With 10 million inhabitants and half a million more each year, Chongqing is the fastest-growing urban centre on the planet. Jonathan Watts spends 24 hours in the city of tomorrow.
Jonathan Watts | July/Aug 2006 issue
According to the United Nations, the planet’s population is currently split right down the middle: 3.2 billion in the city, 3.2 billion in the country. By the end of 2006, however, the balance will begin to tip decisively away from the fields and toward the skyscrapers.
No one knows for sure precisely where and when urban life started. But we can make a good guess about where the urbanizing trend will reach its zenith. Simply count which skylines have the most cranes, track where the bulk of the world’s concrete is being poured or follow one of the biggest, fastest migrations of humanity in history. All lead east, to China.
Every year, 8.5 million Chinese peasants move into cities. Most of them wind up in places that are mere specks on Western maps, if they appear at all. But the populations of such places put them on par with some of the world’s megalopolises. Britain has five urban centres of more than a million people; China has 90. A few—Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Nanjing—are well-known around the world. The names of many others—Suqian, Suining, Xiantao, Xinghua, Liuan—are unfamiliar even to many Chinese. But nowhere is the staggering urbanization of the world more evident than in Chongqing. Never heard of it? This is where the pace of urbanization is probably faster than anywhere in the world today. This is the ultimate boomtown of the early 21st century.
Set upon the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, this former trading centre and treaty port has long been the economic hub of western China. But after its municipal government was given control of surrounding territory the size of many countries, it has grown and grown, becoming what is now the world’s biggest municipality with 31 million residents (more people than Iraq, Peru or Malaysia). The population of its built-up metropolitan areas will double from 10 million to 20 million in the next 13 years.
When the planet’s rural-urban balance tips, the one urban newcomer who makes the difference is as likely to move to Chongqing as anywhere on the planet. To get a snapshot, I spent a day with a British Channel 4 television crew in this megalopolis—just the sort of day, in fact, when humanity might pass the halfway point on its millennia-long journey out of the countryside.
5:30 a.m.—The bangbang man
In the hour before dawn, the poor district of Qiansimen feels as though it has come straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. With the rain lashing down, puddles fill the dark, narrow alleys, flanked on either side by tall, ramshackle tenements. An old man’s wrinkled face glows orange as he warms himself over a brazier.
Nestling between the port and the commercial centre, this area is the home of Chongqing’s most distinctive and traditional population—the bangbang army, a 100,000-strong crew of porters who bear the city’s weights on their shoulders. Arriving from the countryside with no skills and minimal educations, they pick up the cheapest of tools—a bamboo pole (or “bangbang”) with some rope—and hang around the docks, the markets and the bus stations waiting for goods to carry up the steep slopes of this mountain port.
Yu Lebo has just woken up in the cramped three-room apartment he and his wife share with three other couples, all of whom are porters or cleaners or odd-jobbers. There are two double beds in one room, separated by a thin sheet, a third in a tiny room next door and another in the kitchen. There is no time for breakfast before he heads out into the dark and the rain. “We want to move out and get a place of our own, but we don’t have the money yet,” he says once we are outside. He explains why he came to Chongqing four years ago. “I used to be a farmer, but I could not afford to raise my two children. So we left them behind with relatives. I see them two or three times a year.”
On an average day, Yu earns about 20 yuan ($2.50 U.S. or 2 euros) for 12 hours of work. Most of this, and the money his wife earns as a cleaner, goes to rent and food, but as long as they stay healthy they can save enough to send money home to buy clothes and books for their children. It is vital. Education and health care—free in the days of Mao Zedong—are now the biggest economic burdens on peasants.
The first job of the day is in the Chaotianmen Market, where Yu must carry several huge bundles of goods. Each is probably heavier than Yu, who weighs just over 50 kilograms (110 pounds). The stallholder pays him 2 yuan (25 cents U.S. or 20 euro cents). “Not bad,” Yu says. “Sometimes they are heavier. Sometimes we get paid less.”
It looks exhausting. Does Yu ever regret coming to the city? “No, my life is a little better than it was when I first got here. Then, I only earned 10 yuan [$1.25 or 1 euro] a day. This city is changing so fast. It is getting richer.”
