DENG HONG’S AMBITION, according to a Chinese newspaper, was to build a city inside a single building; a “temperature-controlled paradise”. Last September his dream edifice, the New Century Global Centre, formally opened in the south-western city of Chengdu (pictured). China’s official media call it the world’s largest building. Its centrepiece is a shopping mall of such arresting dimensions that many visitors pause on arrival to take souvenir photographs. It boasts a 300-metre indoor beach, a skating rink and an IMAX cinema. The Chinese often say that theirs is a country of too many people and too little land. The cavernous Global Centre building begs to differ.
Mr Deng did not attend the launch ceremony. He was in custody, suspected of being involved in a corruption scandal that has also ensnared a former mayor of Chengdu, who in turn may be linked to an even bigger case linked to a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, Zhou Yongkang. Mr Deng’s troubles are an uncomfortable reminder of the perils of hubris. Massive buildings help to boost local officials’ egos and brand their cities. According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, an American industry association, China has about 200 skyscrapers over 250 metres tall, four times as many as America. Close to Mr Deng’s building is an office complex reminiscent of Beijing’s “bird’s nest” stadium that cost 1.2 billion yuan ($175m) to build. It was supposed to become the city government’s headquarters, but after a public outcry over its extravagance its leaders decided to move to more modest buildings nearby.
The Global Centre, though, is also a monument to an increasingly essential ingredient of China’s economic development: consumption on a scale that helps to lessen the country’s dependence on infrastructure investment as an engine of growth. China’s leaders want citizens to save less and spend more. Mr Deng’s brainchild is a proud declaration by a local government far inland that it wants a consumer culture like that in megacities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. The capital’s most iconic new structures are stadiums, office buildings and a colossal egg-shaped centre for the performing arts. Chengdu’s is a jaw-dropping shopping experience.
Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, is a “second-tier” city, a loosely defined category that includes most provincial capitals; yet it is rapidly gaining the “first-tier” status of Shanghai, 1,600km (1,000 miles) to the east. That suits China’s leaders, who are trying to boost consumption in regions that have fared less well in China’s almost uninterrupted boom of the past 35 years. Thanks to massive government investment since the turn of the 21st century, the gap between the wealthy east and the far less developed west of China has narrowed. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, a sister organization of this newspaper, average GDP per person in China’s western provinces in the late 1990s had dropped to about one-third the figure in the nine eastern coastal provinces; but by 2012 it had recovered to more than half, the highest level since China launched its economic reforms in the late 1970s.
Read more at The Economist.