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Wuxi: Canal city in transition

(China Daily) Updated: 2014-09-12 07:49

Wuxi: Canal city in transition

Pearl of Taihu Lake to lead nation in industry, innovation, ecology

Anyone wanting to find one city that is representative of China's economic transition need look no further than Wuxi - a city of 6.5 million residents in the Yangtze River Delta, one of the country's most industrialized regions.

Only 128 kilometers from Shanghai, Wuxi was among the earliest cities in China to produce large numbers of private entrepreneurs and to successfully win over overseas investors. In 2013, the city's GDP reached more than 800 billion yuan ($128 billion), around $20,000 per capita.

Wuxi started seeking economic transition long before the rest of the country.

The trigger of the change, said Wang Guozhong, the city's chief publicity official, was the blue-algae crisis, an ecological disaster the city experienced in 2007. The infamous event became Wuxi's "turning point".

The disaster left Taihu Lake, China's third-largest freshwater lake, covered by a layer of smelly, oxygen-sucking blue scum that resulted from the discharge of unprocessed waste water from the city's many factories.

The crisis was reported nationwide, and since then the city has been trying seriously to build a different economy, having learned vividly that its previous business model was unsustainable and could negatively affect the daily lives of millions of residents.

Seven years have since passed. The cost has been high, but the changes are huge.

On June 23, when Jiang Jin, an official of Wuxi's Binhu (meaning lakeside) district, was showing guests the city's newly reclaimed wetlands, she heard the news that the Grand Canal, which runs through the city, had been conferred the title of a World Heritage site by UNESCO the previous day. Such an honor could never have come to a city with dirty water.

Indeed, the wetlands that Jiang was showcasing are part of an expensive municipal program to heal the environmental scars from the city's early industrialization.

Now, from those wetlands, clear water runs through lush grass to connect both the Grand Canal, which is 1,400 years old and still in use, with the vast Taihu Lake, whose surface is spotted with waterfowl.

Not far from the wetlands, Xu Guozhong and his workmates are busy converting a rocky cliff, formed in previous years by blasting stones for construction, into a slope covered with vegetation. "It'll take two years, as the plan goes. And the government has budgeted 3 million yuan," he said.

The rest of the stone quarry has already been rejuvenated as a lavender and tea farm. "You can no longer see the ugliest things we used to see," Xu said. "On a clear day, we're able to see quite a lot of Taihu Lake from the pavilion we built on the hilltop."

The ecological reclamation program Xu is taking part in has already become a public park, and can receive a harvest of admission fees during the flowering season of the lavender - a plant newly introduced to the area from France.

Local officials and business leaders take much pride in the change in their environmental quality. The waterfront of Taihu Lake is becoming Wuxi's equivalent of Shanghai's Bund. The municipal government has moved its office complex to the lakeside, where it sits amid a generation of high office and residential buildings that form the city's new skyline.

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