By Matthew Yglesias
This morning I’m leaving Dalian for Beijing. Of course you can’t really understand a place in the few days I’ve spent here, but what you can say based on three nights in this city is that it’s a very pleasant place. Quite prosperous and not nearly as much of a madhouse as Shanghai. It’s a modest-sized city with I think about 1.2 million people in the urban area proper and has a much higher air quality than the other two Chinese cities I’ve seen or what one generally hears about China. The traffic is also reasonably well-behaved. In a sort of interesting twist for a westerner, it’s a very prosperous and very internationalized city, but its main business links are with Japan and South Korea so it’s also very Asian.
This is also, I believe, the only part of China that was really colonized in the recent past. The essential basis of the city is the old Russian port of Port Arthur (actually a ways to the south of where the modern city is) that Japan took over after the Russo-Japanese War and then the Soviets took back after World War II and then handed back over to China in the mid-fifties. Consequently, some of the older stuff in the city has cyrillic signage and there’s a “Russian Street” near the core of downtown. They say that during the summer a substantial number of tourists from the Russian Far East still come to the beaches here and the cuisine is a bit Japan-esque to my eye/tongue.
What sort of doubly-distinguishes Dalian’s economic development from the rest of coastal China is for one thing a much heavier emphasis on IT as opposed to manufacturing and also a greater emphasis from city officials on environmental protection and “livability.” This is attributed in the city’s narrative about itself to the vision of former local party boss Bo Xilai who’s considered a big rising star in Chinese politics (apparently in China a 60 year-old politician can qualify) and has since been dispatched to run Chongqing the largest and most important city of western China and one that I gather is considerably less prosperous and functional than the coastal areas. That in turn is an interesting aspect of the Chinese system, sort of as if doing a really good job as governor of Massachusetts would get you dispatched to go try to clean up Illinois state government. That seems like a good idea in many ways, and the switcheroo reflects the next phase of where the Chinese government is trying to go with its development—more “spreading the wealth around” to non-coastal areas, and more emphasis on the coast in improving quality of life rather than building factories everywhere.