu suffers blackouts for two to five days every week.


KUMAGAI: By day, Chengdu was sunny and warm. The wide avenue in front of my hotel was packed with shoppers streaming in and out of gleaming indoor malls, checking out the latest from Tommy Hilfiger, Disney, and Esprit. Young women chatted on cell phones, young men packed the video arcades, young couples laughed, nuzzled and walked arm-in-arm in a way that would have shocked earlier generations of straight-laced Communist youth.


KUMAGAI: Chengdu is a place full of right angles and contradictions. By night, it’s an eerie void. By day, a shopper’s paradise. I’d heard from city promoters all about Chengdu’s 29 universities and its half a million professionals, cheap and plentiful housing, a Carrefours hypermarket, and soon, a Wal-Mart; a shiny new airport with direct flights to Tokyo and Paris, good air, clean water, and the Himalayas at your doorstep.


KUMAGAI: We drove to an industrial park where dozens of multinationals have set up shop. This area had all been farmland once, and amid the wide, well-paved boulevards and corporate complexes, I spotted some crumbling stone houses, many of them still occupied. These were probably the original inhabitants, their land and livelihood gobbled up by Chengdu’s rapid rise.

A few months earlier, in another city in Szechwan, a similar land-grab had triggered a massive protest. Tens of thousands of displaced farmers seized the local government headquarters and held the Communist Party chief hostage. But when I asked about the farmers in Chengdu, and even pointed at them from the car window, the promoters just shook their heads. Nobody lives here now, they said.


KUMAGAI: When I needed to get a new SIM card for my cell phone, the bellboy at the hotel directed me to a street just around the corner. "Any particular store," I asked him. "No, no, it’s all cell phones," he said.


KUMAGAI: And so it was. The city’s bustling cell phone district offered store after store, block after block, and thousands of models of gleaming new cell phones. Trying to escape the crowds, I ducked down a back alley. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I found a parallel universe – an enormous second-hand bazaar entirely devoted to cell phones. Hundreds of vendors sat cheek-by-jowl, their battered wares arrayed on narrow card tables. In nearby stalls eagle-eyed technicians hunched over jewelers benches making precision repairs.


KUMAGAI: The owner of one repair shop told me that he turns a monthly profit of 10,000 Yuan, or about 1,200 dollars. That day, he had five guys working for him. Assuming they split the profits equally, which they probably didn’t, they each took home about 200 dollars a month. Workers don’t get health care, or a pension, or paid vacation; those things went away years ago when the Communist government began embracing capitalism for real. More than a few Chinese people I met joked to me that the U.S. today, with its social security and Medicare, is more communist than China.


KUMAGAI: In the end, I stopped trying to tease through Chengdu’s many contradictions and, instead, embraced the one thing that for me remained absolutely, unvaryingly good and true: the food. Szechwan is known the world over for its fiery cuisine, and no matter where or what I ate in Chengdu, I always ate like an empress. I had one of the best meals of my life in a state-run dumpling house. Sitting on a hard bench surrounded by office workers and students, I feasted on a 75 cent bowl of tender meat dumplings floating in an oily, spicy sauce. I still think about those dumplings, probably more often than I should say. For Living on Earth, I’m Jean Kumagai.


GELLERMAN: Jean Kumagai is a reporter for Spectrum Radio, the broadcast edition of IEEE Spectrum magazine. To find out more about Chengdu, and other hi-tech transformations in China, visit our website - Living on Earth dot org.



IEEE Spectrum's "China's Tech Revolution" article


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