7:30 a.m.—The city official
It is just after dawn, but the sun remains hidden behind a thick haze. The giant mass of humanity that is Chongqing is about to move into full swing, working, building, consuming, discarding, developing. If today is typical, builders will lay 137,000 square metres (147.4 million square feet) of new floor space for residential blocks, shopping centres and factories. The economy will grow by 99 million yuan ($12.2 million or 9.6 million euros). There will be 568 deaths, 813 births and the arrival of 1,370 people from the countryside; each year, the city limits are pushed further outwards as the urban population grows by half a million.
Our next stop is at one of the municipal offices, where Zou Xiaoping, deputy director of the Chongqing Foreign Trade and Economic Relations Commission, explains that her city is at the centre of China’s drive to address the huge inequalities between the rich eastern coastline and the poor western interior.
The scale of the “Go West” policy—with 1.6 trillion yuan ($197.2 billion U.S. or 155 billion euros) spent since 1999, mainly on roads, bridges, dams and pipelines—is sometimes compared with the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild postwar Europe. Much of the money has flowed up the Yangtze to drive the growth of Chongqing, at the heart of plans to revitalize the west. It has also paid for the controversial Three Gorges Dam, the world’s biggest hydroelectric project, which provides the city with power and people. City residents in Chongqing have seen their incomes rise 66 percent in the past five years. Some earn almost three times that of their country cousins living on just a dollar a day.
“Now is the peak time of the development of western China. Chongqing is in the middle of it. That is why we are growing so fast,” says Zou. “We must maintain momentum. This is a crucially important time for our city.”
10 a.m.—The industrialist
I leave Zou’s office flabbergasted. How can housing and jobs be found for so many new arrivals?
Now accompanied by a government guide, we drive to the city limits and the newly built Lifan Sedan factory in the Chongqing Economic Zone, where newly employed workers are putting together newly designed cars.
“This was farmland a couple of years ago,” says proud boss Yin Mingshan. “It is my 14th factory, 14 years after I started business.”
A dapper, twinkly-eyed 68 year old, Yin is one of the nation’s great industrial pioneers, the 21st-century Chinese equivalent of Henry Ford or the Cadbury brothers. Imprisoned for much of the Mao era for his views on free speech and capitalism, he set up a motorcycle-repair company in 1992 with nine staff members. Lifan Sedans now employs 9,000 workers and has an income of 7.3 billion yuan ($900 million U.S. or 714 million euros).
“China has become a wonderland for entrepreneurs,” says Yin. “There are many people who are doing what I have done.”
It is not as easy to build a business in Chongqing as in coastal Shanghai or Shenzhen, which benefit from easy access to overseas markets. But companies based in those rich eastern cities are now investing inland. Chongqing is famous for motorbikes; Yin is now also trying to make it famous for cars, by buying a BMW-Chrysler factory in Brazil, breaking it down, shipping it up the Yangtze and rebuilding it in Chongqing.
Yin’s creed is one of benevolent self-interest. “China is too poor. We need high-speed growth. The rich need to increase the income of the poor,” he says. “If we improve the living standards of peasants, then they can buy our motorcycles and cars.”
12 p.m.—The builder
Even by the standards of the giant construction site that is modern-day China, Chongqing’s building frenzy is impressive.
More transportation projects have been built here in the past four years than in the previous 100. More new floor space is being added than in Shanghai. As well as eight new railways, eight highways and eight bridges, the port is in the midst of a $216-billion U.S. (169-billion-euro) redevelopment, and the airport’s capacity is planned to increase by 500 percent before 2010.
Driving back from the factory, I count more than 30 cranes in less than five minutes. Just outside the Jiangbei toll booth, farmers toil under heavy loads in vegetable fields and women wash their clothes in a stream. Behind them, 30-story towers are silhouetted against the grey mist. These worlds meet at a corridor of rubble where land is being cleared for further expansion.
We make an impromptu visit to the building site, where Chen Li, a brash window fitter, reckons he has worked on 70 to 80 tower complexes in the nine years since arriving in the city at the age of 16. “The buildings are getting taller and better,” he says. Yet he lives in a hut, his breakfast is a glass of soy milk and a steamed bun, and on an average day he works 11 hours for about 50 yuan ($6 U.S. or 5 euros). “I’m a city resident now. But life is still difficult.”
