Blogs & Comment

China: Chongqing, Day Three

Shanghai, 2:15 p.m.

For those delegates who clamoured aboard the buses on Wednesday afternoon, the tour of Chongqings New North Zone was a highlight of the trade mission, vividly demonstrating Chinas economic developmentand may have hinted at some underlying and unacknowledged challenges posed by the global financial crisis.

Chongqing is a huge, 82,400 square-kilometre municipality of some 31 million peoplealthough, if memory serves, only two or three million live in fully urbanized areas, so its also home to the most densely populated rural population in China. Still, its economic development is a priority for the country, because of its strategic location as a gateway to the underdeveloped west and southwest of China, and because it is situated along the Yangze river, 2300 km from Shanghai, making it a key inland transportation hub.

How is this for a stat: through the first nine months of 2008, Chongqings GDP growth was 15.3%. And this: by 2012, the local government hopes to have doubled GDP to nearly 1 trillion RMB ($175-billion Canadian).

The New North Zone (NNZ) is a 157.5 square-kilometre economic development area with industrial parks and some real estate developmenthigh-end villas with golf courses, as well as low-rent apartment blocksbut the first stop was the Cuntan Inland Port. The delegates crowded around two large table models of what eventually will be built, with little coloured lights to demarcate the various stages of development. The scale, like so many things in China, was hard to comprehend. Only a small part of the model showed what exists now. Its currently handling about 700,000 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit is a standard measure of cargo capacity of container ships), but will eventually handle 8 million. By comparison, Prince Rupert handles half a million TEU.

Premier McGuinty, this is a model for Hamilton, called out one delegate in jest. McGuinty smiled and said, Done, making a motion with his hand as if he was signing the deal.

In fact, delegates from Manitoba were keenly interested, because they are at the early stages of planning an inland port of their own.

After returning to the buses for slow pass through the caverns of containers stacked six highthe facility seemed eerily quietthe buses made their way, with police escort, through one of the four automotive industrial park areas.

Clearly, it was a work-in-progress, as we drove past new glass towers rising next to low-slung shacks and rubble-strewn lots. As you know, China is building a harmonious society, said the tour guide (oh yes, wed certainly heard that a few times already), motioning to a block of modern buildings out the window. These are apartments for farmers after we take use of their land, and also provide job training. I thought that was an interesting way to phrase that.

As we get off the bus to go into the Ford-Changan JV auto manufacturing plant, Andr Desmarais, chairman of Power Corp. and honorary chair of the CCBC who is carrying on family dynastys close connection to China, spoke up to the disembarking delegates. Just so you know, everything you just saw wasnt built eight years ago, he said. It was all farm land.

A woman behind me commented, Terrifying, in a way.

But what struck many people on the tour was that while there were many buildings already constructed, more than a few looked empty, and the cranes poised over unfinished buildings were not moving. It did not appear to be a hive of activity.

Indeed, the manager of the Ford-Changan plant acknowledged that production had been cut back. But he also said, We only produce for the domestic market and I cant talk about our future plans. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, whose provinces auto sector is already getting hammered, remained stoic, with a frozen tight smile.

Chongqing is already known for its auto production, and plans are for it to continue expand in this NNZ. But its not all heavy industry. Software outsourcing is also a focus, as is biomedical industry, and electronics. Just how quickly China is advancing in its expertise in science and technology was laid bare by our next stop: Haifu.

Haifu is a medical research company that has patents on a revolutionary and promising ultrasound device that could quickly and painless destroy cancerous tumours. The procedure doesnt yet meet Western standards, but only because it hasnt been tested, and that is quickly changing as a British hospital is undergoing research with the Haifu system. Siemens also wants to partner with Haifu.

A made-in-China medical treatment breakthrough? Yes, its possible. And in Chongqing, of all places. Then again, the citys 57 universities and colleges graduate 150,000 new students every year.

One final thought: according to the NNZ brochure, 32 Fortune 500 companies have invested nearly a US$1 trillion in the NNZ. Of the logos printed in the brochure, I recognized none as Canadian.

Off to catch a flight, but I may post more next week as I pull together my story.