Into China’s (mid) West

City of bridges and mists
City of bridges and mists

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.

Chongqing has fine street eats, especially if you like chilli
Chongqing has fine street eats, especially if you like chilli

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.Bust of US General "Vinegar" Joe Stilwell

Bust of US General “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell

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.”

FDR's 1944 thank you to the people of Chongqing
FDR’s 1944 thank you to the people of Chongqing

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.

"President" Jack Waterford talks with state information minister in Chongqing
“President” Jack Waterford talks with state information minister in Chongqing

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.

Help sought from old China hands

Making good use of a sculpture in a Beijing mall
Making good use of a sculpture in a Beijing mall

A first-time visitor to China, arriving in late 2013, can perhaps be excused for feeling like a Johnny-come-lately.
Certainly, I felt that way as a journalist who has been reading about “the China story” for many years and writing about some of the ramifications for Australia.
Some sights were already familiar, like Shanghai’s futuristic skyscrapers or the famous stretches of the Great Wall outside Beijing. But a series of briefings, interviews and encounters over almost a fortnight raised many more questions than answers, even on subjects that seemed familiar at first.
The visit followed the third plenary session of the Chinese Communist Party’s central committee which resolved (in theory at least) on major changes that included giving a “decisive” role to markets, easing the one-child policy and ending “re-education” in forced labour camps. The mood was upbeat and the attitude towards Australia was positive, although the visit came before the Abbott government strongly sided with the US and Japan over territorial disputes in the East China Sea.
Most officials had eerily similar summaries of the main messages from the plenum. The need to switch the drivers of economic growth away from investment and exports to domestic consumption. The need to boost the quality of economic growth rather than to pursue the highest growth. The need to improve the lot of those who have been left behind.
The ANZ bank’s chief economist for greater China, Li-Gang Liu, told visiting Australian journalists that the plenum was the most important since that in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping set the course for opening the Chinese economy. “If you look at the plenum there are a lot of far-reaching social and economic reform measures, that will return China’s growth to a more sustainable path,” Liu said. “It’s very difficult to imagine going forward that China can continue to maintain double digit growth. But single digit growth of around 6 to 7 per cent is not a bad growth number at all.”
The economist argued that the plenum aimed to address deep structural issues like the power of the state sector and income inequality. The hot spots for urbanisation and growth were China’s central and western regions which were still growing at between 10 to 12 per cent a year.
But Li-Gang played down the impact of easing the one-child policy, which only allowed urban parents who were both only- children to have a second child. The new policy is to allow a second child if one parent was an only child. (The one-child policy is not applied in rural areas or to ethnic minorities).

The relaxed one-child policy aims to slow China's ageing
The relaxed one-child policy aims to slow China’s ageing

“I think it’s largely a response to China’s ageing population,” he said. “If China doesn’t change its one-child policy by 2030, it’s ageing population will be as large as Japan has now – more than than 25 per cent of the population will be aged 65 years and above.”
“China will not have a baby boom. Our estimates show that in the next 10 to 20 years China will have an extra population of between 9 million to 15 million … This will not change the population dynamic. The working population will continue to decline but it will slow down the pace of China’s population ageing.”
The China Daily reported that the new policy would like time to come into effect because they involved changes to the law. Areas with a high concentration of eligible couples and older couples whose “biological clock” was ticking would get second-child permits first. Steps would be taken to avoid a “pile-up” of births in a short space of time. Some Chinese told visiting Australian journalists they were happy and wanted another child: others were more cautious over  practicalities like their living space and income.

Couples are weighing their options under the relaxed one-child policy
Couples are weighing their options under the relaxed one-child policy

There are variations within the system. The famous film director Zhang Yimou faces a $1 million fine for having three children (the penalty being based on annual income). China’s richest man is one of five brothers but is reportedly from a poor, rural family.   However, I found it harder to get my head around the land ownership system in China and the hukou household registration system. I would appreciate being sent any corrections and links to further information.

As I understand it, land in China belongs to the state and the rural collectives (with foreign investors not being allowed to own land). A land user can obtain the rights to use residential property for 70 years and to industrial property for 50 years ad these rights can be bought and sold.
The problem is that household registration or hukou is based on birthplace rather than place of residence. The Economist has reported that around 270 million people, or about 40 per cent of urban dwellers, have their official hukou status in the countryside. This prevents migrant workers from getting full access to public services in the cities, and they can’t unlock the value of their leased rural property to get ahead.
An ANZ research report argued that land reform and household registration had to be changed. “The lack of clear land rights made many farmers vulnerable to land grabs by local administration by local administrations in the name of economic developments, leading to rampant local corruption and mass demonstrations,” it said. “We believe the rights given to farmers permitting their land leased to be transacted in the markets will allow farmers to capitalise on their land ownership, encourage agri-business and corporate farming, improve rural income, and facilitate China’s urbanisation.”
But that’s as far as my current understanding goes. To borrow a phrase from Deng, this first-time visitor is trying to cross a river by feeling for the stones.