Tea Leaf Nation

Mapping China’s Latest Supercity

Introducing the Yangtze Delta Super-Economic Region.

Images copyright Foreign Policy. Do not reproduce without permission.
Images copyright Foreign Policy. Do not reproduce without permission.

SHANGHAI — Move over, Beijing — and watch out, BosWash. Just weeks after national economic planners declared they would build the area around China’s capital into a 100-million strong megacity, researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) are arguing that another superlative cluster is emerging around Shanghai, which could one day rival the largest and richest conurbations in the world, including BosWash, the theoretical conurbation running from the U.S. capital to the northeastern intellectual stalwart.

A featured article in CASS’ latest Blue Book of Urban Competitiveness, published May 2014, coined the term “Yangtze Delta Super-Economic Region,” which includes China’s largest city of Shanghai as well as the neighboring provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Anhui. Here’s how it looks, relative to China’s landmass (click on any image to enlarge):

The super-region is roughly the same size as Germany or Montana, covers 40 medium to large cities, houses about 212 million people, and accounts for about a quarter of China’s economic output with only 3.6 per cent of the country’s land area. It sounds impressive, but the authors caution that it remains a work in progress. 

Strictly speaking, the term Yangtze Delta refers to the lands around the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, but in practice it is synonymous with the ever-expanding region of economic dynamism in Eastern China that has benefited from being in Shanghai’s tailwind. The authors show how over two decades the Delta has expanded from a narrow belt of cities abutting Shanghai to a larger region that encompasses some of China’s leading second-tier cities, including Suzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, and Ningbo. The proposed super region can be read as a call to ensure that the Yangtze Delta’s momentum continues to fan outward from its current “core” and spreads its good fortune to rural parts and smaller cities of the region.  

The essay argues that the integration process is already underway. Transport infrastructure has played and will continue to play a crucial role, with highways, bridges, and high-speed rail steadily growing the roster of cities that are within two-hours’ travel time of Shanghai — considered a prerequisite for sharing in the core area’s sphere of economic influence. According to the CASS report, by 2020 almost every city in the super-region’s three provinces will be linked into this “two-hour economic circle.” Meanwhile, the authors show that in terms of transport access and integration of markets and industries, the super-region’s core and outer areas have already begun to coalesce into a single unit, after decades of growing apart as Shanghai and other coastal cities split off from the pack.

Statistics and infrastructure ambitions aside, it remains clear that the Yangtze Delta’s existing “core” area has a huge head start over the rest of the super-region. Northern Zhejiang province and southern Jiangsu province together constitute one of China’s richest and most urbanized regions, which together with Shanghai account for about 70 percent of the super-region’s current GDP all by themselves. Meanwhile, Chinese people regularly equate Anhui Province with rural poverty, and official statistics show that incomes in most of Anhui and northern Jiangsu are below the national average. Here’s the relative size of the rich core to the entire super-region:

CASS acknowledges there are challenges to the super-region realizing its goals, including the gravitational pull of core cities like Shanghai while development potential in outer cities goes untapped. The researchers raise concerns about a lack of long-term strategy for fostering the region’s integration, including local protectionism. Addressing these problems will be key to remaking this area into a unified regional powerhouse, rather than the lopsided marriage of a prosperous core and under-developed rump that it resembles today.

The essay claims that in the 21st century, competition between nations will increasingly be settled with contests between their leading cities and city clusters. With this in mind, the authors argue that whatever its growing pains, the Yangtze Delta super-region is the only part of China advanced enough to eventually go toe-to-toe with other global city regions like the U.S. Eastern seaboard and Japan’s Tokyo-Osaka conurbation. If China’s development mandarins can successfully eliminate barriers to the country’s regional development, the Yangtze super region may some day give BosWash a run for its money.

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