In 1981, when I first arrived in Nanjing as a student, the ancient and rather sleepy city had a population of four million and a GDP of Rmb 4 billion. Today, the population has doubled to eight million and GDP is two hundred times larger. Yes, you read that right. This year’s GDP will exceed Rmb 850bn. Even by recent Chinese standards, that kind of growth rate for a major city is just about unheard of. Since 1981, Nanjing’s GDP has grown almost twice as fast as China as a whole. It is now richer in per capita terms than Beijing, and its economy continues to expand more quickly than the capital, Shanghai and just about every other major city in the country.
I was back in Nanjing in the last week to visit friends and clients, as well as receive from the Nanjing city government an official appointment as an “investment promotion consultant”. That’s me in the photo above celebrating with Mr. Kong Qiuyun, the cultured an charismatic director-general of Nanjing Municipal Investment Promotion Commission. It’s an especially welcome honor since I consider Nanjing, all these years later, my hometown in China, my “laojia”. Every return is a homecoming.
With or without the official status, saying good things about Nanjing comes easily. It’s a special kind of boomtown. Despite the steep economic ascent over the last 33 years, today’s Nanjing is visibly woven from strands of its 2,500 year-old history as a city at the core of Chinese civilization. Old parks, streets and buildings stand. Though stained by tragedy – including the Nanjing Massacre in 1937 and bloody civil war at the end of the Taiping Rebellion civil war 73 years earlier — Nanjing is a city with a lightness of spirit and an intimate association with Chinese traditional culture of painting, calligraphy, poetry.
There is an ease, prosperity and comfort to life in Nanjing that is largely absent in Beijing. One is built upon the parched steppes below the Gobi Desert. Camel country. The other is set amid China’s most fertile, well-irrigated patch of bottomland –a kind of Chinese Eden, saturated by rivers, lakes, ponds and paddies, where just about everything can be grown or reared in abundance. The city is a symbiosis of man and duck. In a typical year, the people of Nanjing will consume over one hundred million of them. Every trip, including this most recent one, I return to Shenzhen with a suitcase padded out with three or four salt-preserved Osmanthus-scented ducks. Each trip back to the US I carry several with me and deliver them to my father in Florida. Somehow, age 82, he has developed a fine appreciation for them.
Nanjing took awhile to get its economic act together. During much of the 1980s, it was a backwater, trailing far behind the nearby cities of Shanghai and Suzhou as well as the coastal cities of Guangdong and Fujian. Earlier it had a reputation for being not very well-managed. Today the opposite is true.
Nanjing is the most ideally-situated large city in China. It is at the back door of China’s richest, most developed region, the Yangtze River Delta, stretching from Shanghai through Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuxi and Changzhou. It is also now the front door for China’s huge market of the future, the inland regions where growth is now strongest, particularly the provinces of Hubei, Sichuan, Chongqing, Anhui farther up the Yangtze.
Nanjing’s is a large economy but without especially large and dominant companies. Few even in China can name its largest businesses or employers. This sets it apart from Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Tianjin. Credit Nanjing government’s hands-on far-sighted economic management. It’s made up for the lack of large businesses by encouraging the growth of smaller mainly private-sector entrepreneurial businesses, as well as bringing in investment from abroad. Sharp, BASF, A.O. Smith, ThyssenKrupp are among the larger foreign companies with significant investment in Nanjing.
Major American investors are still comparatively few. This needs correcting. I hope to help in my new role as a consultant. Americans in the first half of the 20th century played a conspicuously positive role in Nanjing’s development. US academics and missionaries helped establish the city’s two oldest universities, Nanjing University (where I studied) and Nanjing Normal University. They remain the rock-solid backbones of Nanjing’s outstanding university system with over 25 institutions of higher learning.
An American team of architects and urban designers were responsible for creating the layout of much of the modern city of Nanjing, including the city’s main shopping district of Xinjiekou. The city was designed to combine elements of Paris and Washington D.C., with wide boulevards, stately traffic roundabouts like the Place de l’Etoile, and an elegant diplomatic quarter with large mansions spread along arching plane tree-shaded streets.
During the pre-1949 era, American companies were the most prominent and successful businesses in Nanjing. Two in particular – Socony (then the world’s leading petroleum company, a part of the Rockefeller Standard Oil group, and now ExxonMobil.) and British American Tobacco – managed large operations in China from their headquarters in Nanjing. They were then among the largest companies in China of any kind. They left in 1949 never to return to Nanjing and their previous prominence.
An individual American, a long-term resident of Nanjing, wrote while there the most popular and influential book about China in English. It was then made into a successful film which etched in the minds of many Westerners the enduring image of China’s Confucian values and pre-revolution rural poverty. Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth” was for years a best-seller and played an influential role in winning her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. *
To my thinking, America has an unfulfilled destiny in Nanjing. It’s a smart place for smart capital to locate. In modernizing, it has kept its soul intact.
* For sharing his rich and consummate knowledge of America’s multi-facetted engagement with Nanjing in the first half of the 20th century, I’m indebted to John Pomfret. John’s book “Chinese Lessons”, about his years as a student at Nanjing University and the lives thereafter of his Chinese classmates, is as good as anything published about China’s remarkable transformation these last thirty years. You can read more about the book, and about John, by visiting http://www.johnpomfret.org/