An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Souls of Chinese Cities

Letters from Guangzhou, Urumqi, and Shenyang.


Traveling through modern Chinese cities at times feels a blur, the view from a bus or taxi window seemingly untethered from any past or even particularities of place. In one sense, everything everywhere looks the same; it's easy to feel a little numb. Another Sinopec gas station. Another KFC. Another new high-rise apartment block, curiously and often enough, in "Tuscan" or "Neoclassical" style. Another new airport. Another Carrefour. But this sense of déjà vu is misleading.

Traveling through modern Chinese cities at times feels a blur, the view from a bus or taxi window seemingly untethered from any past or even particularities of place. In one sense, everything everywhere looks the same; it’s easy to feel a little numb. Another Sinopec gas station. Another KFC. Another new high-rise apartment block, curiously and often enough, in "Tuscan" or "Neoclassical" style. Another new airport. Another Carrefour. But this sense of déjà vu is misleading.

China’s fast-growing megacities — 43 cities of one-million-plus today, and a projected 221 by 2025 — may at first blush look homogenous and interchangeable, but of course a metropolis is more than a collection of buildings, and foundations aren’t only poured in concrete. With few exceptions, China’s most significant modern metropolises have varied, lengthy, and winding histories. At a recent literary event in Beijing, the author and New Yorker contributor Zha Jianying was asked to explain if and how "history and modernity coexist" in China. Zha, who publishes in both Mandarin and English and is one of today’s most insightful writers in explaining China to the West, and vice-versa, mused: "It depends on what history you care about. People care about living history — the language, the cuisine. But architecture?" She paused. "Every new dynasty would burn the old palace and build anew. It’s very different in that sense than Europe … There’s a long venerable history of destroying the old."

Beijing is an extraordinary and dynamic city, and my current home, but it’s perhaps overrated — at least as a prism for understanding China. For unlike many countries that at one time or another in history have laid some claim to being or becoming the new center of the universe, China has never long or truly been a nation dominated by one metropolis. Beijing is not like London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Constantinople, Cairo in the sense of having been the constant seat of empire (China has had six historic capitals), or even as a bellwether for a civilization’s fortunes. It has long been China’s administrative capital, but not its central marketplace, site of religious pilgrimage, industrial hub, or even popular tastemaker. In France, a common saying sums up the centrifugal force of the capital: One is said to be either "from Paris or from the provinces" – from the nation’s political and cultural center of gravity, or from the sticks. But in China, an old truism carries nearly the opposite meaning: "Heaven is high, and the emperor is far away." In other words, the center doesn’t know about, or can’t fully control, what happens throughout China’s vast territory. 

One way to visualize this decentralization is a remarkable map, first published in 1977 by the anthropologist William Skinner in an anthology of scholarly articles about Chinese cities. Skinner divided China into a map of nine distinct economic and cultural regions that functioned, in practice, semi-autonomously (10 regions, if you count the western hinterlands). The boundaries were logical and geographic, with regions divided by mountains and centered on river basins or coastlines, hubs of agriculture and transport. The economy of each revolved around a major city or cities that functioned as regional hubs. China is a vast country — more than 3,700,000 square miles — and historically, the difficultly and expense of overland travel limited the exchange of goods and ideas. Each region therefore developed distinct characteristics, cuisines, and urban hierarchies. This was not a national hub-and-spoke system, with Beijing at the center: "Fairly early in my research on Chinese cities it became clear," Skinner wrote, that "they formed not a single integrated urban system, but several regional systems, each only tenuously connected with its neighbors." Skinner gave each region names: "North China" for the area around Beijing; "Upper Yangtze" for the Sichuan basin, including Chengdu and Chongqing; "Lingnan" for the Pearl River Delta, including Guangzhou. After a long and distinguished university career, Skinner passed away in 2008, well remembered, and mostly remembered, among scholars.

But his map — first drawn to illustrate late imperial China — holds up fairly well today: It’s still pretty much true that the areas around Beijing and Shanghai are respectively their own worlds, northeastern China (once known to foreigners as "Manchuria") is an economy and mindset apart, the less developed west is a distinct region, and areas centered around other key cities are to a degree regionally unique, economically and culturally. For all the sweeping changes in China since the liberalization of the late 1970s, in 2008, when Skinner and colleagues updated his map to reflect the present era, they found that the regional boundaries had changed only slightly and that the urban anchors remained the same.

