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March 16, 2004


Snapshots from a reporter's river journey reveal today's China


MARCH 15--For several years, readers and members of C&EN's advisory board have been telling us that they want to know more about what is happening in China. They express a desire to read about "China" as much as "China's chemical industry." Interest in what foreign companies are doing in China, by comparison, appears moderate.

It's a tall order to tell readers "what is happening in China." But it's in an attempt to meet these demands that the idea to follow the Yangtze River was born. The method was inspired by C&EN Senior Editor Cheryl Hogue, who last year drove along the Colorado River to report on perchlorate contamination.

Unlike Cheryl's trip, my voyage on and along the Yangtze will not focus on a single topic. But I hope the approach will prove effective in providing a snapshot understanding of what is happening in China, from the comparatively backward hinterland to the prosperous coastal regions.

The Yangtze River is an important link in China's chemical industry. There are numerous chemical companies along the Yangtze's banks that use the river to obtain raw materials or ship out products. Some of these firms are old state-owned companies. Others are much newer.

TRAVEL HUB Boats await passengers for trips down the Yangtze River. PHOTOS BY JEAN-FRANÇOIS TREMBLAY

David S. Jiang, president of Beijing-based chemical industry consulting firm Sinodata, says, "Every city in China wants to make chemicals one of its pillar industries, and many people feel that investing in chemicals will make them a fortune." He adds that several development zones are sprouting up along the Yangtze's banks. "Each of them has a full list of projects for investors."

C&EN's coverage of the Yangtze River will last about a month, from mid-March to mid-April. Readers who know of interesting chemical companies or government organizations along the Yangtze are invited to send their suggestions to me at

The first stop on the itinerary is Chongqing. I came here for the first time in July 2000, when Chongqing had just become the fourth city in China to be directly administered by the central government in Beijing.

The change of status entailed a widening of municipal boundaries. The new Chongqing is vast, representing about a sixth of the area of Sichuan province, of which it used to be a part. Following the geographical enlargement, the population of Chongqing rose to 30 million, though the city proper is home to a more modest 5 million people.

The central government took Chongqing under its wing to channel resources toward the central part of China and to right economic imbalances between the wealthier coastal regions and the hinterland. Beijing is hoping to turn Chongqing into an economic dynamo in central China.

At first glance, Beijing's efforts have not been paying off very quickly. In 2000, there were seven flights per week linking Chongqing and Hong Kong, China's main source of foreign investment. Four years later, there are still only seven flights per week, and the flights are not full. Driving through the city, it does not take long to notice unemployed men sitting in groups on the sidewalks. And the traffic runs quite smoothly in Chongqing, unlike in more developed cities like Shanghai and Beijing where vehicles are often at a standstill.

But there are more encouraging signs. On the opposite bank of the Yangtze, in Nan'an district, an immense restaurant area has sprouted where well-off diners dine al fresco, served by extravagantly uniformed waiters. Hostess bars and karaokes, already prominent four years ago, have grown in size and now lure patrons with huge flashing neon signs. Another indicator of prosperity is that it is difficult to sleep in Chongqing. Taking their cue from Shanghai, construction sites thump late into the night.

SPARKLING Parts of Chongqing are as modern as anywhere else.

The chemical industry is also changing. Southwest Pharmaceutical, a company I visited four years ago, has stopped producing vitamin E as a result of intense competition from companies in other parts of China. On the other hand, a tour of the Chongqing Pharmaceutical Research Institute offered pleasant surprises today. Since the institute was acquired by Shanghai Fosun Industrial in 2001, its capital budget has increased sixfold and the money is mostly spent importing instruments made in the U.S. The institute's general manager, Fu Jie-min, says the new equipment has considerably boosted research capabilities.

For the most part, however, Chonqing appears gray and shabby. Many residents live in picturesque brick homes that are literally falling apart. Seeing what the central government has achieved with Shanghai in fewer than 10 years, it is plausible that the same could be achieved in Chongqing. But a lot still remains to be done.

I will stay in Chongqing this week, and move to Yichang by fast boat over the weekend.

SHABBY The brick homes are cute from a distance but do not look as good up close.


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