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Officials are set on building a world class-city like Singapore or Rotterdam


  Posted April 16, 2004, updated April 19, 2004

It’s an odd experience to drive into Nanjing from Xuancheng, 120 miles to the southwest. After two hours of bumpy and dusty country roads, the quality of the pavement dramatically improves about 60 miles from the center of Nanjing. The cars are also nicer and everyone seems richer. It’s a bit surreal, like entering a movie set.

On the edge of Nanjing, my Xuancheng driver hails a local taxi for me. He’s uncomfortable about driving me into the city. He had earlier said he was not authorized to carry fare-paying passengers. And he doesn’t want to try to dodge the rules in Nanjing, one of China’s most tightly run cities.

Nanjing is where I end this Yangtze River trip. Farther east, cities like Wuxi or Suzhou are already well-known. Moreover, I expect to collect more information here than I can easily digest. Several days earlier, I contacted Zhu Kejun, an official in Nanjing’s Municipal Economic Commission. In the past, Zhu had consistently arranged excellent interviews whenever I had gone to Nanjing. He exceeded expectations this time.

It was Zhu’s boss, the London-educated Kong Qiuyun, who had originally introduced me to him. I had met Kong in 2000 at a China investment conference in Shenzhen, a city near Hong Kong. I have since become a relatively frequent visitor to Nanjing. One trip in 2001 featured a long walk in fields of yellow flowers in the suburbs of Nanjing. Zhu had assured me that the flowers would soon be replaced by chemical plants.

“You were skeptical of our ambitions,” Kong now recalls. Since I first met him, he has been promoted to director of Nanjing’s development office for the petrochemical industry. He says investment in the Nanjing Chemical Industry Park—expected to reach $7.5 billion by next year—is proceeding faster than he had envisaged two years earlier. Much of that investment comes from multinational companies.

I ask Kong if he is worried about the growth of protectionist sentiment in Europe and the U.S. Without hesitation, he says companies all over the world need to lower their production costs to stay competitive. “What would happen to Japanese companies if they all stayed in Japan?” he asks. “Western companies cannot remain competitive without having some of their operations in China.”

The day before going to Kong’s office, Zhu had arranged for me to meet with Xie Chong Xiu, vice director of the chemical park. Trained as a chemist, she has taught chemistry, worked for Chinese and foreign chemical companies, and been on the staff of the Nanjing mayor’s office. She exudes intelligence and competence, traits that hesitant investors must find reassuring.

“I studied chemistry, which is the study of change, so I am interested in history,” Xie says early in our interview. Nanjing has been home to large chemical plants for more than 50 years, and it is one of China’s main oil-refining centers. It therefore makes sense for the world’s chemical companies to find Nanjing an attractive location, she says.

Xie adds modestly that Chongqing may be a better location for processes relying on natural gas and that Shanghai has better port facilities. On the whole, though, she says, “China offers the world’s best investment environment.” Her staff of 80 strives to provide services as comprehensive as those offered by similar organizations in Singapore, Rotterdam, or Houston.


Later that day, Zhu arranges an interview with Yang Shou Hai, president and chief executive officer of the Red Sun Group. The interview takes place in the evening, the only time Yang can fit me in. Before meeting Yang, I have dinner with Bobby Deng and some of his staff who are in charge of exporting Red Sun’s products. Deng suggests we drink a strong liquor, but I convince him that beer is preferable. I am wary of Gaoliang, a clear liquid that is 60% alcohol.

During dinner, we talked about Red Sun’s difficulty registering its products in some developed countries. Red Sun exports a wide range of generic pesticides that are supposed to have minor environmental impact. Deng wonders whether the agencies regulating pesticides in developed countries are influenced by multinational companies. In his mind, it is in the farmers’ best interest to have access to wide range of agrochemical sources.

Soon after we return to Red Sun’s offices, Yang walks into the conference room where we are waiting for him. He has not changed much since I first met him in 2000. Yang is still a one-man tsunami who does not like wasting time. At a lunch meeting two years earlier, Yang had pointed to one of his startled employees and told him to prepare to go to England to study business administration. That employee, I now find out, is indeed completing his studies in England.

The interview with Yang is the most difficult of my whole trip. Not only does Yang have a lot to say, but his group manufactures far more products than when we first met. The beer I drank at dinner is not helping any, and I am moreover unfamiliar with the Chinese names of the chemicals that Red Sun makes. But Deng surprises me. We had spoken Chinese throughout dinner. I now find out his English is not bad and that his head is much clearer than mine. He knows key words—like glyphosate, ephedrine, and pyridine—that were not covered in my Chinese studies. Without his help, the interview would have been a disaster.

The next day, Kong accompanies me to Sun Yat Sen’s tomb. I am surprised by his generosity as I know that he’s extremely busy. Sun Yat Sen, the father of modern China, led the 1911 revolution that overthrew the emperor. He later made Nanjing the capital of China and asked to be buried there. His tomb is the center of an immense oasis of greenery within Nanjing. It’s my third visit there.

It’s Thursday, a weekday, and not many people are visiting the tomb. The sun is shining, and the weather is warm. It’s a nice way to end a long trip.

[Back to Chronicling the Yangtze River]

  Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2004

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