In other words, even after all the wars, uprisings, occupations, and political and ideological reversals of the 20th century — from the Last Emperor to Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping — the old lattice of key cities was not significantly recast. China today has many more cities (and much larger ones), of course, but the most important ones — that is, those regional hubs like Hangzhou, Wuhan, and Kunming, the ones developing as leaders in specific fields of the modern economy, such as Xi’an in aerospace or Shenyang in heavy industry, the ones forming direct links with the rest of the world, such as Guangzhou and Chengdu — are mostly not overnight cities like Shenzhen, but often very old or ancient centers of power. So this brings us back to Zha’s point: If the historical imprint isn’t in the buildings, where is it?

If familiar names like Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong are China’s "first-tier cities," then its next largest and next most important cities are referred to by government planners and marketing analysts as "second-tier cities." After that "third-tier." And then "fourth-tier." But don’t let the Communist Party’s vaguely Soviet-sounding naming system mislead you into thinking it’s all centrally planned and orchestrated. Money flows from the center, but every city has its own planning department and frequently even the planning department isn’t really making the plans.

In recent years, jousting and differentiation among Chinese cities has grown quickly. "There’s wasn’t as much regional competition before the 1990s," Tao Ran, a scholar at the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy, explained at a conference in Beijing earlier this year, "but the gradual privatization of industry has intensified cooperation for investment." Since the late 1990s, land sales have been a major source of city revenue, allowing an even greater degree of independence. Chinese cities have "a surprising amount of autonomy in terms of fiscal and legislative authority, even more than in the United States," explains Daniel Bell, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and author of The Spirit of Cities. He thinks the rivalry between cities can be a good thing, pointing as one example to how the historic coastal cities of Dalian and Tianjin have each upgraded their infrastructure and now alternate as host cities of the Asian World Economic Forum meetings, better known as "summer Davos." During the Soviet-influenced era, urban planning was more homogenous, but now "city officials are asking themselves: What are the values that make us particular and distinguish us from other cities?"

This spring, I decided to look at a handful of large Chinese cities to see how history, ambition, and geography collide to produce variations on the evolving theme of China’s modernity. Each of the three megacities I picked would be a considered a regional urban hub under Skinner’s updated schema, but more importantly they play leading roles in some aspect of modern China’s development. To see the frontlines of China’s trade networks with Africa, its western development and new Silk Road strategy, or the revival of its industrial heartland, skip Beijing and Shanghai, and next time touch down in Guangzhou, Urumqi, and Shenyang.



Guangzhou: Africa Town

"By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land."

The pastor’s baritone echoed through the gymnasium. Some 200 people in attendance, mostly young men from West Africa, repeated back the words of Hebrews 11:9: "By faith he lived as a foreign sojourner."

Some thumbed through worn Bibles; a few read the passages on their smart phones. Their dress was casual: blue jeans, polo shirts, flannel pullovers. In the front of the room, a crucifix hung in front of a red curtain, framed by thirty pink balloons arranged in the shape of a heart. In the back, a dozen women sat together in a separate row of chairs, and about as many children, all under the age of six, entertained themselves rolling empty soda bottles. The topic of the afternoon’s service was perseverance: "Lord, give us the grace to endure," the pastor bellowed. "The grace to not change our minds."

The Bible study is held weekly in a building adjacent to Guangzhou’s Sacred Heart Cathedral, which local Chinese residents call "Stone Hut." Each Sunday, it houses four Catholic masses: the first two in Cantonese, the language spoken locally (the province of Guangdong is the only non-Mandarin holdout in mainland China); then Mandarin Chinese; then English — the last service is mainly attended by members of the city’s expatriate African community, estimated to be about 20,000 strong and the largest in Asia. Those who can’t find seats in crowded pews sit on blue plastic stools in the aisles. 

There is a logic to how China and Southeast Asia’s largest Gothic cathedral became a civic landmark for its largest African community; of course, the builders did not regard China as a promised land, but rather as one to be saved.

The cathedral, an impressive granite edifice with twin towers and flying buttresses modeled after the Basilica of St. Clotilde in Paris, was built by French missionaries and completed in 1888. The plot on which it stands was granted to a French mission in a treaty signed at the end of the Second Opium War. In a common, if misleading rendition of history, China had been hermetically sealed to the outside world until Europeans forced its ports open in the 19th century, to assert their right to sell opium and other goods. But this was not true for all of China. Guangzhou’s port was never closed. Known in the local language as Canton, the city has been a busy trading hub since medieval times (in the 9th century, it was the hub of trade with the Arab world). In 1760, the security-obsessed Qing dynasty decided to restrict China’s trade with foreigners to just this one city. As Cambridge historian and author Julia Lovell told me, Guangzhou thus became "the pressure point of relations, the focus of great hopes and resentments … [for] it was the gateway to China."

