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Call of the West

Published: 02/02/2015 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2015 » February 2015 » Destinations »

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Chongqing is the youngest and largest of China’s four municipalities, alongside Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai. And one of the largest and fastest growing cities in the world.

Located on the upper reaches of the Yangtze river with a total population approaching 33 million (covering an area the size of Austria), the region is regularly in the spotlight for going its own way.

Whether you’re talking about the country’s first mobile-phone only sidewalk, the city’s overground railway lines that pass through high-rise buildings, or its rural land exchange system – a pilot scheme that allows farmers to loan their land to private companies in return for cash – Chongqing is a national trendsetter.

Just one of four direct-controlled municipalities (the highest level classification for cities in the People’s Republic of China) and the only one in inland China, the city has historically enjoyed preferential support from central government, and has seen accelerated economic development in past decades.

In 2000, the Chinese government launched the Western Development Program “Go West” to unlock the potential of China’s landlocked provinces, and Chongqing businesses enjoyed the knock-on benefits of fiscal transfers, infrastructure investment, and generous tax and loan arrangements.

As a result, the city’s GDP has quadrupled since 1998, reaching $103 billion at the end of the first half of 2014.

According to Professor Pu Yong Jian, vice dean of Chongqing University, central government support is reflected in all aspects of the city’s investment, taxation and industrial policies.  “Numerous developing programs are implemented in Chongqing, especially construction programs, as the city is the most important conjunction between the west and east China,” he says.

In recent years, the city (along with its neighbor Chengdu) has also been designated a key region for economic experimental reform.  The city’s leaders have introduced progressive reforms to make it easier for rural workers to move to the city, embarked on large affordable housing schemes and invested heavily in transport infrastructure, vastly extending its capacity. 

One Foot in the Past

To the outside world, Chongqing holds global significance, not only for its growth and business opportunities but also for its unique place in modern history.

Situated in the middle of Asia’s longest river, in 1891 it was the first port in central and southwest China to open to international trade. A British consulate opened in Chongqing as far back as 1890.

From 1937 to 1945, during the Sino-Japanese war, Chongqing became China’s wartime capital. The city’s population swelled as Chinese people fled inland to escape the warfare that raged along the coastal region. 

Residents took shelter in caves dug out of the mountain during air raids. Locals say that the city’s famously foggy weather protected the city from more frequent aerial attacks.  In addition, the city was also used as a strategic hub for Allied forces to direct the international troops battling in various parts of Asia.

After the war, Chongqing continued its transformation from a minor inland port to a heavily industrialized city, and became one of the country’s foremost producers of military hardware. 

All Roads Lead to Chongqing

In the 21st century, the city has used its historically strategic position at the heart of China to become a global hub of transport and trade.

The city’s water transportation system has been vastly improved since the completion of the Three Gorges Reservoir in 2003, and more than 90 percent of products manufactured in Chongqing are transported via water.

The 6,946-mile Europe-to-China Yuxinou railway, which opened in 2012 (and is dubbed the ‘modern silk road’ after the route made famous by 13th century Venetian merchant Marco Polo), can now transport products to western Europe in just 16 days – a feat Marco Polo could only have imagined. And Jiangbei International airport, which already sees an annual turnover of 26 million passengers, is planning a third runway.    

All this, plus the development of a city-wide metro system which opened in 2005, and the building of 52,000 miles of new roads, has transformed Chongqing’s logistical capabilities.

Auto Magic

In modern day Chongqing, one third of the city’s GDP comes from the production of cars and motorcycles. The city is home to a staggering 382 large automobile and motorcycle companies, which account for one in seven jobs.

Vehicle manufacturers have been attracted to Chongqing by the availability of low-cost water transportation, and the city’s ready supply of workers.  This situation has been largely influenced by the opening of the Three Gorges Dam in 2003, located 186 miles downstream of Chongqing.

The completion of world’s largest hydropower plant improved both the ease and affordability of water transportation along the Yangtze river, but caused the displacement of 1.4 million people – many of whom needed new employment.

According to Professor Pu Yong Jian, the investment of automobile giant Ford in Chongqing was strongly directed by central government.  “Due to the need of resettlement of migrants caused by Three Gorges Program, the central government gives strong support to Chongqing’s economic development so as to provide employment opportunities,” he explains.

Ford opened its third assembly plant in Chongqing last year, and aims to build its largest ever factory in the city, predicted to employ more than 25,000. 

Looking to the future

As rising labor and overhead costs have shifted modern manufacturers away from China’s coastal cities towards inland regions, such as Chongqing, the city has been quick to diversify its economy away from heavy industry.

In 2010, the Liangjiang New Area (LNA) was established in the city – an economic development zone that was aimed at attracting a wide range of high-tech firms to grow the city’s IT manufacturing sector to rival cities such as Bangalore. 

Global IT companies Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Foxconn, and Inventec now have factories in the city and it is said that one in four laptops is made in Chongqing. In 2015, local government expects IT-related manufacturing to contribute to 40 percent to Chongqing’s gross domestic product. 

In addition, Chongqing has its sights set on becoming the financial center for central and western China. More than 300 financial service companies currently operate in the municipality, and just last year, Alibaba chose to establish an online micro-loan business in the LNA, as part of its plans to expand into financial services.

Getting Around 

Chongqing is a vast municipality that covers an area of more than 31,000 square miles, taking in satellite cities such as Fuling and Wanzhou. But luckily for most business travelers, their journeys will primarily involve Chongqing city center. 

Visitors to the city have to contend with two major concerns: weather and hills.

Chongqing’s humid subtropical climate is difficult to avoid. As one of China’s four so-called ‘furnace cities,’ it has blazingly hot and humid summers from May to September and cold, foggy winters.

Second come the hills. Chongqing is a city surrounded by mountains and rivers. By far the best way to navigate this hilly peninsula, where the Jialing river meets the Yangtze, is via one of the four metro lines. 

For first time visitors, this is an excellent way to familiarize yourself with the city and its vistas, and avoid exhausting walks and slightly hair-raising taxi rides. The rail network is clean, efficient and punctual, with a maximum fare of ¥5 ($0.80).

The overground monorail lines are a particularly spectacular sight, passing through apartment buildings and along the mountainside, with roller coaster-like dips in the track to accommodate the city’s topographical challenges.

Line Two (the green line) runs from Jiaochangkou on the peninsula to Xinshancun station in the western suburbs, which opened in 2006. It covers tourist attractions such as the Peoples Great Hall and Three Gorges Museum. Part of the line runs above ground along the Jialing River, which makes it a popular and cheap sightseeing ride.

That said, Chongqing is a compact city. A taxi journey from the airport to the central business district can take as little as half an hour, and costs around ¥50 ($8), so this is a good option on arrival. 

You can also take the shuttle bus into town from the airport, but it’s not perhaps the best choice. Buses find the hilly terrain rather a strain, so the journey is likely to be noisy, uncomfortable and slow-going if you’re pressed for time.  

By Sarah O’Meara

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