What It's Like in a City the Size of Chicago That You’ve Never Heard Of

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Oct. 31 2013 12:02 PM

In the City of the Future

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You can read all you want about China’s urbanization and the proliferation of megacities, but nothing quite prepares you for the experience of visiting a city of 5 million people that you had barely heard of until recently.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

With more than 2.2 million people in the city proper, Nanchang would be the third- or fourth-largest city in the United States.  More than 5 million live in the metro area. But in China, the capital of Jiangxi Province is what they call a “second-tier” city, not even cracking the top 20 in population. And there are a lot more Nanchangs coming. In 20 years China could have as many as 44 urban areas with more than 4 million people and 221 with more than 1 million.

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Impressive as Beijing is, visiting a city like Nanchang gives a much better sense of both the size of China’s populations and the immense changes happening here. Construction cranes building skyscraper-size apartment complexes seem to be everywhere, and with the city core bursting at the seams, a network of satellite cities is in the works in the suburbs.

Nanchang is best known for its role in history of Chinese Communism—the Nanchang Uprising of 1927 was the first communist victory of the Chinese Civil War. Jiangxi Province is also where Deng Xiaoping, the father of China’s market reforms, spent his years in exile working at a tractor factory after being purged by Mao during the Cultural Revolution.

It definitely exemplifies more of the Deng than the Mao spirit today as a manufacturing center, building everything from Ford cars, to Guitar Hero controllers, to Kohler faucets for the outside world, and increasingly for the Chinese market.

Like every Chinese boomtown, traffic is a major issue and the city began construction of a subway system in 2009. It’s expected to be completed in 2015, shocking for someone who lives in a city where it takes nine months to fix an escalator.

As a Reuters article from last year noted, many of the metro’s future stops are in areas where no one really lives yet, an example of the “if you build it, they will come” mentality that seems to underscore the boom here. The apartment complex explosion exemplifies the same optimistic spirit.

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This attitude on the part of Chinese planners can sometimes seem a bit overambitious—see the famous ghost towns that have attracted quite a bit of foreign media attention in recent years—but given the proportion of the human population that’s going to live in cities like Nanchang in later on this century, the rest of the world really ought to be paying more attention to them.

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