And so it remains. Around 200 years later, for similar reasons — it was a long way from Beijing, felt safe to experiment with, and had a long history of foreign trade — Deng Xiaoping bestowed a similar role upon the southern province of Guangdong, designating it the spear tip of China’s liberalization experiment, open for business and foreign capital. For as long as China has been the factory of the world, Guangzhou has been its international showroom. If taken together, the ports of Guangzhou and nearby Shenzhen amount to the largest mover of container traffic in the world. This is where the world’s wholesalers come to shop.

Today, it is the growing consumer class in Africa and demand for affordable made-in-China goods that has lured traders from across the African continent to brave storms and visa hassles to live in Guangzhou, for short stints or several years. (The African Development Bank estimates sub-Saharan Africa’s middle-class will triple by 2060 to 1.1 billion.) The Chinese locals refer to the neighborhood where the new traders have settled, at the intersection of Xiaobei Road and the city’s eight-lane interstate, as both "African City" and "Chocolate City."

Of course, there are no guarantees for these sojourners. They come, mostly alone, on a leap of faith. "Faith is the substance of things hoped for," the pastor said, "the evidence of things not seen."

One May afternoon at Lounge Café — a coffee shop run by enterprising Chinese locals but catering to an almost exclusively African clientele — the TV was tuned to Al Jazeera, and a woman in a lavender headscarf and matching suit jacket was presenting the forecast for North Africa. Douda Barry, a trader in his 40s from Liberia, was counting receipts at one table. He helped me identify his fellow restaurant patrons: "Those people are from Tanzania; they speak Swahili. Those are from Guinea." He pointed to one table with a woman and small child. "They are from Malawi."

Barry’s first trip to China was in 2003, back when most African traders were still working out of Hong Kong, but the main action, he said, had since moved to the mainland. "Demand in Africa is growing, and the prices are better in Guangzhou." His specialty was exporting shoes and athletic apparel; he had never been to Beijing or Shanghai, but in a few days, he was going to visit a factory in north China, near the border with North Korea, which was advertising very low rates. He wasn’t sure whether to be hopeful or skeptical. "The problem is maybe 80 percent are not honest, so you have to visit the factories and meet the owners."

The coffee shop’s eclectic but accommodating menu runs the gamut from café latte to "Arabian rice." As decoration, a lifesaver is affixed to one wall, besides the words: "Welcome Aboard." Less welcoming, however, are the English-language fliers affixed to each table by the local police, a curious mix of intimidation and paternalism (typos preserved):


Ø  Every foreigner who lives here should register your accommodation at the local police station . If you didn’t do it, you would be fined 5000 RMB and have a bad record.

Ø  DO NOT CHANGE MONEY OUTSIDE THE BANK! Change money privately is illegal in China. The guy who asking you to change money is trying to cheat you and using fake money.

Ø  DO NOT BUY TELEPHONE CRAD FROM THE GUY PASSING BY. In China, we have store to sell telephone cards. Buying cards outside may cause some criminal problems. For example, robbery and fake money.


The Guangzhou government wants to balance keeping tabs on the traders with keeping business flowing. In some regards, its policies are fairly liberal for China — toleration of large public church services, for example — but in other instances, ham-fisted. In 2009, a Nigerian man jumped out of second-floor shopping-mall window during a police check of immigration papers. A protest against police harassment erupted, as other African men held aloft his bleeding body and marched to a police station. This June, another protest erupted after a Nigerian man died in police custody.




Most of Lounge Café’s traffic comes from being adjacent to Tianxiu Trade Market. It’s a four-story complex of showrooms, mostly for Chinese factory owners to showcase goods to African buyers. Most traders are men, but when I visited there were also a few African women, hair wrapped in colorful scarves, browsing inside. In one corner on the second floor, a man had unfurled a small prayer rug and was praying toward Mecca.

In 2010, China passed the United States to become Africa’s largest trading partner. That fall, Xi Jinping traveled to South Africa, Angola, and Botswana, and China’s Commerce Ministry also created a new trade-focused think tank, the China-Africa Research Center. Much attention so far has focused on large infrastructure and resource extraction projects undertaken by Chinese state-owned corporations, but another slice of the exchange is the import of manufactured goods into Africa, much of it arranged by informal trading networks that run through Guangzhou.

