Wuxi is one of those cities – and there are dozens of them in China – that almost nobody outside the country has ever heard of, but turn out to have nearly 5 million people living in them.
What makes Wuxi even more striking is that the city fathers have pinned their hopes for the future on high tech. That means this is not the sort of town you imagine when you think, “5 million people in a Chinese city.” The air is breathable (indeed the authorities are decommissioning coal-fired power plants near the center of the city), the streets are broad, and many of the suburban districts look like a bucolic Google campus writ large.
Things are not necessarily what they seem, however.
The city’s shiniest success story, until recently, was Suntech, the biggest manufacturer of solar panels in the world. But the company has been hit hard by a downturn in the industry, and saddled with debt has been laying off workers in the past few months.
Still, Wushi has other strings to its bow. While many other Chinese cities have made a name for themselves on the strength of a particular product (“Yiwu – Sock Capital of the World”), Wuxi has broader appeal. For example it has focused on measuring instruments, which nowadays means digital measuring instruments, another high tech business with good export potential.
But all this represents a bid by the city to escape its nationwide image as one of the worst polluters in China. For Wuxi built its prosperity on thousands of chemical factories along the shore of Lake Tai, the third largest freshwater lake in China.
For years they have poured phosphates and other effluents into the lake, sucking out the oxygen and killing the fish and shrimp for which the lake was famous. In 2007 the waters of Lake Tai became so eutrophic they were covered with a thick layer of luminous green, foul-smelling pond scum. More than 2 million people were deprived of cooking and drinking water for nearly a week. Each spring the scum re-forms, though rarely as badly as five years ago.
The local government has repeatedly promised to enforce stricter pollution controls, and repeatedly failed to do so, according to environmental nongovernmental organizations. In fact even as Lake Tai was fouling up in 2007, the best known local activist was being jailed for three years on what he insisted were trumped-up charges of fraud and blackmail. Since he got out of prison, reporting that he had been tortured, he has kept his mouth shut.
It is not hard to see why. The authorities in Wuxi want to present the world with a clean, modern, international image that will attract traders and investors. And anyone who threatens to sully that image by drawing attention to inconvenient truths had better watch out.