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The rise of China's heartland

Welcome to Chongqing: A city of 33 million that you've never heard of.

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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.