"Your Beauty is Our Duty," announced a sign outside one Tianxiu wig shop, which sold "real human hair" clipped in India and Brazil and elaborately plated ($9.50 for a full wig; $4 for braided extensions). Several shops carried embroidered gandora, the long gowns worn in North Africa ($3.65 each, minimum order of 200). One sold made-to-order soccer jerseys; a green sample jersey with the insignia, "Nigeria Football Federation Abudja," hung on on display ($4 each, minimum order of 100). Helpfully, one shop also organized deliveries via EMS Worldwide Express Mail Service and booked plane tickets on Ethiopian Air, Emirates, Qatar Airlines, and Kenya Airways. For reference, large maps of Africa with place names printed in Chinese hung in the hallways. 

A decade ago, The Economist labeled Africa "the hopeless continent," but last December it ran an article headlined "The sun shines bright: The continent’s impressive growth looks likely to continue." As a 2010 McKinsey report noted, urbanization is a big driver of growth: In 1980, 28 percent of Africans lived in cities; today 40 percent do. In the next decade, McKinsey projects that the number of households with discretionary income will double. But Africa’s consumer demand is growing much faster than its manufacturing output, just 2.5 percent of the world’s total; the lack of infrastructure and other barriers mean few large new factories are popping up, and so for the foreseeable future, Africa’s mobile phones and football jerseys will continue to come from places like Guangzhou.




But it’s not only Africans managing the trading.

From his window on the 30th floor of an office building in central Guangzhou, Fu Ruiqiang looks down through the smog on another endless snarl of traffic. He grew up here, in one of China’s most bustling cities, but now finds the congestion and pollution oppressive. "I can’t wait to get back to Africa," he says when I visit. Fu is wearing an orange North Face jacket over a red-checked flannel shirt, brown cargo pants, and hiking boots, and seated behind an enormous desk that dwarfs his skinny frame. Outside his door, a carved wooden placard reads "Karibu," which in Kenyan means "Welcome." 

Fu is the top overseas sales rep for an electronics company, Leadder, founded in 2001 by his older brother; their factories are in nearby Shenzhen. For the last five years, he has spent about six months of each year trekking to visit potential customers in more than 30 African countries: Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Congo, Togo, Cameroon, Burkina, Benin, and Gabon among them. At 27, he thinks it’s a dream job: "The ocean is green, just like jewelry, and the sky is always blue. In Africa, the clouds are very low, almost like you can touch them … Here in Guangzhou, there is just so much traffic and noise, and almost never a blue sky."

Moving between China and Africa has gotten easier. "Maybe 10 years ago, I would have had to transit via Paris," Fu reflects. "But since 2003 or 2004, Ethiopian Airlines has opened a direct flight to China, also Emirates and Kenya Airlines." He rattles off information about familiar routes: "Now China Southern and Hainan Airlines operate direct flights from Guangzhou and Hong Kong to Lagos, Sudan, and Johannesburg."

In five years, he’s already seen the market evolve: "Africa is developing faster now — before, if you had any goods, Africans would accept them. But things have begun to change, people begin to understand quality. They don’t want fake goods. They want guarantees, warranties, higher quality." Technology changes are significant, too: "In 2007, a cell phone was very expensive; most people could not afford it. But today, now even a child can buy one for 200 RMB."

He pauses, as though recalling a specific place in his mind, which cause him to reflect on something else with a burst of indignant emotion: He’s also seen in Africa that "many poor men can’t afford to buy food; the village is the village. But the rich men are very rich: Villas, private swimming pools, cars, TVs, laptops …" This disparity upsets him.

Fu has the air of a well-worn traveler, and already seems much older than he is. "All my classmates back in China who have never left, they tell me: ‘Your mind is very wild now.’ It is true. If you visit different countries, different cultures, different languages, your mind changes … In China, people just know Africa from TV. But if you go there yourself, walk the land, meet the people, you can know something that is real."

Urumqi: The Forever Crossroads

China’s far western region  of Xinjiang follows its own time. Officially, all of China recognizes a single time zone, but Urumqi’s clocks are set two hours behind — referred to unofficially as "Xinjiang time." It’s just one more example of the ways in which history here has tended to move in fits and starts, out of sync, both accidentally and by design.

Each evening at sunset, the adhan, or Islamic call to prayer, briefly fills the streets of Xinjiang’s capital, before being overtaken by the modern static of traffic noise and blaring horns. About this time one May evening, I met with Dilshat Yimirhan, a 57-year-old Uighur businessman, who ushered me into a restaurant in the city’s minority district. The temperature had dropped quickly after sunset; in dry desert climates, temperatures swing dramatically between hot days and chill nights, and Urumqi is the farthest city in the world, in all directions, from any ocean.

