The Biggest City You’ve Never Heard Of

Actually, the above headline is not true. If you’re reading our publication, you probably have heard of Chongqing – and heard a lot about it.

If Beijing is China’s Washington, D.C. and Shanghai is New York City, then Chongqing is Chicago.

I used to live in Chicago – the American one. My first journalism job out of college was in the Windy City. Chicago’s heritage is as a frontier town, though it’s pretty civilized these days. I was always nostalgic for the past, however – that feeling of excitement, of being at the frontier, of building something new.

Today, Chongqing is that frontier. It’s the frontier of industrialization, of modernization, a front line in the move from the farm to the city.

Shanghai, with dozens of pizza delivery places and a half-dozen competing English-language city magazines, with its supermarkets and movie theaters, its five-star restaurants and its World Expo, can hardly be considered a frontier any more.

In Chongqing, other than KFC and McDonald’s and hotel restaurants – and how can you escape those? – it’s hard to find a good western restaurant.

But Chongqing is the home of the world’s biggest public toilet, where 1,000 people can answer nature’s call at once.

The Chinese government is investing in highway improvements, the city is developing special economic zones, there’s a monorail in town, and the long-lost twin of the Chrysler Building is going up.

While the rest of China is growing at an average annual rate of 11 percent – Chongqing is growing at 14 percent.

Over 30 million people live in the municipality, making Chongqing one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. Most of these residents live in the countryside, not in the city proper – but that’s likely to change as the city continues its push for industrialization.

Progress comes with a price, of course. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Chongqing is the fifth most polluted city on the planet.

This week, however, the city government announced that it’s most of the way through a project to move 100 polluting factories out of the city – 82 are already gone and the rest will be moved within the next five years, according to the Chongqing Economic Commission.

I’m not sure how effective this plan will be to reduce pollution. After all, an estimated 200,000 people move into the city each year – many of them to work in new factories being built on the outskirts of the city. That’s today’s outskirts – the city is spreading out at a rapid pace.

Beijing and Shanghai are under pressure to clean up because they’re showpieces – the Olympics and the World Expo are bringing in significant attention, but these cities have always been doors to the West. This is where the foreign diplomats and businessmen and journalists set up shop.

Development in Chongqing, however, will be independent of these considerations. It will be a true test case for whether the Chinese government is able to take a tough line on pollution and sustainable development – not for the sake of international perception, but for the sake of the long-term viability of the city.