Thursday, March 18, 2010

Chinese cities you've never heard of, but should know - Part 1

China's been working on developing non-coastal cities for years. The pace has been break-neck and the effects are being felt.

From Caixin Online:

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BEIJING (Caixin Online) -- For years, migrant workers in central and western China spent the closing hours of the annual Spring Festival holidays packing luggage and traveling to coastal cities for another year at factory and construction jobs.

This year, the pattern changed. Many migrants apparently chose not to travel east, and several coastal cities started reporting serious labor shortages even before the last fireworks of the Spring Festival died out.


It appears migrant workers are continuing to leave their rural villages for jobs in areas. But instead of one of China's traditional manufacturing hubs, such as the Pearl River Delta, many are heading for new destinations.

The head of the National Development and Reform Commission's Small Town Research Center, Li Tie, thinks more migrants will seek jobs in China's interior. That trend would match the government's plans for developing inland cities and moving more production away from coastal areas. Migrants will continue to seek jobs in big cities, official statistics indicate, but fewer will work in coastal population centers.

The government's 4 trillion yuan (about $586 billion) economic stimulus project was expected to steer massive amounts of capital into infrastructure construction in China's interior, creating jobs, Li said.

Not only are jobs moving inland, but compensation levels between coastal and other parts of China have narrowed. A villager who used to migrate to earn 1,000 yuan a month at a distant factory job now has more options closer to home.

Read the Whole Article
There's no doubt that Shanghai, Shenzhen, Beijing and a few other coastal cities are the most developed in China. Those cities are continuing to grow and prosper. They're going to continue to increase their standard of living and level of importance in the world going forward.

Cities outside of the coasts are where things are really going on though.

Just as the cities I just mentioned went through a period of unparalleled growth the past couple decades, cities on the interior of China are beginning to be more and more come into their own. Through the moutains and rivers and and deserts and loess plains, cities like Chongqing and Kunming and Urumqi are booming. Cities that just a few years ago were "the sticks" are now, each in their own way, creating their own identities as economic engines.

Over the coming weeks, I'm going to work on a series of posts: "Chinese cities you've never heard of, but should know." In this series, I'll do my best to introduce cities that people who just know China from Beijing and Shanghai probably aren't that aware of.

I'm not going to used the scientific method to select the cities that fit this criteria. The ones I choose are simply ones that come to mind when I think of "rapidly-developing interior Chinese cities." If any readers have suggestions of places that fall into this category, feel free to suggest cities in the comments section.

I'm going to start this series with a city very familiar to me.

Xi'an (西安), Shaanxi Province (陕西省)

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Why wouldn't I start with Xi'an. Xi'an is my 中国的老家 (Chinese hometown). I lived in the city for three and a half years. My inlaws live there. Many other people outside of my family I care about deeply still live there. I know the city intimately.

In addition to being a city I've lived in and love, it is right in the heart of China and is a key city for China's development.

Xi'an is the birthplace of Chinese civilization. Thirteen ancient dynasties of China called Xi'an their capital. Xi'an is where the terra cotta warriors were erected and then buried under ground. It was home to the Tang Dynasty, arguably the greatest time period in Chinese history. It was the beginning point on the Silk Road. And a few hours north of Xi'an in Yan'an is where Mao Zedong and the communists stopped after their Long March.

Xi'an's place in Chinese history is unmatched. From the beginning of civilization to today, Xi'an has played a key role in the development of China and of the world.

Now, Xi'an, a city of around 7 - 8 million people, acts as something of a gateway to the West. If you look at a map, Xi'an is directly in the middle of the country.

Although centrally located, it's not culturally or strategically in the middle. In contemporary China, it is considered in the northwest of the country by Chinese people. Xi'an is the last major city in China's northwest. To Xi'an's west and north are deserts and mountains and sparsely populated areas.

Tourism is Xi'an's biggest industry. At least 75% of foreigners who I've talked with that have visited China have been to Xi'an to travel. Although the expat community in Xi'an is nowhere near as large as Beijing or Shanghai's, foreigners in downtown Xi'an are a very common sight. Domestic tourism is also very big in Xi'an. Most Chinese people are aware of Xi'an's Big Wild Goose Pagoda, terra cotta warriors, and nearby Hua Shan. There is major tourism infrastructure being built across many different parts of the city.

The aviation industry, both commercial and military, is a major part of Xi'an economy. There is also a high tech zone, a feature common to many Chinese cities, in the western part of the city. Many international companies have offices in the zone.

That's about all I can come up with at the moment. I'll try to do similar sorts of write-ups here in the near future about other cities in China that are quickly becoming more important.


Ramesh said...

Nice one Mark. Although Xian can hardly be called as unheard of, very understandable why you chose it first. Nice write up. Look forward to the other cities in your series.

Btw - thanks for the tip on Peter Hessler's new book. I heard of it first time from your blog. being a huge fan of Hessler, I went out to buy it. Unfortunately its not available in Guangzhou (perhaps all of China - not on Joyo or Dangdang either) and sold out in Hong Kong !!

Anonymous said...

Great idea for a series Mark. Looking forward to more of these.

I don't think many foreigners realize that Xian was actually the political and cultural center of China at one time. I tried to get to Xian when I visited, but couldn't make it happen, it is on the top of my list for my next trip to China.

Mark said...

@Ramesh - I agree that Xi'an is not "unheard of." And the other cities that I've thought about for this list you'll surely know as well.

But I suppose I'm trying to do this as something of a public service/guide for westerners who don't know a whole lot about China.

Everyone in America I talk with about Xi'an is like, "Huh? Never heard of it." Most people who don't have a particular interest in China have no idea about Xi'an or any cities besides Beijing and Shanghai and Hong Kong.

I figure that a lot of westerners' knowledge of China is so low, that this little project can at least make people aware of places they didn't know exist.

@Hopfrog - When you make it back to China, you'll definitely have to go to Xi'an. It's a great place to spend a few days. LOTS to see. Please let me know when you're planning to go, even if it's a few years from now, so I can give you some tips.

Deepa said...

Mark, what a brilliant effort! Firstly, congratulations on the idea, and secondly, your writing brings out the intimacy between you and your native. Looking forward to read on.

Good Luck!