Li Zhiguan was once a farmer, then a factory worker; now he earns more as one of the many high-wire artists who clean skyscraper windows, earning him the nickname of Spiderman. We meet him at the top of a 24-storey telecom office. With so many towers going up, it doesn’t look as though Li is ever going to be short of work. And he has a bird’s-eye view of the transforming cityscape. “In six months, there have been huge changes. You can notice it from one week to the next.”
Then, he scoots down the glass on a rope attached to him by a single clip. “It is 100 percent safe,” says his boss, He Qing, with a strong German accent picked up at the same time as he picked up his MBA in Mannheim, Germany. “You can go too if you wish…”
3 p.m.—The psychologist
China’s growing gap between winners and losers has created an intensely competitive, restless society in which stress and conflict are the norm. How do people cope? Kuang Li is a psychologist at a hospital affiliated with Chongqing University of Medical Sciences, where new facilities are rising on a huge construction site. This is the most formal interview of the day, performed in huge leather chairs inside a special reception room, flanked by hospital and government officials.
Kuang is upbeat. “People have to make a big adjustment because the pace of life, work and study are all accelerating. It puts extra stress on people, but so far our research suggests they can adjust.” It is not easy, though. She says cases of depression, anxiety, insomnia and mood swings have doubled in the past 20 years. Between 10 and 25 percent of Chongqing’s people suffer from mental and emotional problems.
Her mental-health department was established only in 1998; before that, psychological problems were either ignored or associated with Western decadence. Now, Kuang says, there is recognition of the strains imposed by city life. “There is a conflict between rising expectations and people’s sense of achievement.” At the same time, she says, psychological disorders are “a sign of improved quality of life. People did not have time to worry about themselves so much 10 years ago.”
5 p.m.—The waste engineer
China’s development is one of humanity’s worst environmental disasters. Cheap coal and a doubling of car ownership every five years have made the country the second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. According to the World Bank, 16 of the planet’s 20 dirtiest cities are in China, and Chongqing is one of the worst. Every year, the choking atmosphere is responsible for thousands of premature deaths and tens of thousands of cases of chronic bronchitis. Last year, the air quality failed to meet government standards more than three days out of four. Today’s haze is so thick I still haven’t seen the sun.
Chongqing is trying to clean up, but this is a low priority compared to economic growth. And it is hard to find a place for the city’s ever-expanding waste. We head into the hills to see the biggest of the megacity’s mega-rubbish pits: the Changshengqiao Sanitary Landfill. It is a shocking sight: a giant reservoir of garbage, more than 30 metres (100 feet) deep and stretching across 350,000 square metres (3.8 million square feet).
The waste engineer, Wang Yukun, tells me the city produces 3,500 tonnes (3.5 million kilos or 7.7 million pounds) of junk every day. None of it is recycled. Some is burned. Here, it is layered like lasagna: six metres (20 feet) of rubbish, half a metre (two feet) of earth, a chemical treatment and then a huge black sheet of high-density polyethylene lining. The site opened in 2003 and it already contains more than a million tons of rubbish.
“It was designed to serve the city for 20 years, but it has filled faster than we expected. I guess it will be completely full in 15 years,” Wang says. “Once it is finished we will build a golf course on top.”
6 p.m.—The cop
In many Chinese cities, the public security bureau is more likely to detain journalists than to take them for a drive. But in Chongqing, the city goes so far as to dispatch an English-speaking officer, Lai Hansong, as our guide. Lai insists he is a regular beat cop who has been patrolling the Yuzhang District for the past six years. “It is a low-crime area,” he says. “We mostly deal with thefts or fights.” In an average week, he says, he deals with fewer than five incidents.
It is not what I expected, having heard lurid stories of drugs, prostitution and organized crime. The city has also been the focus of violent industrial protest. Last November, 20 strikers required hospital treatment after police broke up a 10,000-strong protest over layoffs from the state-owned Tegang steel factory. Less than a year earlier, police cars were torched and overturned in a riot by thousands in the nearby satellite city of Wanzhou.
