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12/02/2006

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Date Posted: 13:00 06/12/2005



If they build it, they will come

Fields of dreams in northern Jiangsu Province


IN SUQIAN, a relatively new urban area in northern Jiangsu that was cobbled together out of three or four small and impoverished counties about a decade ago, the local government - egged on by the enthusiastic heads of the province itself - have been frantically rebuilding everything in sight, reclaiming tracts of farmland to construct hotels, convention centres and glistening new office blocks in the hope that the city can absorb the massive amounts of speculative capital expected to flood in from the well-off cities to the south of the Yangtze River.

A team of journalists, including Running Dog, found themselves in Suqian earlier this month, and we were ushered to a newly-built pedestrianized zone that seemed to sum up the city's ambitions. In the classic style of reconstituted Chinoiserie that is prevailing in many of the country's city centres, there were the usual protruding gables and high verandas, various bridges and pavilions, several ponds and watchtowers, and a ceremonial bronze cooking pot standing in the main square, laid with geometric precision to conform - presumably - with the principles of fengshui, that venerable art of moving stuff. There were cranes to the left of us, cranes to the right of us, all busily working to extend the vision of the town planners still further.



You can see what those town planners have in mind. The stores along the promenade now consist mainly of fake Italian boutiques and local fast food, and the street itself is eerily empty apart from a few cabs, police cars and a couple of kids on wooden skates. The guiding principle is less to do with John Maynard Keynes and more about Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come. And, indeed, perhaps the posh lingerie and sports wear outlets, the upmarket restaurants and Bentley showrooms, will now be rushing towards the city, anxious to find a spot in this immaculate little zone. For some visitors, however, the words 'white' and 'elephant' sprang quickly to mind.

The question everyone was asking was: if Suqian was really so poor - perhaps the poorest city in a region that has traditionally lagged behind the more prosperous areas in southern Jiangsu - then how can they possibly afford all this construction? It was apparently financed by developers from Zhejiang Province, but everyone suspected that that this was yet another throw of the dice, backed by extensive government-driven borrowing. One also presumed that the wave of speculative construction is, itself, enough to add a few percentage points to the area's all-important GDP figures and - in this growth-obsessed part of the world - allow local officials to stave off collapse and bask gratefully in the glow of their achievements for another year.

It is, the officials hope, only the beginning. They say that the outlays will provide the infrastructure to attract more solid forms of investment, particularly from the private foreign enterprises now itching to expand from the various bases they have set up in better-off cities like Nanjing, Wuxi or Suzhou. Nevertheless, the assembled hacks seemed thoroughly sceptical.

The problem is that apart from Suqian, there are several other impoverished cities in northern Jiangsu now trying to draw in the dollars by constructing plush new office blocks, parks, free-trade zones and pedestrian walkways, and by offering preferential policies every bit as attractive as the ones available in Suqian. The downside is that Suqian has no airport and no train station, a considerable drawback.

The journalists were assembled by the local government to learn what's good about northern Jiangsu. Local officials talked candidly about the propaganda benefits of this event, and the publicity we could provide to the plucky cities in the region. Specially commissioned films described the region's 'cultural magnificence' and 'strategic geographical advantages'. The province was characterized as a 'brocade woven into the east coast of civilization', while the 'billowing Yangtze' became 'the driving force and fountainhead of Jiangsu's development'. The five thousand years of Chinese civilization was seamlessly blended with committee-written regional trumpet-blowing.

The officials did their utmost to present to us the most glittering, most august forms of new economic development in the region. They showed us the expansion plans of the Lianyungang Port and a plaque marking the eastern terminus of what is described, portentously, as the Pan-Eurasian Land Bridge, which theoretically connects Lianyungang with Rotterdam via a lot of complicated and sometimes incompatible rail links in intervening countries. Meanwhile, we were also allowed to glimpse Lianyungang's almost-completed nuclear power station, several free trade and export-processing zones, and an 'entertainment complex' being constructed on the site of several abandoned salt mines and designed to cater for hundreds of Russian nuclear technicians and their families. We saw several new towns built from scratch in rural suburbs. We saw elaborate new leisure facilities scattered between the salubrious coastal conurbations that make up Lianyungang.

Lost in the empty silence of the Suqian development zone on a cold December night, with nary a local resident in sight, the journalists couldn't help wondering whether this was just a great hall of mirrors, a cunning confidence trick that - some say - reflects the true essence of China's economic miracle over the last two decades. Fixed asset investment on the basis of extensive (and unsustainable) bank loans, followed by more and more loans to pay for even more fixed asset investment in order to keep the rates of economic growth going. Some foreign economists have described the next stage with grim eagerness: bad debts will spiral, banks will collapse, savings will evaporate, and the whole mirage of China's economic successes will disintegrate. Andy Xie, Morgan Stanley's resident doom-mongering rentaquote, has made his living out of making such predictions, but Running Dog prefers to be more optimistic.

Everywhere we went in Northern Jiangsu, we saw buildings decked out in balloons and inflatable arches, all extending their 'enthusiastic welcome' to the visiting team of foreign hacks. Running Dog, at least, felt compelled to write something nice for a change. Come to Suqian. Come to Lianyungang. Come to Northern Jiangsu. It's lovely.


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