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Changsha, How Mao's University Town Exploded Into A Chinese Mega-City

Changsha is booming whatever the cost
Changsha is booming whatever the cost
Harold Thibault

CHANGSHA - When the Dazehu village chief told his constituents that a company was planning to build the tallest skyscraper in the world right there, in the swamps in front of the village, Mrs. Tan’s only reaction was: “All right then...”

It takes more than that to overwhelm this 60-year old woman, who has become used to big changes in the region: Changsha is getting closer every day, bringing its prosperity along. She seems to regret the fact that her village was leveled to the ground in 2002 to build five or six-story high apartment buildings. If only the authorities had waited a few more years, she would have certainly had a chance to live in one of these new skyscrapers.

"I don’t necessarily like these high-rise buildings; getting up the floors is not convenient -- but they are more modern," she explains.

The city of Changsha — famous in the past for hosting Mao Zedong as a student — is moving fast toward the future. The boom is only recent. First it was the big coastal cities that grew richer. Now Hunan’s capital city, with a population of seven million, is doing everything it can to catch up.

"It won’t last forever, that’s for sure. But right now, the growth rate is extremely high, since we started off very poor,” says Liu Feu, CEO of Changsha-based consulting firm Fuli Investment.

"Unreal" prospects

Taxi driver Liu Rong parks his car in the middle of nowhere, by the Xiang River. He points to the riverbank right in front of him: "This is where the second business district will be." There are cranes surrounding a huge concrete structure. "There will also be an art center, to attract more people."

Such is life in Changsha, even though the city will probably have to lean hard on public spending. Last July, as the slowdown of the Chinese economy started to become worrisome, the city council unveiled an investment plan in infrastructure that seemed unreal to most economists: 829 billion Yuan (104 million euros) which included a new airport and a subway system. With a growth rate of 12.9% in this year's first semester, Changsha had enough resources to make the rest of the country jealous (7.8%), and to a larger extent, the rest of the world.

A few kilometers away, a huge new project is being launched: Meixi Lake, where dozens of residential complexes have already been sold -- even though they are far from being completed. Forty-year old Hu Xiao has not quite made his mind yet: The price is already a little high. Like many others in these new urban zones, he is wondering whether he should go ahead — the city will boom for sure but will it really become the center of the universe, as promised by the hostesses promoting the project?

Fast-paced progress

The Tan family first experienced change two or three years ago when one of their two sons, who had worked as a migrant builder before, managed to secure a regular-job and buy himself a car: “Well, let’s go for a ride, I said,” recalls Mrs. Tan. Since then, the considerate son has driven her to a holy mountain, and to visit Chairman Mao's hometown. She swears all it takes is a phone call for him to drive her downtown.

Yet Mrs. Tan still has doubts regarding how fast the new skyscraper will be built. How can they build a tower that is ten meter higher than Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in only three to five months, as promised by Broad — the company behind the project. This Changsha-based air-conditioning firm wants to develop sustainable buildings and become a symbol of modernity in this gloomy town. The company already astonished everyone when it managed to build a 30-story high hotel in only two weeks. Now it wants to make history again by building a 220-story “Sky City,” with a surface of a million square meters, and in record-breaking time. The city council has already given its approval, but Beijing is now taking a closer look at the sustainability of this architectural — and financial — frenzy.

Why does it have to be done so quickly? “Time is money and 93% of the construction work is done in factories. It is like a Lego game,” says Jiang Yan, the vice-president of the company, bragging about the organic cafeteria he built for his employees. A copy of the Versailles ballroom, the French royal castle, was even built to satisfy Zhang Yue’s ego, Broad’s immensely rich boss. It is all about money: investors have loans and no time to waste.

Road roller resolution

In Changsha, things are moving fast, as 43-year-old farmer Zeng E’hua learned the hard way: “It wasn’t really an accident,” she says referring to the tragic demise of her boyfriend, He Zhihua. They moved together four years ago, and then, in 2010, a new highway was built in the middle of the village. He’s house was not demolished because they built the road ten meters away from it so they wouldn’t have to compensate him.

Mr. He complained but the local authorities ignored his calls. In a last ditch effort, he went to Beijing, but failed to get the support of the central government.

In Sept. 2012, He Zhihua came back to his hometown empty-handed and saw that the four-lane highway was being built right over his tiny backyard. On Sept. 16, three days after coming home, he started protesting again and was confronted by a local official who did not like the fact that he had gone over his head and taken his protest to Beijing. The man slapped Mr. He twice before taking him forcibly back to the construction site.

Humiliated, he laid down three meters away from a road roller, says Ms. Zeng and dared it to run over him. The driver stopped the vehicle when he came close to He’s arm but an official told him to go ahead, she recalls. Photographs taken by some relatives depict the horrible “accident.”

The following night, hundreds of men stole his corpse. A group of hired muscle even beat up Mr. He’s female cousin. Yet the story does not end there: On Nov. 5, local officials admonished He’s widow for spoiling Changsha’s reputation by sharing her story with strangers.

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