It was quite a coup for Dalian to become “Davos East,” the location for the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) inaugural Asia-based New Champions conference in September. This gathering is intended to become the summer equivalent of the global meeting held in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos every January. Dalian had to fight hard for it, overcoming rival bids from several much bigger Chinese cities as well as a few elsewhere in Asia anxious to raise their international profile.
The New Champions as defined by the WEF are the fast-rising countries (headed by China) and companies destined, it is assumed, to challenge the West and Japan’s 50-year dominance of international commerce.
In some ways, Dalian is singularly ill-equipped to represent China. Its history is largely recent and such older history as can be claimed for the city or the Liaodong peninsula is more Manchu than Han. There are no ancient walls, palaces, tombs or temples to attract the tourist. It is a secondary city by almost every measure – second to Shenyang in Liaoning and in the second division for financial services, IT software, textiles, ports and so on.
Worse still, it is a colonial creation, initially of the Russians, then for 40 years of Japan. Even after the revolution through to 1955, Russia retained a hand in the city’s administration.
But Dalian has, as a result, had to try harder. For sure, it is blessed by its location on the neck of land facing both the Yellow Sea and the Bohai Gulf. It is also blessed by its beaches, bays and green wooded hills as well as sea breezes which keep the air far cleaner than that of any comparable mainland Chinese city.
But these blessings would be of limited use if not combined with the attitudes of populace and local government alike.
No evasion here about the Russian and Japanese periods – their legacy has been respected and built upon. The best buildings survive and the original city planning has been extended to incorporate new parks, squares and abundant trees. The shop signs are not just in Chinese and English, but Japanese, Russian and Korean are prominent too.
In other words, this is just the kind of city where foreigners are welcome. And it is a magnet too for Chinese who appreciate its good order, space and clean air as well as its natural attractions, fresh fruit and seafood.
Perhaps it is no wonder that Intel, following in the footsteps of many a Japanese and Korean electronics manufacturer, has made Dalian the site for its first chip factory in China – a US$2.5 billion venture. Citibank is also entering the city after an absence of 66 years. It is keen to exploit Dalian’s position both as a regional financial center for northeast China and processor of the flourishing trade with the world, and in particular Korea, Japan and Russia.
The strength of these trade links is exemplified by Lushun, Dalian’s southernmost administrative district, which also exudes a sense of history reinvented. Once known in the West as Port Arthur, it was fiercely contested by the Russians and the Japanese due to its importance as a deep-sea port and as the easternmost terminus of the Pacific-Baltic rail system. Today it is still a key naval base but a modern container port is its main livelihood.
Exception, not the rule
However, it could also be argued that Dalian is too much of an exception to be the face of Chinese modernization and sustainable development. It is actually a small city by China’s standards, its population of 6 million including several other cities and townships that make up the bulk of the Liaodong peninsula.
Dalian owes at least some of its current prosperity, notably the open paces, squares and impressive new public buildings, to its well-connected former mayor Bo Xilai, who now serves as China’s commerce minister. Bo spent freely and well to enhance his city which has been the recipient of various town planning and environmental awards.
Extravagant spending by city bosses is nothing new and has added to the huge income gaps in China. But in Dalian it could at least be partly justified given the city’s focus on higher value-added industries – finance, IT and tourism – which all demand a quality environment.
If Australia is a lucky country, Dalian must be a lucky city – it is all too unlike so much of China for comfort. But at least it is trying to make the best of nature’s gifts.