In 1972, Yimirhan, then 17, had moved to Urumqi from the northern Xinjiang city of Altay, which today borders Russia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia; he was soon assigned a government job repairing trucks for the Xinjiang import-export service. (For all the ills of the Cultural Revolution, he didn’t feel that being a minority was an obstacle to finding work; before the recent influx of Han Chinese, "most people were still Uighurs" in Xinjiang.) At that time, China’s relations were "very bad" with the Soviet Union, which shared hundreds of miles of closed border with the region. "Only the border with Pakistan was open." The trucks Yimirhan fixed took 24 hours to drive on bad roads to the border. At a drop-off point, the Chinese drivers handed over small manufactured goods in exchange for fur and raw materials.

For the next two decades, extraordinarily little changed in Urumqi, he recalled, pouring himself a second cup of Turkish tea. Even after the rest of the country began to modernize in 1979, Xinjiang was left deliberately dormant; its roads, rail lines, and airports were neglected, lest building infrastructure prove "a liability in the event of a Soviet invasion," as Xinjiang University professor Liang Zhang later explained to me. For many years, the tallest building was just eight stories, used for government conferences. The streets were narrow and quiet, with only the occasional rumble of Beijing jeeps shuttling officials between meetings.

But with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, history, having been frozen in time, suddenly lurched forward. The long border went from being Xinjiang’s biggest liability to its greatest asset. Within two years, borders had opened with 16 countries, and Yimirhan, who had by then been promoted to a driver, was soon driving across them. He recalls his first time navigating the "beautiful and frightening" hairpins turns of the famous Karakorum highway. (His 30-year-old daughter, translating for him, smiled at her father’s youthful excitement.)

Sensing a power vacuum in Central Asia, Beijing soon turned its attention to strengthening economic and political ties with its western neighbors, as well as investing to extract Xinjiang’s rich reserves of coal, gas, copper, and other minerals. If China’s modern construction boom came 15 years late to Urumqi, building is now on overdrive here, for economic and political reasons: a 21st century form of manifest destiny.




Xinjiang is often compared to America’s old Wild West, but while the American frontier was closed within a few decades, Xinjiang has been the frontier for centuries.

For at least 250 years, Beijing has treated the vast region — more than four times the size of Germany — as alternately a conduit and a buffer. "Diverse goods converge like the spokes on a wheel," the official He Sen wrote of Xinjiang in 1784, not long after the Qing dynasty had claimed the region as part of its empire and begun to transform Urumqi, formerly a Han military encampment in a land traditionally home to Uighurs, into a proper walled city. When times were good with the USSR in the 1950s, Urumqi and Xinjiang became a staging ground for cooperation, including joint air force training and oil exploration; and when they were bad, after the Sino-Soviet split, the Soviet engineers closed up the wells and withdrew.

In 1994, the Soviet threat removed, Prime Minister Li Peng declared China’s intention to "open up a modern version of the Silk Road." Soon Urumqi became the focal point of Beijing’s investment and planned transportation links, the hub of its western development strategy. Today the paved road from Urumqi to Yili takes 10 hours, not 24. New rail lines have opened between Urumqi and Altay, and between Kashgar and Hotan, and there’s even talk of extending the Urumqi-Kashgar rail line all the way to Istanbul. There’s also a plan floated to build a rail link between Urumqi and the port of Gwadar in Pakistan. The overall goal, as Professor Zhang put it, is "to integrate Central Asia into China, not the other way around" — to keep Xinjiang’s economy "at least 20 percent stronger" than neighboring countries so that investment and people flow into, not out of, western China.

Some neighborhoods in Urumqi today look astonishingly modern, at least from the outside. (When I arranged to meet one young professional, she told me: "I would like to invite you to our house, but the electricity is out. I do not know when it will be back on." We went to a restaurant instead.) A high-end shopping street marks the city center; that’s where you’ll find the Southern China Airlines Pearl Hotel and the large Gucci billboards. Near the airport is the corridor known as the "Economical and Technological Development Zone," where Urumqi’s building boom is most evident: Row after row of high-rise apartments ensconced in construction scaffolding; a new sports stadium; a monumental China Telecom building, and new police station. Perhaps surprisingly for a city known for its coal-darkened winters, Urumqi also has one of the most impressive rapid bus transit systems in China, with covered stations, automated tellers, and a fleet of new buses that look packed most hours of the day.