The picture Lai paints is very different: “There are no criminal gangs in China. Our country has few riots.” But someone must be worried about something. The police force, Lai says, is increasing every year and officers must travel three to a squad car.
8 p.m.—The intellectuals
This is a city that dazzles when night falls. Multicoloured illuminations light up everything from the housing blocks on the hillside to the giant replica of the Empire State Building in the city centre. Motorway crash barriers glow pink, green and purple. The swirling surface of the Yangtze reflects the glow.
In a riverside restaurant I am meeting some of the city’s alternative thinkers. What do they make of the place? The group laughs at the notion that there are no gangsters and some shake their heads at claims that the haze is just bad weather. Overall, they feel living standards have improved. Cultural development might be slower than material development, “but this is a city of the future,” says Li Gong, a poet and cartoonist.
Wu Dengming, an environmental activist who founded the Green Volunteer League of Chongqing, which has highlighted many of the problems with the Three Gorges Dam, isn’t convinced that’s a good thing. “Compared with 10 years ago, the air quality is better. But compare it with other cities in China or other countries and we are still far behind,” he says.
Zeng Lei, a documentary maker who spent seven years recording the lives of Chongqing’s poorest residents, relates unhappy anecdotes of urban life—the bangbang man who burst into tears when he returned to his home village for the first time in three years; the housewife who felt so neglected by her family that she hired a team of bangbang men to carry banners through the city celebrating her birthday.
Publisher Song Wei notes that the evident problems—pollution, loss of heritage, inequality and crime—are not confined to Chongqing. “We could be talking about almost any city in China.”
10:30pm–The new rich
Or for that matter, almost any city in the world. Chongqing is not just urbanizing, it is globalizing. Little more than a generation ago, this was a city where Red Guards in Mao tunics chanted anti-imperialist slogans. Today, young people with money dress much like their counterparts in Birmingham, Chicago or Nagoya. If anything, their values are even more materialistic.
I am sitting in Falling, which Spiderman’s boss He Qing recommended to me as the hottest nightspot in Chongqing. It is Wednesday night, but the dance floor is packed with beautiful people moving to techno music. Our table has an 800 yuan ($100 U.S. or 78 euros) minimum charge, which covers a bottle of vodka, a few imported beers and a plate of elegantly carved fruit.
He Qing joins us, along with some of Chongqing’s new rich, including the founder of a candy factory, a restaurant owner and a bank employee. Almost without exception they are in their 20s, foreign educated and well connected—either through family or political ties—with the city’s movers and shakers. “No businessman can thrive unless they have contacts in the Communist Party and the underworld,” I am told.
I feel uneasy spending more on a night’s entertainment than bangbang man Yu earns from a month’s gruelling work. I’m not the only one conscious of the gap. Qing tells me his plan for the future. “Inequality and environmental destruction are the two biggest problems facing China.” He says he wants to establish a new clean-energy company that will employ more migrants to build a cleaner city, using German technology.
12:30 a.m.—The street kid
The bright lights at midnight cannot mask a seedier side of city life—the poor combing through rubbish bins, the homeless on street corners, the touts offering drugs and sex for sale. Many of the women working as prostitutes are rural migrants. Their children are left with relatives or sent into the streets to beg, sell flowers or sing songs for money until the early hours of the morning.
At a night market, a line of hawkers comes to my table with offers to clean my shoes, sell me cigarettes or pour me soup from a flask. A seven-year-old girl plucks at my arm and then coyly entreats me to buy a rose from her. “Where is your mother?” I ask. “Oh, she’s at work,” the girl replies.
A desperate-looking girl is carrying a menu of songs and a battered, badly tuned guitar. She says she is 16 but looks more like 12. She has been in Chongqing only a few months and has already decided she does not like it. I pay 3 yuan (37 cents U.S. or 29 euro cents) and pick out the song titled “Pangyou” (“Friend”). The girl stares at some faraway point as she strums the one chord she knows and sings out of tune. It is miserably sad. Further along the street, a bangbang man wanders into the distance carrying his bamboo pole. I wonder if he is about to finish work or start it.
Reprinted from the British newspaper The Guardian (March 15, 2006)