If you have ever visited Dalian -- especially after a stop-off in, say, Wuhan or Hohhot or Lanzhou, or any other less prosperous Chinese city - this seems an incredulous claim. Dalian, after all, is regional host of the World Economic Forum meetings, a busy port and center of light manufacturing, and a cosmopolitan city with an Armani boutique and BMW dealership right on People's Road. There are no simmering ethnic tensions or nearby border disputes. According to government statistics, the economy grew at a whopping 15 percent in 2010. In one sense, Dalian seems to represent the most optimistic vision of China's future. What could there possibly be to complain about?
A lot, it turns out. The air quality is "much worse than before," I was told. "Once the sea and sky were blue, but now both are grey." Recent construction on a subway system has been a "disaster" due to slipshod planning; the blueprints weren't appropriate to the city's porous bedrock. Already in 2011, five sections of newly built lines have collapsed, opening chasms in the sidewalks; at least one worker was killed. Traffic in Dalian is now a nightmare, not simply because there are more cars, but "because of bad urban design making the city center too dense."
The lure of fast money means developers are rapidly throwing up new buildings without regard for livability; the local government, which receives money from land sales, does little to impose limits. "Because house prices go up, more and more are built, but they are not very well planned," the schoolteacher told me. Magnificent historic buildings, erected by Japanese and Russians in the early 20th century, have been razed, replaced with cheap and quickly constructed high-rises. "The local people are angry," one schoolteacher said of the new buildings. "They think: you destroyed our city's culture." Last year, a local activist campaigning to stop the wrecking balls told China Daily, "Our cultural diversity and identity is at stake. Without these buildings, Dalian is nothing but a common, modern city that can easily be duplicated." But City Hall isn't paying attention. "The government focuses on economic performance," I was told, "but not the life of the citizens."
Taken alone, perhaps none of these complaints is terribly dire or noteworthy, but together they add up to something that is: the sense that a place is going in the wrong direction. For decades, things only got better -- in Dalian, as in many places in China -- but now, many here say most things are getting worse. Residents are richer but feel less well off. "People in Dalian have a lot of complaints about deterioration of quality of life and environment," said Wen Bo, an environmentalist and Dalian native who now lives in Japan.
Nor do Dalian residents accept these changes as inevitable; they have found someone specific to blame. "The Dalian people hate the old leader," an accountant surnamed Xie, told me. "The chemical plant is not the only disaster he brought us." She was referring to Xia Deren, the former Dalian party boss who was recently promoted to deputy party secretary of Liaoning Province. Among residents, Xia is widely considered corrupt and tone-deaf to popular will. Some protestors carried signs that read: "Xia Deren Step Down."