The rise of China's heartland

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CHONGQING, China — On most days, a thick blanket of fog and smog shrouds the city of Chongqing and its surrounding hills. Light rain beats down on the thousands of steps that weave up and down the city. The horn of a distant ship occasionally bellows out somewhere down the Yangtze River.

It’s only when the sky clears in the afternoon, if the sky clears, that shiny high rises and construction cranes appear, stretching as far as the eye can see.

Once a quiet port city of 200,000 people perched at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers, nestled in the mountains of central China, Chongqing today has transformed into a sprawling metropolis. The city center and surrounding districts and municipalities are home to nearly 33 million, roughly the population of all of Canada. (Read about another megacity, Dhaka in Bangladesh, which is the world's fastest-growing.)

That’s a lot of people, even by Chinese standards, and the number is still growing. Chongqing’s population increases by an estimated 200,000 people a year, or the population of Rochester, N.Y.

Chongqing began its first great development push in 1997, when the city separated from Sichuan province and became its own municipality. In the process, it swallowed up an additional 82,400 square kilometers (32,000 square miles). It's now larger than Austria.

This makes Chongqing the city with the greatest landmass — as well as one of the fastest-growing and most populated — in China, not to mention the rest of the world.

So, why Chongqing?

On the global stage, Chongqing might not have the pop of Beijing or Shanghai, which are generally accepted to be two of China's four, first-tier cities (the other two are Guangzhou and Shenzen).

But Chongqing, along with about 20 other second-tier Chinese cities that you've never heard of, has grown exponentially over the past two decades. Chongqing has seen a double-digit growth rate since the year it broke off from Sichuan. In 2009 alone, the city produced a gross domestic product of $95.5 billion.

There is no strict definition of a second-tier city, but they tend to have fewer people and a lower GDP than first-tier cities. In China, they include coastal provincial capitals as well as other major cities on the coast and interior.

China's central government is partly responsible for these hubs coming of age. “There is a policy in place and directives from Beijing to balance development of coastal cities in recent decades with interior and western cities,” said Thomas Campanella, associate professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of "The Concrete Jungle."

Accordingly, policies like the Go West Plan, the North East Revitalization Plan and Central Ascent have all directed money toward smaller cities and townships. For most second-tier cities, this has meant better infrastructure and the creation of specific development zones. Tax incentives and other favorable policies, too, have lured foreign and domestic companies to set up operating bases.

Chongqing is now the city with the third fastest growing economy in China, according to the World Bank. This growth is supported by Chongqing’s port, crucial to southwestern China, as well as other new industries, like aluminum and automobiles. With more than 1,000 scientific research institutes, Chongqing is also finding its place in tech.

The city has recently been referred to as the “Chicago on the Yangtze” and, like Chicago, it does have a monorail and a large body of water — actually, Chongqing has two (the Yangtze and Jialing rivers, versus Lake Michigan).

Chongqing’s version of the Magnificent Mile comes in the form of the Liberation Monument, a shopping square in the commercial district peppered with glitzy shops. And in an echo of Chicago’s crime-tinted past, Chongqing was involved in a mafia bust in 2009, which resulted in the arrest of more than 1,500 people, including the deputy police commissioner. He was executed less than a year after his arrest.

According to the People’s Daily, recent Chinese graduates, faced with the high cost of living and a ruthless job market in first-tier cities, are looking for greener pastures on the second tier. In a 2010 opinion poll of China’s top 10 happiest cities, no first-tier Chinese cities made the cut.

But it isn't all fun and games on the happier, second tier. Development doesn't come easy and resources are hard to come by.

In July, the International Energy Agency reported that China leads the world in energy consumption. While the United States still uses more energy per capita, China is expected to steal the crown by 2015.

Simon X. Zhao, director at the International Center for China Development Studies at University of Hong Kong, points out that all Chinese cities, regardless of tier, face land, energy and water shortages.

“This kind of development is not sustainable,” Zhao said. Government officials are aware of these issues, but the pressure to develop — as well as government officials' personal interests — have made it nearly impossible to implement sustainable measures.

According to Zhao, the government needs to change its thinking. There needs to be a "serious correction in terms of market and development. They need to tackle this issue and change the current economic model from export into domestic consumption,” he said.

But try telling that to the antsy residents of Chongqing. They look at the newly completed Chongqing Grand Theater and see a mark of how much progress the city has made. The goliath metal structure cost $200 million to build, and when fully illuminated, can be seen far down the Yangtze and Jialing rivers.

On an otherwise unremarkable evening in early September, hundreds of Chongqing residents flocked to the theater to watch the Beijing Ballet Company. Bo Xilai, the city's charismatic committee secretary, was also there. Coming from his previous job in Dalian, another successful second-tier city, Bo Xilai didn't have to work hard for a rock star reputation in Chongqing.

As he entered the auditorium, the packed house whooped and hollered. Audience members shouted out their hopes that this man could help Chongqing grow into a symbol of China’s rise.