As first proclaimed in 1999, China’s policy of encouraging development in its western provinces continues to receive attention from analysts to assess the impact of central government economic incentives to balance the east coast’s economic prowess. I spent several weeks visiting Chengdu, Chongqing, and Qinghai in June for interviews, observations, and a presentation at Sichuan University’s international conference on developing the West. In brief, preliminary indications suggest that metropolitan Chengdu continues its historic role as the economic and cultural leader in this region, with its concentration of companies and expatriates from the more developed world, its leading universities, and a culture open to outside innovative influences. From the center of the city (with its trendy pedestrian shopping streets) to its southside (with innovation incubators, upscale residences and entertainment districts, and a third Sichuan University campus), Chengdu continues to expand its prospects.
Chongqing, on the eastern side of a mountain range separating the two nearby cities, benefits from its new autonomous status (since 1997 directly under the central government) and its position as a Third Front military-industrial stronghold. Dual use products in the motor vehicle and pharmaceutical fields attest to its transformation, along with massive infrastructure changes and a large new development zone on its northwest side. Red tape, brown air, and muddy waters complicate prospects for the aptly named “mountain city” at the tail end of the Yangtze’s new accessibility for deep water ships. To the west of Sichuan’s two anchor urban areas, Qinghai signals both the transition to the Tibetan highlands, and attempts of Chinese penetration. Major roads, tunnels, and bridges remain very much still under construction. Both high tech communication towers and traditional wind banner poles dot the heights; Chinese soldiers share buses with nomads and monks. Clearly, “developing the West” carries multiple meanings, and is a project continuing to play out.