Chicago on the Yangtze
These are good times indeed for Chongqing, home to 32 million people and growing so quickly its maps are already out of date by the time they are printed. The bursting municipality — a dense urban core ringed by rapidly changing rural districts that together are about the size of Austria and now have more people than Iraq — is the gateway to China’s fast-filling west. Ambitions and limitations collide there at the same spectacular speed with which the city has exploded and, along with it, the prospects of its luckier residents.
For Chongqing has grown from an obscure Yangtze River port of 200,000 in the 1930s to a city of 2 million when Yan Qi was born in 1967 to a sprawling megametropolis dubbed the “fastest-growing urban center on the planet” in 2006 by Britain’s Channel 4 (based on satellite imagery comparing how quickly cities subsumed land of the surrounding countryside). In Chongqing’s northern New District today, it is possible to drive for more than half an hour past high-rises of 30 to 50 stories, block upon block, where five years ago there were only fields. In 1998, Chongqing had a GDP of just $21 billion; by 2009 it had quadrupled to $86 billion. Last year, Chongqing’s GDP grew at an eye-popping 14.9 percent, nearly twice the impressive growth rate of China as a whole.
How did this happen?
Historically and geographically, Chongqing hardly seemed destined for greatness. Quite the contrary. It was by no means inevitable that a misty, ancient town built on the bluffs of the Yangtze would become the fastest-sprawling global metropolis, or for that matter one day spawn the Ray Kroc of western China. Indeed, Yan Qi’s meteoric rise, like that of the city, is difficult to explain by logic alone. But it is emblematic: Timing, luck, geography, government largesse, and, in her case, an obscure Yangtze River snail, all played a part.