Tourist guides in one of China’s fastest-growing cities, Chongqing, sometimes insist that their metropolis on the upper reaches of the Yangste River does not have a pollution problem.
They assert that Chongqing (which is pronounced as Chong-ching) has long been famous for its mist and fog, while also being known as a city of bridges.
Still, recent visitors might beg to differ with the “no smog in Chongqing” argument. Touching down at the city’s airport in mid-November brought fifteen big construction cranes hazily into view — through the mist, as it were — before this visitor lost count.
One thing soon became clear, though — the Chongqing economy is pumping. There is a curious sensation that, if you stood still for long enough, you could see buildings being pulled down or thrown up without the need for time-lapse photography.
The growth of inland centres has been promoted as part of the Chinese government’s “Go West” policy of attracting manufacturing and development inland. Wages in coastal regions like Guangdong and greater Shanghai have risen, partly due to strikes in 2010 at the likes of Foxconn, which supplies parts for the Apple stable of products.
The coastal economies are now shifting higher up the value chain into advanced products such as semi-conductors for computers rather than stocking fillers for Christmas. The manufacturing hot spots have shifted inland to places like Chongqing, where labour is still cheap and plentiful.
The industrial lineup in Chongqing includes cars and motorcycles (some 9 million a year), steel, aluminium, glass and chemicals. They make masses of TV sets and host IT majors like HP, Acer, Toshiba and Cisco and some 700 components makers who last year produced about 42 million laptops.
On the tourism front, Sichuan Airlines has started twice weekly services direct between Sydney and Chongqing and the authorities hope that plans to allow three-day stays without a visa will boost visitor numbers. The Sichuan cooking is a treat for those who like it hot.
For a while, Chongqing was also the “Wild West”. The local Community party secretary, the charismatic Bo Xilai, won national prominence for his “revitalization” of Chongqing, plus a crackdown on crime and nostalgia for Chairman Mao, which included the singing of “red songs” on local radio, television and karaoke bars.
Bo famously came unstuck after the mysterious death of a British businessman who had worked closely with his high-powered wife, Gu Kailai. His police chief, Wang, tried to defect to the US after a massive falling out with Bo and it emerged that the anti-corruption drive had been more about taking over rackets than stamping them out.
Bo was sentenced to life imprisonment last September after being found guilty of corruption and abuse of power. His story is well told by John Garnaut’s book, “The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo.”
A visiting group of Australian journalists found that the locals were eager to promote the city and glad of the outside attention. When the journos were asked what they knew of Chongqing, it often led back to the subject of Bo Xilai, which led to sighs and downcast eyes, with the occasional nervous laugh (hand over mouth).
However, the city is home to a lesser known but still fascinating strand of history due its role during World War II as the seat of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government. The visiting journalists were taken to the restored headquarters of the US general, Joseph Stillwell, which made the locals particularly happy.
Stillwell was ahead of his time, serving three tours in China between the wars as a young officer and learning Mandarin. During World War II, he presided over vital but lesser known campaigns in the China-Burma-India theatres. That role included bringing supplies into China from India along the tortuous Burma Road and a perilous airborne supply route known as The Hump.
His old HQ is fairly spartan, as befitting a man nicknamed “Vinegar Joe” The hosts for the visit proudly noted that Australia was one of 22 countries which had diplomatic representation in Chongqing during World War II. The dynamics were complex, with the Kuomintang often criticised for fighting Chinese communists rather than the Japanese and rorting the supply pipeline.
But the city’s time in the spotlight is still cherished. “The history of the Second World War is the most precious heritage of this city,” said a local academic and writer. “It is our common history,” said another. “We [China and Australia] were allies.”
The visit was covered by numerous local media outlets and one historian/journalist quizzed this reporter in depth on Stilwell. As it happens, I once read a lengthy essay on him by the American historian Barbara Tuchman but it was unnerving to be grilled as an informed commentator.
The best was yet to come, however. The journalists were taken from the Stilwell HQ to a reception at the local Great Hall of the People. The group leader, Canberra Times editor-at-large Jack Waterford, who was the only journo was passably dressed for such an occasion (once a neck tie was helpfully supplied by the hosts).
For those who don’t know Waterford, he could be described as a Chips Rafferty figure in Australian journalism, provided an avatar of the craggy actor had possessed and digested a personal library of some 25,000 books.
The Australian contingent were introduced as “world famous journalists” and Waterford was referred to “President Jack” by the State Minister for Information, Yan Ping.
It must be said that Waterford took this sudden promotion in his stride, although his Australian listeners detected that his speech cadences took on Whitlamesque flourishes as the night wore on.