By Aubrey BelfordFebruary 8, 2012
Chongqing is China’s frantic boom city with an inward twist: a perplexing mixture of materialism and Mao.
At first glance, Chongqing is the consummate Chinese megacity. With 10 million people — 33 million if you count its massive, province-sized hinterland — and China’s highest economic growth rate in 2011 (that was 16.6 per cent), the city is a thrusting testament to capitalism’s disruptive force.
For decades a sweltering, crowded town, Chongqing is emerging from relative international obscurity on a boom in investment that is attracting factories and financiers from across the world. Companies such as Ford, which is building a series of massive production plants here, are turning the city into a manufacturing hub for western China.
Chongqing: Red Songs
But it’s also a place where the ghosts of Chairman Mao’s Red China, long left in the dust by the country’s embrace of markets, are making a comeback. The result looks to many like a rewriting — or at least a heavy edit — of China’s social contract.
Take a walk through Shapingba, one of Chongqing’s multiple vertiginous city centres, and you’ll see the contradiction. On the streets, imposing glass malls hold western chain stores, fashion outlets and karaoke megaplexes. In nearby Shaping Park, citizens gather daily to sing 50-year-old paeans to the Communist Party in informal practice sessions for mass “red song” spectaculars. Tucked into one corner, not far from miniature reconstructions of Mount Rushmore and Michelangelo’s David, is a startling sight: Nestled in the park is a rare tomb commemorating (rather than embarrassedly airbrushing over) Red Guards who acted as enforcers for Mao’s chaotic Cultural Revolution.
“As society has gotten richer and more materialistic, our spirit of hardship, revolution, exploration and hard work has faded,” explains Pan Wenzhen, a retired schoolteacher and red songs devotee. “If things continue like they have, we’ll lose that.”
Welcome to the “Chongqing Model,” a set of reforms that has turned heads in China and prompted plenty of acrimonious debate. Under the populist leadership of the local party secretary, Bo Xilai, the city has pushed through a confounding set of changes that mix the cultural policies of old-style left with an aggressive pitch for foreign capital and a vast project of social engineering. In a sense, it’s a doubling-down on the country’s governing paradox: Bring in more market, and more Mao, at the same time.
For its many supporters, the city is a new model of 21st century socialism and a preview of the future of the country as a whole. The United States and Europe are in crisis, and China’s own export-dependent economy is looking shaky. The nation’s export growth slid down to just under 14 per cent over the year before in November, and meanwhile wage demands are rising precipitously in China’s coastal industrial belt. Against all this, the city has become a testing ground for meeting the Chinese Communist Party’s foremost imperative: to stay in power.
“The nature of Chinese reform is to start with local experiments and learn from local experiments,” says Cui Zhiyuan, a professor of public policy at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, who has studied and advised Chongqing’s government and the local leader, Bo.
“Given current international developments, China cannot sustain the former model of export-driven growth, so the Chongqing experiment is of national significance,” Cui says.
For Cui, the Chongqing mission is key for China: boost domestic consumption, rein in dangerous inequality, and bring the Party closer to the people.
TO UNDERSTAND where Chongqing, and perhaps China, is heading, it’s useful to look at the challenges the country faces.
While China has grown richer manufacturing things for the rest of the world, the country has had a hard time turning its own population into consumers. Chinese consumer spending makes up about half as much of gross domestic product (GDP) as it does in the United States. Instead, Chinese have saved their money or reinvested it in areas such as property, where in some places the bubble has recently popped. At the same time, frenetic growth has led to a rising inequality that has enriched urban dwellers, especially on the booming eastern coast, while leaving behind rural dwellers, particularly in the vast interior, and China’s legions of migrant workers.
The result is a country vulnerable, both to the drag from global economic troubles and to rising unrest at home — there were as many as 180,000 riots and protests 2010, according to a study by Sun Liping, a sociologist at Tsinghua University. The Chinese Communist Party, which has based its social contract with the people on bargaining away democracy in return for growth and stability, doesn’t want this.
Chongqing is an attempt to reset the balance.
“It’s designed by the central government to experiment with integrating rural and urban development. That basically means increasing urbanization to reduce the rural-urban gap,” says Cui, the Tsinghua University academic. “City residents consume six times more than rural peasants, so Chongqing is more important in the current state of the world.”
Despite the heaving metropolis at its core — a kind of dirty, ersatz Hong Kong-on-the-Yangtze — Chongqing is two-thirds rural. The city administration is ambitiously building massive tracts of public housing to contain as much of 40 per cent of the urban centre’s population. It is also loosening China’s notorious system of hukou, or residency registration permits, which tie many people to the land and deny them benefits open to city dwellers, such as pensions and urban schooling. Chongqing aims to give a massive 10 million rural citizens urban hukou by 2020.
