Movie audiences will get an eyeful of Nanjing next year, when three separate commercial films will be released on the subject of the city's darkest memory, the 1937 massacre known as the Rape of Nanking.
One of the films, a project run by the Jiangsu Provincial Government and US and UK studios, promises to give the atrocity a "Schindler's List" treatment – and possibly up the pressure on Japan to apologize.
However, viewers will likely leave the theater with no idea of the great strides Nanjing has made since those times. Seventy years later, it is a confident, forward-looking city thriving on east China's dizzying growth.
For the second-largest city in population – about 6.5 million – in the busy Yangtze River Delta (YRD) region, Nanjing might appear to lag behind the competition. It is not the region's runner-up to Shanghai in foreign investment (it is dwarfed by Suzhou, and Wuxi also attracts more) nor GDP (Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuxi and Ningbo all trump Nanjing in this category).
But gaudy FDI and GDP numbers don't faze Richard Lee of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, who places greater value on Nanjing's propensity to consume – and the fact that, as the capital of Jiangsu province, it "enjoys certain advantages that other cities do not".
It also has easy transportation, a big reputation for research and some industrial muscle of its own.
Five "pillar industries" – steel (local state-owned Nanjing Steel), chemicals and petrochemicals (German chemical giant BASF has a big presence, including a large joint venture with Sinopec), automobiles, electronics and power – are well-established in the city. It makes Nanjing a compelling investment location for overseas operators with an abundance of local know-how and sterling infrastructure.
The auto industry in particular is a big driver. After Changchun in northeastern Jilin province, Nanjing is the top car producer among the so-called second-tier cities, turning out 173,000 vehicles last year.
Nanjing Automobile, the city's flagship automaker, made waves internationally when it bought portions of MG Rover in late 2004, and then aroused puzzlement with the announcement in August that it would begin making cars in the middle of Oklahoma, of all places.
Foreign automakers seem to be having a better time of it. Fiat, whose Palio compact sedan is selling well on the local market, has forecast solid profits in China for 2007 after a string of loss-making years in China. Ford and Mazda, through their joint venture with Chang'an Motor, make finished cars as well as engines.
The automotive components industry is thriving as well, according to Lee, as parts makers gravitate toward the city.
Sense of history
As a former Chinese capital (during the 1911-1949 Republican period as well as a handful of first-millennium dynasties and kingdoms) with more than 2,000 years of history under its belt, Nanjing has a preservationist bent compared to most of China's metamorphosing metropolises.
"In Nanjing they tend to build around the old buildings. It's not like Beijing, which is pushing out its older parts to make room for the new ones," said Joyce Du, who studied at Nanjing University before moving to the current capital to work as a journalist.
Though whole sections of the city's centuries-old city walls still remain (the best examples are in Gulou District), the pace of urban construction has in fact accelerated in recent years.
Historical interest is the primary tourism draw. The Sun Yat-sen mausoleum is especially well-attended, and became a point of common ground between the mainland and Taiwan in 2005, when Premier Wen Jiabao and Kuomintang leader Lien Chan met to pay their mutual respects to modern China's founding father.
Not all the historical sites are so nostalgic. The horrific six-week-long campaign of carnage during the Japanese invasion in late 1937 is memorialized at the sobering Museum of the Nanjing Massacre. Many nerves are still raw, and the invasion remains a touchy subject in the city.
"There is a memorial bell that rings around the city every December," said Du. "Sometimes taxi drivers or shop owners will refuse to serve Japanese customers, especially during this time."
While open hostility to Japanese visitors is actually often overstated, investment by Japanese companies, Mazda aside, rates conspicuously low compared with the region's other major cities.
Perhaps by coincidence, the Rising Sun Anger Release Bar, a novelty saloon where patrons are free to yell and smash glasses, and pay extra to heap verbal and physical abuse on bartenders, opened earlier this year in Nanjing. The concept, sure enough, was borrowed from similar establishments already running in Japan.
Overall, though, most residents agree that life in Nanjing is pleasant and even calming. Air quality is higher than in many of its peer cities, and a good number of the city's neighborhoods are leafy and green.
Xuanwu Lake, though it may lack the majesty of Hangzhou's West Lake, has a lively teahouse area, and nearby Purple Gold Mountain (Zijinshan) looks over the entire city.
"Nanjing is a very good city from a feng shui perspective," said Du. "We have both mountains and water, where most cities just have one or the other, or none at all."
But don't be fooled into thinking this is a place to relax.
"Nanjing is actually a very bustling place," said Christophe Lauras, general manager of the Sofitel Galaxy Hotel in Nanjing. "In that sense, it is more like Shanghai than Chengdu."
Accor, the French hotel operator that owns Sofitel, showed its confidence in the city's growth when it simultaneously opened two five-star hotels – one for business travelers in the central business district, and another by a golf course with leisure guests in mind – earlier this year.
"Basically, there were very few reasons for us not to be in Nanjing," said Lauras.
If foreign investors like Nanjing's low costs, agreeable atmosphere and good connections, they love its knowledgeable workforce. The city's 43 universities and colleges, with more than 320,000 students in all, ensure a supply of well-trained graduates unmatched by almost any other city in China – and more graduate-level students than anywhere else.
There are more engineering graduates here than in Shanghai, available for lower wages, though those continue to rise.
While many Nanjing alumni, according to Du, fan out across the country in search of jobs elsewhere (many come from elsewhere to study here), the majority remain in town after receiving their diplomas.
Some 640 research institutions call the city home, most of them state-run labs concentrating on furthering knowledge in strategic industries, though more and more multinationals, among them Lucent and Sony Ericsson, are opening R&D centers.
But even with so many advantages, Nanjing still has stiff competition in its region – Hangzhou and Suzhou are becoming high-tech powerhouses and smaller cities like Kunshan and Changzhou compete on price and convenience to Shanghai. Might Nanjing's appeal fade over time?
Lee does not think so. Its value as a research base, a transportation hub, and the political, financial and information center of Jiangsu province is too great for it to fall behind. "Nanjing will always have a strong role to play in the YRD," he said, adding that "as the capital city, the government will always see to it that it does well."
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