Yuan Jianbo has had to alter his sales pitch.
In recent months, when Mr. Yuan, an official of the Chongqing Public Rental Housing Administration, took visitors on tours of the impressive 20,000-apartment complex in the suburb of Yuanyang, he would have proudly described it as a pillar of the social welfare-focused “Chongqing model”. But now, with the face of the city’s much-debated model — the purged former Politburo member Bo Xilai — expelled from the party and disgraced, officials in the local government have been faced with a delicate balancing act.
While they are wiping every trace of Mr. Bo’s rather considerable legacy, they are also mounting a campaign to ensure that business remains as usual and that the sizeable investment — and attention — the charismatic former party chief helped attract stays within the fast-developing city.
When Bo Xilai took over as the party chief in 2007, he saw in Chongqing’s unique stage of industrial development an opportunity to further his own career. In 1997, Chongqing was established as a municipality under the central government — a status on par with Beijing and Shanghai which allows the region access to more Central funds and more autonomy in administering its finances. The municipality of 32 million people includes a modern, sprawling city of 7 million on the Yangtze and several mountainous rural counties carved out of Sichuan and Hubei provinces. Chongqing was tasked with absorbing a portion of the massive displacement of people on account of theThree Gorges Dam project, giving it a huge pool of cheap labour to employ on many Central-assisted infrastructure projects.
The result, a decade later, is an impressive megapolis that stretches across the Yangtze. Shiny skyscrapers line the central business district, while a newly-expanded metro rail line snakes its way through the skyline. Massive bridges run across the river’s muddy waters, clogged with trucks and luxury cars.
Mr. Bo, officials said, made what was a necessity a virtue by trumpeting a new “Chongqing model” which, he claimed, pioneered a way to bridge the widening gap between urban and rural China. To incorporate migrants in a more equitable manner, the city provided them with public housing and access to social welfare. Mr. Bo’s publicising of the model made him popular with leftist scholars.
Today, local government officials stress that the plan was actually conceived under Beijing’s “314 policy”, initiated by President Hu Jintao, to establish the city as a centre of growth in less developed western China and to accelerate urbanisation.
“I do not think there is a Chongqing model,” said Tang Wen, an official in the local Foreign Affairs Office. “The plan was to have coordinated development of city and rural areas. This was under the framework of the Central government, and something that is suited to Chongqing’s unique development conditions.” Regardless of whether there is a Chongqing model, a point of debate between Mr. Bo’s detractors and supporters, it is clear that lessons from its development experience are relevant to today’s China. The city has reformed its housing registration rules — which deny migrant workers access to social benefits when they move to cities — and given 4 million migrants ‘urban’ status.
“There is a lack of labour in southern China, but here we do not have a problem,” Mr. Tang said, citing the housing on offer as an attraction. The sprawling public housing complex of Yuanyang houses 20,000 units, offered to migrant workers, students and residents who do not own an apartment, most on five-year contracts. The city will have 39 such projects built by 2015.
While the government rewrites the city’s recent history, signs of Mr. Bo’s legacy persist elsewhere. Not far from Yuanyang, avenues are lined with hundreds of Gingko trees, planted under a reportedly $1 billion project to beautify the city. “Bo Xilai liked Gingko, so they planted the trees,” shrugged one resident. “But I do not know if they plan to keep them here.”