Funding much of it, explains Cui, is the aggressive participation of the government in business, including through the promotion of joint ventures between state firms and foreign businesses. The state, instead of keeping their share of profits, plows the money back into the city’s coffers. That money is then used to pay for infrastructure, slash corporate tax rates and offer sweetheart deals to big foreign firms to set up shop.
The red cultural revival tops it all off, boosting the charisma of the Party and increasing its relevance to everyday people. “The Chongqing experiment is also a democratic experiment,” Cui says, with a crucial caveat: “If we do not define democracy by mass party, competitive elections.”
COVERAGE OF of Chongqing almost invariably has focused on the charismatic reign of Bo, the local party boss. One of China’s so-called taizidang, or “princelings” — the children of top officials — he’s an unlikely candidate for a revival of the symbols of Mao’s rule, including its worst periods of excess. In his youth, Bo was imprisoned along with his family; his mother was beaten to death during that era. In the following period, his father, Bo Yibo, became one of China’s most senior advocates for market reform and commercial engagement with the West. Also jarring is talk of Bo’s current personal wealth, and the famously flashy habits of his son, Bo Guagua.
Nevertheless Bo is widely considered by China watchers to be a shoo-in to enter China’s topmost leadership body, the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo, when the Communist Party — and therefore the country — changes over to a new generation of leaders this year. The reforms in Chongqing, particularly the red revival, are seen as part of Bo’s bid to boost his profile. Articles frequently talk of a rivalry between Bo’s model in Chongqing and more liberal reforms being pursued in the southern, export-powerhouse province of Guangdong, where the party secretary, Wang Yang, also is believed to be an unspoken candidate for the committee.
Talk of a rivalry between the regions is overblown, according to Wang Shaoguang, a professor of government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“People exaggerate the differences. One of the first things Bo Xilai did when he became the party secretary was to visit Guangdong and visit the officials,” he says. Wang Shaoguang, who has called Chongqing’s reforms part of government efforts to come up with a “Socialism 3.0,” said the city was merely a gradual experiment, not a rewriting of China’s social contract. “It’s still the mainstream,” he said. “It’s not a shift to the extreme.”
Cui, from Tsinghua University, points out that it was Beijing that put Chongqing’s experiments with rural-urban integration into motion in 2007, the same year Bo assumed the city’s highest office. His immediate predecessor as local party secretary was none other than Wang Yang. The city has been receiving heavy funding from Beijing, as part of efforts to develop China’s west, for the past decade.
Whether he deserves the credit or not, Bo is getting plenty of kudos for Chongqing’s successes.
From his plush office with a view of Chongqing’s foggy sprawl, the head of the city’s Red Songs Research Association, a chain-smoking lawyer by the name of Zhang Shusen, praises Bo as “one of the greatest leaders in decades.”
Zhang, who admits to being a failed aspirant for Party membership, has been a key player in attention-grabbing spectacles that have fed Bo’s public rise, such as the red song event in June that included 100,000 participants. Held in the lead-up to celebrations of the Party’s 90th anniversary last July 1, the massive gala, with 108 choirs from across China, managed to raise eyebrows even during a period of nationwide indulgence in retro Communist kitsch. Other promotions of red culture have included the transformation of one television station, Chongqing Satellite Television, into a station devoted to “red” programming — with reportedly disastrous results for ratings.
Known before as a miserable, sweltering city, Chongqing is getting visibly richer, and while it remains perhaps terminally drab, life is getting better. Crime is dropping, thanks to a visible community policing program, and incomes have risen dramatically, including in the countryside.
“I think the Chongqing model will gradually spread across China because Bo’s policies are benefitting people,” Zhang says, referring to the local government’s anti-crime crackdown. “People feel safer.”
As the Party’s leadership transition looms this year, Chongqing is set to gain a higher profile. Huang Jiren, a Party official and the head of the Chongqing Writers’ Association, has been tasked with producing the definitive novelization of another one of Bo’s signal initiatives, an anti-mafia crackdown that put thousands of the city’s once-feared gangsters in jail. A big-budget movie is in the works for later in the year.
Smoking in the lobby of Chongqing’s InterContinental hotel, Huang describes the novel as a dramatic tale of sex slavery, drugs, guns and the fall of the anti-mafia campaign’s highest profile scalp: former deputy police chief Wen Qiang, who was executed for crimes including corruption and rape. But while the story depicts a city mired in corruption, it also emphatically absolves higher leaders of complicity and glorifies the Party.
“We’ve looked into [Wen’s] case and we’ve found it was indeed a personal matter,” Huang says. “We haven’t found any higher officials that directed Wen Qiang to do anything. The deeper we explain what Wen Qiang did, the more people will understand that the Chinese Communist Party has the power to get rid of corrupt officials.”