Another example of the government’s investment is the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography, a research center under the Chinese Academy of Sciences focused on arid climates; in purely geologic terms, Xinjiang is more appropriately regarded as an extension of Central Asia than of China. The institute has seen its operating budget grow quickly in recent years, exceeding $30 million in 2010, a staff member told me, with more than 1,000 employees. Inside the new building complex, the laboratory director, wearing jeans, a white lab coat, and waving a cigarette in one hand, explained that its function was both scientific and strategic, as it was now forging partnerships with scientists in neighboring countries, on everything from meteorological monitoring to glacier studies. "We are the bridge to Central Asia," he told me.

Alas, Urumqi’s new wealth has not been evenly distributed. The man appointed in 1994 to be Xinjiang Party Secretary was Wang Lequan; until his ouster following the 2009 ethnic riots in Urumqi, which left roughly 200 people dead, he was a chief architect of Xinjiang’s modernization: well-connected, savvy and adept at wrangling funding from Beijing. He was also a hardliner whose policies toward ethnic minorities — including restricting religious fasting, praying, and other observances in schools and government offices — earned him no love from the city’s Uighur Muslims. One professor told me that the most harmful result of his policies was to systematically deny Uighurs opportunities and promotions in government agencies. If Han and Uighur were more or less equal when everyone was poor — back when Uighur trucker Dilshat Yimirhan first moved to the city — the gap grew quickly as Urumqi grew richer. The Asian Development Bank has found income inequality to be higher in Xinjiang than any other Chinese province or autonomous zone, with new Han Chinese arrivals disproportionately reaping the benefits of modernization.

Urumqi today is a divided city. Government investment is flowing into the northern part of the city, but the southern part, the Uighur corridor, has seen little development since the 2009 riots. One Saturday evening, I went to a Uighur wedding, held in a third-floor hotel ballroom, with fraying rugs and chipping paint. The guests, dressed in everything from gowns to jeans, danced to a mix of pulsing techno music and traditional Uighur songs; groomsmen sprayed the happy couple with silly string from a can. The bride and groom had met at Xinjiang University, and although they and their guests were also mostly well educated, they lived in a world apart; there were no Han Chinese guests. (As a Han friend put it: "Even in the same city, Han and Uighur barely talk to each other; segregation is not an ongoing process, it is a fact.") 

Another afternoon I visited the famous Border Hotel complex, where Central Asian traders come to do business. Typically, I was mistaken for Russian. With me was a young Uighur guide, whose own language is close enough that he can understand most Central Asian languages. But as we entered one hotel lobby, the doorman, a pale, sweaty Han Chinese man with a receding hairline and a nervous manner, stopped him: "What are you doing? Where are you going?" Behind us, an assortment of unshaven Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Tajiks passed by unmolested. "To be Uighur is to be under constant suspicion," my guide hissed through his teeth. I could easily see that a negative feedback loop was at work. He waited for me outside, puffing nervously on his cigarette; when I came back, he complained: "It’s getting worse."

I asked if he’d ever been to any of the bordering countries, but he shook his head. "I can’t get a passport." Fearful that Uighurs will radicalize if they travel abroad, the government has limited their ability to cross borders — a policy that raises the uncomfortable question of just who is supposed to benefit from the "New Silk Road" strategy.

For his part, Yimirhan left his trucking job to start his own company trading with Kazakhstan several years ago. For a while, things went very well, but after the financial crash, access to credit dried up, and orders went down. Plus, the appreciation of the RMB drove down his profit margins ("your country did that," he added wryly). For all the political talk about the New Silk Road, he’s since turned his attention inward: Now, he and two brothers have opened a slaughterhouse to sell Halal meat to Chinese Muslims. "My rule is, follow where there is need."

Shenyang: Renaissance City

"You will feel as though you are standing on the edge, and wonder at entering a museum of souls," the Shenyang novelist Wang Xiaofang told me, describing the Dante’s Inferno-esque mood he aimed to evoke in his popular novel, The Civil Servant’s Notebook — which will be published in English translation this fall.

A former official in Shenyang, the largest city in northeastern China — a region known as Dongbei in China and formerly as Manchuria to foreigners — Wang left government after his boss and patron, former Vice Mayor Ma Xiangdong, was convicted of accepting $1.55 million in bribes, among other financial crimes, and executed in 2006. (Wang, his personal secretary, was never convicted of any crime himself.) Now a master of the distinctly Chinese genre of "officialdom fiction," Wang channels the pathos of his city and his experiences into literature. His first novel, Deadly Vortex, later renamed The Mayor’s Secretary, was semi-autobiographical.

