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Nanjing: city of the future; city of today

How China’s “Southern Capital” is forging ahead of its present

3-3-3 Tour: Day 6


Overlooking the Qin Huai River by the Confucius Temple, Nanjing

Accelerated development

Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, former capital of the nation and a city renowned for its historical and cultural heritage. I’d left Hangzhou after spending the last four days relaxing by West Lake and now it was city time again.

I’d actually been in Nanjing three years earlier on my first trip to China. I’d bought myself a one way ticket to Beijing and was taking the train down the east coast towards Hong Kong. Back then, I hadn’t known what to expect. I’d expected largeness, I’d expected people. I’d expected China to be a lot more inscrutable and harder to deal with than I actually found it. There were times when the situation seemed impossible – mostly when attempting to purchase train tickets – but on the whole, I found the country to be surprisingly navigable.

But it was the state of China that I was interested in. I was interested in how China was coping with its accelerated development and what that development looked like up close. Watching things from back home it really only felt like you were getting half the story: China’s rise was creating wealth as well as problems, yes; it had established itself as a global player but was still struggling with internal issues, okay; GDP was rising as the wealth gap increased. It was all now familiar stuff trotted out by an intrigued Western media. But there was no connection; nothing to relate to. It was like watching a space shuttle launch from the safety of the exclusion zone – you could see it, you could hear it, but you still couldn’t feel the heat.


Zifeng Tower as seen from the city walls, Nanjing

An efficient modern metropolis

In the three years since I’d last visited, Nanjing seemed little changed. It still seemed the sprightly, agreeable city I’d encountered the first time. The Nanjing metro was still wonderfully clean and efficient, with a second east-west line having opened in 2010. The streets around the old town were still vibrant and the noodle shops still looked as inviting as ever. There was none of the overwhelming enormity associated with some of the more substantial Chinese cities, though Nanjing could hardly be described as petite. Indeed, though the city is developing rapidly, with a current population of over 8 million, there is still a sense that Nanjing is a manageable and rather livable city by Chinese standards.

There was, however, one thing that had changed since the last time, and at 450 metres tall, it wasn’t hard to miss. The Zifeng Tower, opened on 18th December 2010, had transformed the Nanjing skyline, becoming the seventh tallest building in the world and the second tallest building in China in the intervening years. It was yet another example of what that aforementioned intrigued Western media would probably call the “Chinese Boom”, where Shanghai and Beijing were not the only cities in a headlong rush to compete with the rest of the world, but provincial capitals such as Nanjing, Hangzhou, Wuhan and Guangzhou were competing with each other for a piece of the action.

The efficient modern metropolis competing on a global scale is now the goal of second-tier cities such as Nanjing. While arriving at that point before the competition beats you to it is an essential part of the plan. Why build industrial parks and skyscrapers in Nanjing, for example, if by the time the projects are finished, the investment needed to make them viable has set up 200 km down the road in Hangzhou? Hence the speed of this current phase of Chinese development. The world is banging on the door of the development party and China’s cities are clambering over each other to be the first to pass the wine and nibbles.

Panoramic of the Nanjing skyline, showing Zifeng Tower on the right and other skyscrapers under construction

Panoramic of the Nanjing skyline, showing Zifeng Tower on the right

The only way is up

In 2010 alone, not only did Nanjing see the opening of Zifeng Tower and its second metro line, but Nanjing South Railway Station was opened, connecting the city to the high-speed railway network on both the Beijing–Shanghai and the Shanghai–Wuhan–Chengdu lines and becoming, it is claimed, the largest railway station in Asia in terms of size. Line 3 of the metro system began construction in January 2010, with the aim of having a full 600 km, 17 line system in operation by the year 2030. A brief look at a list of Nanjing’s proposed and under construction skyscrapers shows six buildings over 60 stories tall that will change the Nanjing skyline forever. Add to that the shopping malls, luxury hotels and Louis Vuitton stores springing up all over the place, and Nanjing’s primping and priming to woo its would-be suitors has never seemed so frantic.

It is too early to say how long this Chinese development frenzy will continue. There are signs of a development slowdown. Clouds of doubt as to its sustainability are gathering off the coast. Yet in cities like Nanjing – cities in which you can feel the heat of the frenzy – any such notions amid the cacophony of cranes and construction seem absurd.

China’s “southern capital” has seen its share of setbacks over the centuries, but despite it all, it has remained one of China’s most important and likeable cities throughout. Now, as the skyscrapers rise and the tunnels are dug, this historic city is looking towards the next hundred years and working to securing its future as a 21st century powerhouse. On the ground, Nanjing looks as likely as any to make the transition without losing its soul in the process.

Related Post: To read more about development in China, click on tag: china development and check out the posts.

Nanjing skyline seen from Yuhuatai Memorial Park

The Nanjing skyline seen from Yuhuatai Memorial Park

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