NOT ONLY Party stalwarts are falling for Chongqing. As is often the case in China, nobody loves a Communist more than a businessman.
“Chongqing has an incredible leadership group at the municipal level, at the mayoral level,” enthuses Marin Burela, the president and chief executive of Changan Ford Mazda, a joint foreign-state company venture that is setting up massive production capacity in Chongqing.
“When I walk into the room and talk with these people, I feel like I’m talking with global business leaders. I mean, they’re so well informed, the questions they ask, the dialogue that we get into, is incredibly exciting.”
Burela has plenty of reasons to be excited. Changan Ford Mazda has set up, or is in the process of building, a vehicle assembly plant, an engine plant and a transmission plant. By 2015, the company aims to employ more than 25,000 people and build 600,000 cars a year to supply an anticipated consumer boom across western China, the very region of which Chongqing was designed to be the economic powerhouse.
The company is just one of many attracted to a sprawling new free trade zone, Liangjiang, being built on the opposite side of the Jialing River. The zone is set to include a four-runway airport, a river port, a brand new financial district, manufacturing and apartments. By 2020, the zone is expected to have a GDP of 600 billion yuan (approximately AUD90 billion). Foreign companies, attracted by government support, new infrastructure and corporate tax rates as low as 10 to 15 per cent, are already moving in. Acer, the Taiwanese computer manufacturer, has set up massive production hub to produce up to 40 per cent of its laptops. Acer also has a joint venture smartphone tablet computer research and development centre with the Chongqing government. Hewlett-Packard and Foxconn, the electronics manufacturer previously lambasted for a string of suicides at its massive Chinese factories, are among other high-tech firms investing billions in shifting major manufacturing hubs to Chongqing.
“Chongqing will be the largest manufacturing operation that Ford has anywhere outside of Detroit globally,” Burela says. “Where in the world can you see anything like what we’re seeing here happening?”
CHONQING’S MARCH — and its supposed mix of frantic growth with a return to socialist values — isn’t making everyone equally happy.
Chen Ze You, a former soldier, is one of the millions of rural dwellers set to be pushed to the city in Chongqing’s modernisation rush. His village, Shu Yuen, has been condemned to make way for part of the Liangjiang special economic zone. Most locals already have been cleared out and their homes levelled, but Chen has stayed on, arguing with the local government that the compensation offered, 88,000 yuan per person, is not enough.
For a supposedly new model, the land seizures appear to be of the old school. A protest by about two dozen locals in late 2010 was broken up by scores of thugs hired by the government, and six villagers wound up in hospital, Chen explains at his home on a small hillock in the village. In the background faraway trucks can be heard reversing and cranes clang. Since the protest, which Chen calls a “total failure,” villagers have mostly either reached compensation agreements or given up. Chen stuck around, he says, because the promise of urban hukou wasn’t an incentive for him — he has the right to it as an ex-soldier — and because he wants more money to start a new life in the city.
For Chen, being pushed off the land is a mixed bag: The government has offered him a brighter future, or else. “We’re benefitting but it’s not so sweet as for people in the remote villages,” he says. “Those people are really willing to get urban hukou. For us, we’re being half-forced into it. But we’re also doing it half-willingly.”
In the middle of town, there are similar signs of coercion. On one chilly morning, Ou De Rong stood at the iconic clocktower in Chongqing’s central Jiefangbei district, his forehead and face caked in blood, alternately holding a broken tile to his neck and unfurling a banner calling for the help of officials including Bo.
As other locals peppered him with suggestions and support, and police circled, Ou spelled out his story. His apartment block, where he lived in a small flat with three relatives, had been cleared away, he claimed, and he had not received any compensation. “If I don’t get justice, I’ll kill myself,” he cried.
In his short window of time, this was all of Ou’s story that could be told. As one policeman approached and demanded photos be deleted, other officers rushed in and wrestled the tile away from Ou.
But focusing on dissent only gives half the picture. Ask most people on the streets of Chongqing and they will tell you they’re proud of their city’s progress and supportive of Bo.
In one of Shapingba’s many malls, Huang An Rong, a retired restaurateur and small businesswoman, says she “loved” Bo for his policies, including promoting red culture.
Asked if there was any contradiction between Maoist nostalgia and the city’s flashy development, Huang is visibly peeved.
“Our living conditions are better, our pay is better, we can eat and shop in this big mall,” she snaps. “There’s no conflict.”
She adds, for good measure, Deng Xiaoping’s famous slogan for launching China’s re-embrace of the world, and the country’s dictum as it has continuously reinvented itself ever since: “This is socialism with Chinese characteristics.”