"I hope to grasp the essence of the epoch — to compress the history and the reality," he told me, about "officials who are very calculating, adept at backstabbing, about their power struggles and those spiritual eunuchs who look virtuous, but in fact have lost their faith, and are homeless at heart." He added that through the best literature, "We can not only see our reflection in the mirror, but also understand the secrets behind it. Milan Kundera said a novel that can’t define some hidden reality is immoral."

His grand themes of politics, opulence, corruption, decay, and redemption are by no means exclusive to the rustbelt city of Shenyang. Yet Wang contends that his home turf, with its strong political culture (historically many Politburo heavy-hitters have had northeastern Liaoning province on their resume — including current Standing Committee members Li Changchun, Li Keqiang, and Zhou Yongkang — as well as wannabe Bo Xilai) is to a unique degree defined by them.

"The official standard is the essential character of this old historical city," he explained. "Shenyang is not only the cradle-land of the Qing Dynasty, but also the most ravaged by the planned economy. It is typical of the old heavy-industry bases of the northeast, with a heavy historical burden and sluggish concepts … long in history, but short in culture."

And yet, while many of China’s successful literati move to Beijing, Wang has chosen to remain in the city where memories haunt him. It is the source of his inspiration, and indeed his personal trajectory has long tracked the city’s: rising, then dramatically falling, and now at last finding some redemption in reconstituting the ashes of the past.




For many years, the sound of Manchuria was the sound of demolition.

The wrecking crews worked all night. Bright construction lights illuminated the sites — old brick factory warehouses and workers’ apartments — and even in chilly February, a faint dusting of snow on the ground, people gathered on the downtown streets at midnight to watch the buildings, their past, being torn down. It was early 2007, my first trip to Shenyang, and while Beijing was full of pre-Olympic construction cranes, Shenyang was involved in a wholly difficult project: tearing down the rusted shell of its storied past.

For the city once touted by Chairman Mao as the heart of the communist modernization project — known as the "elder brother of Chinese industry," with its proud skyline of factory smokestacks — had become a dinosaur. If the New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof had described Shenyang as a "drab, Dickensian city" in 1989 — with its sooty air, harsh winters, and grim temperament — it was so much drabber and more desperate two decades later. While much of southern China experienced the 1990s and 2000s as a boom time, Beijing’s mandate of restructuring inefficient and corruptly run state-owned enterprises fell like an axe on the average workers of Shenyang, where 85 percent of the economy was driven by the state. With rampant factory closures, Shenyang’s unemployment rate hit 16 percent or higher. One of the few growth industries was prostitution, encouraged and taxed at 30 percent by former mayor Mu Suixin — before his ouster, along with his vice mayor, for corruption. In admitting his crimes, Mu issued a statement: "My heart has always been with the Communist Party. When I was young I was a very good person. Now I am very bad. This is my tragedy." (He was sentenced to death, but died in jail of cancer.)

When I returned this winter to visit the famed downtown Tiexi ("Iron") District, site of China’s iconic first Model Workers Village — a self-contained factory complex that included housing for workers — almost all the old smokestacks and workers’ homes had already been torn down. One exception was a row of two-story brick apartments at the intersection of Beishi YiJie and Huangsi Street. There sat 53-year-old Li Liansheng, perched on a little stool on the sidewalk, with a suitcase full of his life’s artifacts for sale: 5 yuan for an old postcard, 15 yuan for a booklet entitled "Korea Song List," 30 yuan for a badly stained copy of Mao’s Little Red Book, 30 yuan for a jade cross. He scraped the cross against the pavement, then held it up for me to inspect. "No scratches." That was to demonstrate it was real jade. 

Tall and broad-shouldered, he used to have one of the best jobs in Shenyang. For two decades, he had worked in a state-owned farm equipment factory until he was laid off fully a decade ago. He hasn’t worked since, and likely won’t again, like many among the city’s "lost generation," so dubbed because with their education cut short by the Cultural Revolution, it’s been difficult for these laid-off workers to find new employment. When his downtown apartment block was torn down, the government calculated total compensation based on square meters, but it wasn’t nearly enough to purchase a new home, so Li and his wife moved into the cramped apartment rented by their 27-year-old son.

