There’s Something About Chengdu

Earlier this week, I asked Ge Honglin, the mayor of Chengdu, what incentives his city had to offer foreign companies wishing to relocate here.

Can companies get subsidies? Low-interest loans? Tax breaks?

His answer surprised me. I expected a few vague promises, maybe some obfuscations, some exaggerations.

I got none of that.

“Frankly, Chengdu can’t offer the same kinds of incentives as some other cities are offering,” he told a room full of visiting foreign journalists.

Yang is a technocrat. He started out his career as an engineer, and seems not to have learned the art of hype and public relations. Instead, he tells it like it is.

At the Bookworm the next night – the town’s favorite gathering place for expats – a local business executive told me that Ge was the best mayor in China.

The mayor has to be doing something right.

The city has a third of the population of neighboring Chongqing. It’s located in a basin, and a perpetual bank of clouds seems to hang over it. The city itself is flat, and full of gray, dull buildings.

But there’s something about the place.

It’s got the fifth largest airport in China, and ranks third in the number of cars people drive, according to Zen Chen, general manager of the local European Union Chamber of Commerce. It’s a major draw for high-tech firms, for foreigners, and even for foreign restaurants. About 11 percent of the city’s GDP comes from tourism. Over 25 million tourists came to the city during the first half of the year, a 15 percent increase over last year, according to the latest government data. The number of foreign tourists went up 41 percent, to almost half a million, for the first nine months of the year.

The city consistently ranks in the top ten for livability and business climate.

It welcomes outsiders like few other cities in the region, said Zen.

For example, Chengdu has twice the number of Starbucks as Chongqing.

According to Ge, 120 of the Global Fortune 500 have offices or branches in Chengdu – including 14 foreign banks.

From what I heard, the city is focusing firmly on the basics – and not the unnecessary frills. On education, for example. On building a new subway system. On making it easier to commercialize farming. On helping out the rural underclass. On protecting the environment.

I heard from locals that, in years past, the air was so full of pollution that the sun could never get through. Today, I’m told that a nice bright sun will sometimes burn away the clouds and you can see blue skies.

I saw the Panda Research Center – a world-class facility. The pandas had beautiful habitats, very much in keeping to what you would see in the best zoos in the West.

But I was constantly surprised by how little hype and selling was involved. Sure, there was a tiny little alcove where you could buy a stuffed panda, but with 500,000 visitors a year to this facility alone (60% foreign), I would have expected to have been besieged on all sides by people looking for a piece of my wallet.

If this center had been anywhere else, it would have been difficult to walk out without panda T-shirts, panda books, panda jig saw puzzles, panda DVDs. And where was the panda-themed restaurant and amusement park?

Here, as everywhere else, Chengdu seems understated to the point of humility.

There were no sequins on the clothes in downtown storefronts that I could see – the whole city seems to be classically stylish.

Even the high-end malls in the city center, showing off the latest European fashions, avoid the garish.

The city is also far more intellectual than I expected. The drinkers I met debated Chinese history. The population of expats is small but warm and welcoming. There is a definite vibe of a college town.

Everybody I met here loves Chengdu.

According to the mayor, there’s a saying that once people visit Chengdu, they don’t want to leave.

I’m flying back out to Shanghai on Saturday, and I have to admit that Chengdu is a difficult city to leave.