Bo Xilai’s Urban Legacy
May 9, 2012
Photo: Matthew Neiderhauser
Before he was sacked as Chongqing’s party secretary in March, Bo Xilai was in the midst of an ambitious urban development program, part of his heavy-handed attempt to transform the southwestern municipality into a model region in China. Despite allegations that he was corrupt and that his wife was involved in the murder of a British businessman, the disgraced former leader is still regarded fondly by some Chinese for his uncompromising crackdowns on organized crime, generous public spending, and championing of neo-Maoist values.
Tackling Chongqing’s urban development with his signature fervor and single-mindedness, Bo carried out aggressive construction and environmental projects. As one of his “Five Chongqings,” a set of programs intended to improve residents’ lives, Bo notably spent over $7 billion to turn the municipality – a heavily industrialized, mountainous region comprised of over 30,000 square miles and around 30 million people – into a “green Chongqing.” This included spending $1.5 billion in 2010 alone on the mass planting of exotic ginkgo trees, as Bo preferred them over native species (many of which were cut down to make way for the new trees); a large number did not survive the transplant because of the unsuitably hot, humid climate of their new home. Continue.
Bo also oversaw the development of the region’s “10 big cultural facilities” (Chinese officials do love their numbered initiatives), a program begun before his tenure that included the construction of the showy Chongqing Grand Theater. These projects have cost over $1.5 billion to date.
Chongqing Grand Theater at night; Photo via The China Beat
The more-than-generous expenditures on these projects pales in comparison to the approximately $15 million set aside for so-called social housing. Starting in 2010, Bo planned to put up 800,000 apartments to be rented to low-income individuals, with construction handled by state-owned developers. Ostensibly, these would not only benefit the poor but also help boost Chongqing’s economic growth. With these buildings located in remote areas and largely devoid of tenants and commerce, the project’s success is questionable. The future of social housing is also hazy – margins for investors are small, and some units currently may be going to officials and businessmen, not low earners.
Social housing; Photo by Nelson Ching/Bloomberg
Interestingly, when Bo was mayor of the large coastal city of Dalian in northeast China from 1992 to 2000, he was lauded for transforming the port city into a clean, modern metropolis and financial hub, and even received the UN-Habitat Scroll of Honour award in 1999 for his accomplishments in urban planning. When he took office as Chongqing’s leader in 2007, the municipality’s geography granted him the advantage of distance from the central government, but may have ultimately proven to be a disadvantage – when grafted on to the rough terrains of this manufacturing base, Bo’s hard-nosed urban policies did not flourish as they had in the calm seaside city of Dalian.
That Bo’s extravagant, albeit arguably well intentioned, projects were carried out in part to promote his cult of personality may have come at the cost of providing true value to the citizens for whom they were intended. Without Bo, Chongqing continues to push forward. The ousted leader built elaborate monuments to his outsized ambition during his reign; although he has been dethroned, Chongqing is not in ruins.
Model of Chongqing at the Chongqing Planning Exhibition Hall; Photo: Matthew Neiderhauser