To pass the time, he comes back to this place, where other laid-off workers gather to swap stories and sell knickknacks. "People still live here," Li gestured behind him. The old brick buildings are slated for demolition, but smoke was still coming from a few chimneys. An old man stood on one balcony, foisting over it small furniture items. Another man stepped across the piles of rubble and disappeared into a doorway framed by rotted lintel beams. A light flickered inside. Those without families to fall back on hold on for as long as they can.




The modern history of Shenyang began with deception and violence. In 1931, Japanese army engineers blew up a section of railroad tracks outside the city, blamed it on the locals, and used that as pretext for their invasion and occupation of northeastern China. The Japanese built a new city center some distance from the old Manchu palace, centered on a large traffic circle from which eight broad avenues radiate. Not long after the founding of the PRC, the old obelisk that had stood in the center of that circle was toppled and a giant statue of Chairman Mao erected in its place — one of the largest in China.

Today there’s a good view of Chairman Mao from across the street at the Hotel Liaoning, an ornate old building with a spiral staircase, plastered ceilings, a high-ceilinged banquet hall, and a revolving door with brass fixtures; it was built in 1927 by the Japanese, whose tastes ran as extravagant as the Soviets were utilitarian. On weekends, the banquet hall is still in use, now hosting stately weddings for the sons and daughters of the city’s BMW-driving elite.

As with the old city grid, the communists didn’t undo the legacy of Japanese planners; they built atop it. They also built atop the colonial legacy of heavy industry in Manchuria. It’s a disorienting fact that the early flames of China’s industrial revolution — later so important to the communist vision of patriotism and national progress — were stoked while the Japanese occupied the region in a brutal quest for materials to fuel their own modernization. For instance, the Anshan iron mine, one of the largest in China, just south of Shenyang, was first developed by Japan’s South Manchuria Railway Company. A legacy of that enterprise, the Anshan Iron and Steel Group, remains today China’s second-largest steel producer. Under the PRC, Shenyang Aircraft Corporation was founded in 1953, followed by the Shenyang Locomotive and Rolling Stock Co., and Shenyang Brilliance Jinbei Automobile Co., among others.



"This place used to be like Detroit back in the day. Then the government let things get bad, and now it’s working to come back."

That was the assessment of an American quality-control engineer for Boeing, who last year moved from Seattle to Shenyang. His job is "making sure everything gets off the [assembly] line all right." We had lunch in the cafeteria of the new Ikea — and it tells you something about Shenyang today that it even has one; a sign outside proclaims: "No dream too big, No home too small."

After a protracted economic convalescence, the city’s pulse has returned and it runs in a remarkably similar vein: Shenyang is making big planes and automobiles, only in collaboration with very different sorts of foreign powers. In 2005, Boeing signed a $600 million contract with a revamped Shenyang Aircraft Corp. to source parts for its aircraft, including the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Last year, BMW announced that it would spend $1.42 billion to open a second factory in Shenyang to assemble luxury cars exclusively for China’s fast-growing domestic market — now the largest auto market in the world. BMW reported selling 233,630 vehicles in China in 2011, up 37.7 percent in a year. Together, its two Shenyang plants — one is in Tiexi district — are designed to have a production capacity of up to 400,000 vehicles annually. Michelin expects its new $1.5 billion tire plant in Shenyang to open this summer, with an annual capacity of more than 10 million tires.

Most of Shenyang’s iconic smokestacks have been moved to the suburbs; its streets are newly paved, and there’s now a Carrefour hypermarket across from the Red Star Macalline Global Home Furniture Life Mall. New sports stadiums are being built for the 2013 National Games. It looks different. But the iron and coal are still here; now there’s a growing constellation of research and technology universities, a base of engineering talent willing to work at internationally competitive wages, and growing domestic demand. Shenyang is still ground zero for manufacturing the Chinese dream, if you consider that BMW symbolizes the new Chinese dream as much as Mao stood for the old. 




Visitors to China are often fixated on the pace of change, but just as often I hear Chinese people describe what hasn’t changed in their cities. One pretty good rule of thumb is that whatever you can see changes quickly — buildings, clothing fashions, restaurants — but what you can’t see doesn’t — culture, politics, social networks. Upon returning from Beijing to her hometown of Shenyang, photographer Luo Jian of China’s Economic Observer newspaper made a comment that might well apply to many old Chinese cities: "Like a cell phone, the city changes its shell when it’s worn. But the guts don’t change."


Christina Larson is an award-winning foreign correspondent and science journalist based in Beijing, and a former Foreign Policy editor. She has reported from nearly a dozen countries in Asia. Her features have appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Science, Scientific American, the Atlantic, and other publications. In 2016, she won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Morton Frank Award for international magazine writing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

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