In Fast-Growing China, a Warning About When Prosperity Isn't Enough

The coastal city of Dalian, a success story of China's economic boom, has seen protests as residents sense a decline

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A resident holds a sign reading "Say no to PX, give me back Dalian" among demonstrators there / Reuters

DALIAN, China -- What happens when the GDP in a Chinese city is still rising, but people begin to feel their quality of life is going down?

That wasn't a question I expected to be pondering when I traveled to this prosperous northeastern port city in China's Liaoning Province to investigate the back story of the stunning August 14 protests that had brought 12,000 residents to the streets, demanding the relocation of a nearby plant that manufactures a chemical called PX. But it turned out to be an impossible question to ignore.

For the last three decades, China's staggering economic growth has brought expanding opportunities and rising living standards to hundreds of millions. And social stability, as China's leaders know well, is far easier to maintain when people generally feel that life is getting better; the Communist government is authoritarian, but so long as it's able to deliver what most citizens want, its critics are fewer and quieter. It has no "mandate from heaven," as China's emperors once claimed, nor a popular mandate, but a de facto bargain. At some point, however, China's growth will inevitably slow -- perhaps in 10, 15, or 20 years, according to different estimates; or perhaps there will be a sudden crash and hard landing, as bear analysts James Chanos, Nouriel Roubini, and others have predicted. Much speculation surrounds what will happen next.

But even before an economic slowdown, another kind of strain is beginning to show: some of China's well-to-do are starting to decouple rising incomes alone from a rising sense of well-being. In recent years, growing fears about food safety (contaminated milk-powder for babies; exploding watermelons) and dangerous infrastructure (a high-speed train crash; collapsing buildings), among other concerns, have provoked public outcry and Internet maelstroms criticizing the government. In the minds of at least some Chinese urbanites, especially young parents, such worries are beginning to outweigh the appeal of a yet larger apartment or flashier car. Even for those who don't go so far as to conclude, as the activist-artist Ai Weiwei recently wrote in Newsweek of Beijing, that their hometown is a "nightmare city," the belief that rising GDP alone brings contentment and security is coming under question.

Or at least, that's what I was told by anxious Dalian citizens who joined the Aug. 14 protest.

On that drizzly Sunday morning, a throng of residents had packed the downtown People's Square, opposite Dalian's City Hall, some carrying hand-made placards that read: "Get out PX! Give us back the environment! Give us back Dalian!" It was one of the largest protests reported in China in the past decade. Remarkably, the city's top two officials, the mayor and the party secretary, quickly promised to relocate the factory. Cautious Dalian residents have taken those pledges with greater skepticism than much of the international media (which soon declared a victory for "people power"). They are now watching closely to see what happens next.

The chemical PX, manufactured at the Dalian-Fujia factory, is used to make polyester. The plant had not been linked to significant existing health problems in Dalian, but residents feared that a future tropical storm might rupture its chemical storage tanks, which are located near the coast, and inundate the city with toxic floodwaters. The protest came a few days after a real storm, Typhoon Muifa, had grazed the nearby coast, raising online discussions of a series of terrifying "what if" scenarios. Anxious predictions, as well as an anonymous online call to march on People's Square, had circulated through social media sites in the days before.

When I arrived in Dalian the following Tuesday, several people spoke with me about why they'd marched that Sunday, although most asked that their full names not be used in print. Typhoon Muifa, and the distress it whipped up, was clearly the immediate cause that led to the demonstration, but there was something else on their minds, too. Now, at last, they had cause to put a name to it.

And it was this: the surprising and chilling conviction that Dalian's best days were behind it. The prosperous city, their city, had seen its golden age come and go. Now daily life was more strained, and the city itself was literally falling apart. "Dalian used to be one of the most beautiful and great cities in China," one university professor told me. "But now things are all downhill." It's not that this despair caused the protest, but it contributed to an atmosphere of tension that proved highly flammable when the right match was lit.

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."

Another fact about Xia stands out: He happened to follow behind the much more popular leader Bo Xilai. And he was no Bo.

Bo Xilai is the current Chongqing party boss, a contender for the Politburo in 2012, and a polarizing figure in Chinese politics; he has a long list of intra-Party enemies and has also faced a slew of corruption charges. But unlike Xia, Bo indisputably knew how to endear himself to Dalian. The 17 years he spent in the city -- holding a variety of positions, beginning with acting mayor in 1992 -- not only launched his own career as a political maverick, but also changed what citizens expected of their leader. Tall and charismatic, Bo broke the mold of the dull pol in a dark suit mumbling in monotone, and made himself into the closest thing China has today to a celebrity politician. "Every Spring Festival, Bo Xilai would speak on TV and give his best wishes to citizens," recalled Xie, the local accountant, adding without irony, "He seemed very warm." He also raised expectations for urban quality of life, by building urban green spaces and moving polluting factories outside city limits. Bo's years, Dalian people told me, were the city's "golden years."

And today? Today marks the long hangover. A popular leader is gone, and there are holes in the sidewalks.

That's in part why, as Wen Bo (no relation to Bo Xilai) told me, "I think the [Aug. 14] protest had two causes. The immediate fear was of what would happen if a there was a chemical spill ... But there is also a lingering resentment because people think Dalian is on the wrong course."

Of course, most places in China still have a long way to go before they, like Dalian, reach their golden age. But what follows a golden age is rarely pleasant.