It’s a Monday afternoon at the new Dutch consulate in Chongqing and staffers are rushing through the open-plan office with an energy that seems more suited to the teeming streets 54 floors below. With the consulate’s annual Dutch Days cultural event only days away, a Dutch photographer has arrived to discuss the exhibition of his work. Chinese reporters are filtering in for a press conference about the seminars to be held on smart-city planning, city branding and Sino-Dutch interior design and fashion.
Taking a short break to talk to MONOCLE in an office that doubles as a showroom for Dutch furniture, consul-general Guido Tielman says this hustle and bustle has been the norm since the Netherlands opened a consulate in Chongqing two years ago. “We try to be very active,” he says. “We feel that there is a lot of potential here.”
The potential has always been present in this metropolis of about 7.5 million that straddles the Yangtze and Jialing rivers in China’s booming west but Dutch fashion shows have not. It’s a sign of how much things are changing in a city that industrialised overnight as the wartime capital of China, becoming a gritty, smog-cloaked hub for steel, iron, weapons and chemical manufacturing. But today it is cleaning up its image and taking a greater role on the global stage.
With heavily polluting factories being shunted to the outskirts and new investments being made in hi-tech industries, logistics and other more environmentally friendly sectors, Chongqing has managed to maintain its double-digit growth as the rest of the country has begun to cool. Even in the first half of 2015 – a shaky time for the Chinese economy – it was business as usual here, with 11 per cent growth.
This is precisely why the Netherlands felt compelled to re-establish a diplomatic presence in the city more than 70 years after opening its very first embassy here. “This is one of the few Dutch posts where we are actually pioneers,” Tielman says. “Usually companies go first and the government follows. Here the government goes first and tries to develop business for Dutch companies in the hope they will come.”
The Netherlands isn’t alone. There are now 10 consulates in Chongqing, including the UK, Japan and Canada, and in the past few years Italy and Ethiopia have joined the ranks. Business development is a key mission for both foreign direct investment and increasingly outward Chinese investment. “This is an era of general austerity for Italy that has seen the closure of many diplomatic offices abroad in the past five years,” says Italy’s new consul-general to the city, Sergio Maffettone. But since the Italian consulate opened here nearly two years ago, he notes, more than 200 Italian companies and 150 delegations have paid a visit. “In our eyes, Chongqing represents the new frontier of China’s development.”
As with most Chinese cities, Chongqing feels like a work in progress, with jackhammers and saws an ever-present reminder of forward momentum. Decrepit buildings are being demolished to make way for greener skyscrapers on the crowded Yuzhong peninsula at the heart of the city, a frenetic sliver of land framed by the muddy waters of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers. The city’s Jiangbei International Airport is getting a major overhaul in order to increase capacity to 45 million passengers by 2020. Service is expanding to Europe too, with Finnair now running direct flights to Helsinki and Hainan Airlines flying to Rome.
Even the solemn People’s Liberation Monument is not exempt from change. A slender tower built to mark the wartime victory over Japan and later renamed by communists, the memorial must now fend off a new foe: the capitalist onslaught of Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Apple (the monument itself has been branded with a Rolex clock).
New investment in more efficient, less toxic manufacturing has fuelled a good deal of this bonanza. Chongqing makes one third of the world’s laptops – Acer, Toshiba and Hewlett-Packard are major producers – and sends them to Europe on the Chongqing-Germany freight train line that was launched four years ago. The city is also one of the biggest automotive centres in China, home to state-of-the-art plants built by Ford, General Motors, Hyundai and Iveco through joint ventures with Chinese car manufacturers. Iveco, for example, now has capacity to produce thousands of heavy-duty trucks per month and has just invested in another factory to produce axles. “When our plant opened in 2007 there was nothing here,” says Maurizio Giansiracusa, deputy general manager of the Saic-Iveco joint venture. “People were working in the field and the next day there was a skyscraper instead of rice.”
But change is afoot in the city and its leaders are keen to diversify the economy to ensure long-term sustainability and improve the quality of life for residents. Part of this entails attracting young entrepreneurs to Chongqing, a goal that may become easier after the tech giant Tencent announced plans to build an incubator for 230 start-ups this year. Another major change has been the courting of foreign investment in financial services, data processing, architecture, urban planning, education and the creative fields.
Nowhere better exemplifies this new investment push than the dramatic transformation taking place in Chaotianmen at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing, easily the most prominent piece of real estate in the city. Singapore’s CapitaLand has just broken ground on Raffles City Chongqing, a CNY24bn (€3.35bn) eight-tower, mixed-use development. Designed by architect Moshe Safdie, it will have a skybridge conservatory and will resemble great masts of a ship with its sail pulling the city forward. It’s not only CapitaLand’s largest-ever Chinese investment, it’s the biggest by any Singaporean firm in the country. “Just think what the Bund was to Shanghai 30 years ago,” says Chan Boon Seng, ceo of Raffles City Chongqing. “You can imagine people arriving in Chongqing by plane – they cannot miss this location.”
Other architecture firms are snapping up redevelopment projects along Chongqing’s sadly underused riverbanks. Los Angeles-based Aecom has set up shop in the city and worked on several large-scale waterfront redesigns, such as a multi-tiered park to connect a new business district to the striking Chongqing Grand Theatre. The latter, designed by GMP Architekten, resembles either a ship or a tank when lit up at night, depending on one’s perspective. The theatre just needs to work on its programming: in May an Elvis Presley impersonator was the headline act.
City leaders are also open to innovative ideas in education. In 2007 another Singaporean venture, Ednovation, chose Chongqing to pilot its ChildFirst private preschools, which teach in English and Chinese. Today the company has 15 schools and 3,000 students in the city.
Maffettone, the Italian consul-general, has high hopes of young Chongqingers speaking Italian too. One of the consulate’s many roles is to promote Italian language study by recruiting teachers for schools. This autumn, one primary school launched its first Italian classes, while another private Italian-language centre opened for children under six.
The direct Chongqing-Rome flight has brought other opportunities for cultural exchanges, such as an upcoming visit by the Italian Philharmonic Orchestra this Christmas, as well as a boost to tourism. Visas are turned around in one day; so far this year, the consulate has processed 30,000, with a peak of 8,400 in July.
For Ethiopia, the only African country to have a consulate in western China, the hopes are a little different. The mission for consul-general Kebede Abera is to find companies from the region to invest in projects back home. Several have taken root, including the country’s largest hydropower plant, built by Chengdu-based Dongfang Electric Corp, and a car-assembly plant, courtesy of Chongqing’s Lifan Motors. While sipping tea at the consulate, Abera, who started his new job in September, talks optimistically about how Ethiopia’s large presence in China – an embassy in Beijing, consulates in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing – will drive economic growth. “Ethiopia has closely followed the Chinese model of development,” he says. “We’d like to learn more from the Chinese experience.”
Chongqing, in turn, is eager to learn from everyone else. “They are playing catch-up,” says CapitaLand’s Chan Boon Seng. “But you can see the people are hungrier.”