GIANT INTEGRATION: The Liaohe Bridge, which links six coastal cities of Liaoning Province, opened in September 2010 (SONG YAN)
To many people, northeastern China's Liaoning Province may seem like frontier land. In fact, Gu Chunli, Vice Mayor of Anshan, a city of more than 3 million, said he worries the winter weather in his town may be so cold, tourists will be loath to stay overnight. And when temperatures plummet below zero and the biting Siberian wind slips under doors and creeps through layer upon layer of protective clothing, it seems he may have a point.
A mountainous territory of brief summers and bitter winters, Liaoning is wedged between North Korea and China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Its population ranks near the middle on a list of China's 34 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, and its largest city and capital, Shenyang, has just over 5 million urban residents, a number that pales in comparison to some of China's more southern hyper-metropolises, like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
And until recently, the story of Liaoning was the story of a province that was left behind, as the world moved ever forward.
A once-great province
Liaoning, which borders Jilin Province to the northeast, Hebei Province to the southwest and the Bohai and Yellow seas to the south, was once the heart and soul of industrial China. Home to some of the nation's largest raw mineral and natural gas deposits, it exploited these advantages to become an industrial powerhouse, focusing heavily on the coal, petroleum and steel industries. Liaoning Province, the birthplace of China's first bike, elevator and fighter plane, was a land dotted with mines, refineries and factories.
But, much like the American Rust Belt or Germany's Ruhr District before that, lagging technology and a shifting economic landscape put industry-dependent Liaoning in a tough spot.
In 1978, China adopted its reform and opening-up policy and the nation experienced an almost exponential economic explosion. Within 30 years, the Chinese economy grew more than 100 times bigger and overtook Japan's as the second largest in the world, in terms of GDP, just last year. Most of this economic outburst took place after 1990 and was centered largely on the southern coastal regions, far from the country's once-great industrial epicenter. And while all of this excitement occurred, Liaoning's economy struggled to survive.
According to information from The Telegraph, 27 percent of China's GDP in 1990 came from primary industry, like the mining and refining Liaoning was famous for. By the time 2003 rolled around, that number had plummeted to just over 12 percent; it's even lower now. During that same span, Liaoning's GDP tumbled in relation to China's other provinces, from fourth in 1978 to seventh in 1998 and, finally, to eighth in 2007. In the early years of the 21st century, more than 15 million workers were laid off in Liaoning.
It was against this backdrop of economic hardship that the Liaoning Provincial Government proposed a new vision for the future. In 2003, the government pitched a plan to create what came to be called the Shenyang Metropolitan Area.
Feng Guisheng, Director of the Liaoning Regional Economy Research Center, said the government's plan was intended to accelerate a regional economic rebound.
"The establishment of the Shenyang Metropolitan Area will surely promote integration and make this area one of the most important city clusters in China," he said.
A northern metropolis
The plan called for a semi-radical reconfiguration of the provincial economic structure that would establish Liaoning as an international center of new industry. Moving forward, Liaoning would become a hub for, among other things, the new energy, marine, new drug, information, new materials, and hi-tech service industries.
In order to get the most out of economic restructuring, it was decided that some of Liaoning's major cities should become highly integrated. Over the following five years, eight cities—Shenyang, Anshan, Tieling, Fushun, Benxi, Yingkou, Liaoyang and Fuxin—joined up and the vision became a reality. Major highway, subway and high-speed rail projects, aimed at linking the cities more efficiently, are nearing completion, and a glance at a map of the area reveals an image that looks like a wheel with spokes. Shenyang, the geographically central provincial capital, is surrounded by the other seven cities, and five major "belts"—the spokes of the wheel—link Shenyang to Fuxin, Tieling, Fushun, Benxi and Yingkou. The other cities lie in the path of, or very near, these belts.
Along the belts, dozens of "new cities" have sprung up, many of which are focused on distinct industries of their own. The Shenyang-Benxi New City, for instance, specializes in biological medicines and technology, while the Dadaowan New City is concentrated on advanced iron and steel processing. Other new cities are focused on ecology, agriculture, chemistry, architecture and numerous other subjects.
When the infrastructure for the Shenyang Metropolitan Area is completed, a trip from Shenyang to any of the outlying cities by car will take no longer than 30 minutes. Zhao Xiaoman, Director of the Provincial Development and Reform Commission, said that of the many achievements made within the context of the metropolitan area, this one stands out.
"The most important of these achievements is the improved transportation," she said. "It has decreased travel times between cities and broadened the area's professional development potential, therefore boosting the local economy."
In addition to simplifying inter-city travel, the metropolitan area will introduce a unified household registration system to permit free movement within the area. This will allow people to commute back and forth from work to home and will make it possible for someone to work in Shenyang while living in an outlying city, where housing prices remain lower.
While the Liaoning Provincial Government hopes to make life in the province easier for locals, it is also hoping to gain the attention of non-residents, as well. The consolidation of the area should also boost tourism, as different cities will be better prepared to coordinate trips for visitors and Liaoning will be better able to present a single, cohesive picture of the province in advertisements. Local leaders hoping to promote regional tourism drew inspiration from some of the country's—and the world's—tourism hotspots.
"We looked to parts of France and Italy as a model for Dalian, while we used China's own Hainan as a model for oceanic tourism," said Ying Zhongyuan, Director of the Liaoning Provincial Tourism Bureau.