View a photo essay about Chongqing
Yan Qi spent most of her childhood living with her grandparents in a mountain village on the outskirts of what is now the world's fastest-growing city. It was always raining, she remembers, and nothing much seemed to happen. With no bridges to cross the fast-flowing Yangtze River, the nearby town center -- today a 40-minute drive away -- took several hours to reach by long-distance bus.
Today, Yan Qi works not far from where she grew up, at her company headquarters on a vast estate north of Chongqing. At 43, she is one of the richest women in the country, a restaurant tycoon whose Tao Ran Ju -- "Joyous Restaurants" -- chain now operates more than 90 eateries in 26 far-flung provinces, from low-end noodle shops to luxurious banquet halls. When we met this spring, at her new $30 million company compound, Yan Qi was modest about her good fortune. "In good times and bad times, Chinese people will eat," she told me, "and especially in good times."
These are good times indeed for Chongqing, home to 32 million people and growing so quickly its maps are already out of date by the time they are printed. The bursting municipality -- a dense urban core ringed by rapidly changing rural districts that together are about the size of Austria and now have more people than Iraq -- is the gateway to China's fast-filling west. Ambitions and limitations collide there at the same spectacular speed with which the city has exploded and, along with it, the prospects of its luckier residents.
For Chongqing has grown from an obscure Yangtze River port of 200,000 in the 1930s to a city of 2 million when Yan Qi was born in 1967 to a sprawling megametropolis dubbed the "fastest-growing urban center on the planet" in 2006 by Britain's Channel 4 (based on satellite imagery comparing how quickly cities subsumed land of the surrounding countryside). In Chongqing's northern New District today, it is possible to drive for more than half an hour past high-rises of 30 to 50 stories, block upon block, where five years ago there were only fields. In 1998, Chongqing had a GDP of just $21 billion; by 2009 it had quadrupled to $86 billion. Last year, Chongqing's GDP grew at an eye-popping 14.9 percent, nearly twice the impressive growth rate of China as a whole.
How did this happen?
Historically and geographically, Chongqing hardly seemed destined for greatness. Quite the contrary. It was by no means inevitable that a misty, ancient town built on the bluffs of the Yangtze would become the fastest-sprawling global metropolis, or for that matter one day spawn the Ray Kroc of western China. Indeed, Yan Qi's meteoric rise, like that of the city, is difficult to explain by logic alone. But it is emblematic: Timing, luck, geography, government largesse, and, in her case, an obscure Yangtze River snail, all played a part.
The daughter of low-level civil servants who had trained for a safe career as a government accountant, Yan Qi instead opened her first restaurant in 1995, at age 28. She was struggling to attract customers until she concocted an original signature dish, dredging up an unknown gastropod from the muddy banks of the Yangtze and christening it "the spicy river snail." Diners eat it with a plastic glove on the left hand, using the right hand to pry the snail from its shell with a long toothpick and then dipping the meat in a special sauce. The dish appealed to locals' famously hot palate and taste for novelty.
A small fad in a big market at the right time can change everything, quickly. In the late 1990s, China was becoming wealthy enough for an increasing number of new middle-class customers to afford to eat out. Yan Qi opened her second restaurant in the nearby city of Chengdu in 1997 and by 2000 was opening a new franchise approximately every month. In 1999, Tao Ran Ju had annual sales of $8 million; by 2009, with branches across western China, that number had jumped more than 40-fold to $350 million.
At a moment when China, like the United States in the postwar 1950s, was beginning a period of rapid growth and consumption, Yan Qi was well on her way to becoming a golden franchise empress. And that, in fact, is just what she is working on next, studying the business models of KFC and McDonald's while envisioning how to launch a homegrown fast-food chain serving not Big Macs and fries but steamed buns and dumplings. She is, she says -- and not at all modestly this time -- "planning to do China's fast food."
Of course, it's hard to truly plan for growth on such a scale, whether you're a megamillionaire like Yan Qi or a megacity like Chongqing. Nonetheless, steering the unimaginable is precisely the challenge ahead for fast-growing China. By 2030, 400 million people -- more than today's entire U.S. population -- are expected to move from China's villages to its cities.
In Britain, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, there are only two cities with a population of more than 1 million; in the United States, there are just 10 such cities. But already in China, there are 43 cities of more than 1 million, and by 2030 there will be 221, the McKinsey Global Institute predicts. Indeed, the role that China comes to play in the 21st century may well depend not on the size of its navy, the wiles of its diplomats, or even the next appointments to the Politburo, but on how China manages the largest mass urbanization in history. Chongqing, absorbing roughly 1 million new urban dwellers each year, is at the spear tip of this experiment.
But China is not nearly as prepared as it might seem. Although China's leaders are excellent at ordering up vats of concrete and orchestrating grand infrastructure projects, they do not always adequately anticipate the consequences. Beijing can quickly and decisively steer funds toward massive undertakings that would be impossible (or take much longer) anywhere else in the world, but there is a flip side: When Beijing screws up, it can screw up royally. A day's drive downriver from Chongqing is the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydropower project and a grand symbol of China's engineering ambitions. It is also the cause of massive landslides and floods that forced top officials last year to admit the potential for an environmental "catastrophe."
In today's China, it is most accurate to say there is a profound appearance of planning. This holds true for urbanization, as for much else. "Planning is really a form of publicity," one researcher at the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development in Beijing told me. He explained: "It's a paradox. Things here are very planned, in that lots of plans are being made. But in practice, it's a lot messier. It has to do with the way that plans are used -- or not used." As for the megacities now rising across the country: "In theory, all development has to be guided by plans. But cities across China are operating without plans being approved -- plans don't have that constraining effect. 'City planner' is an aspirational title; mainly it involves approving plans that are already in the process of being built."
And so, as we watch the world's fastest project in city-building unfold, it is important to realize that there is no blueprint; China has embarked on an extraordinary course of what Jeffrey Wasserstrom, author of China in the 21st Century, calls "unintentional urbanization." Think of it as a railroad car hurtling down the line at the same time that attendants scramble to hitch on the wheels and lay the track.