It's China's third largest all-weather international port, the biggest on the mainland. It's also a major industrial hub, of heavy and hi-tech machinery. It has a petroleum refinery, and a shipyard that accounts for more than half of China's exported ships. Its football team has won nearly every national championship for the past decade. And it's also one of China's best-known summer resorts, where even Beijing bigwigs congregate whenever they feel the need to unwind.
This is Dalian. Meet its mayor, Bo Xilai. Bo and his glittering city - perched on the northeastern coastal province of Liaoning - reflect the faces of a new, resurgent China. Born in 1949 - the year the communist state was founded - the 51 years sit lightly on Bo's lanky, western-suit attired frame. In his eight years as mayor, the energetic man has single-handedly transformed the grey industrial port town into a glittering, squeaky-clean metropolis that rivals, if not beats, Rio, Tokyo and San Francisco.
He's the man responsible for actually bringing down the region's average temperature by a few degrees, simply by greening a few million square metres in and around the city. He's the man who's built 100 million new homes, 3,00,000 of which were sold at one-fourth the cost to deserving residents.
He's also the man whose offer of $5,000 to each official who brings in a foreign contract worth $500,000 or more had nearly 8,000 foreign companies vying for entry each year. "If you are not fussy about doing any kind of a job, I can promise you a job in 48 hours," Bo claims. Which is why there were few murmurs when he closed down over a dozen bankrupt state-run firms. Almost all the employees were absorbed by the booming job market - where nearly 3,000 new jobs are created every day.
"The task of my generation," says Bo, "is to make China strong and rich. Our aim is to promote the good life, to pursue happiness, openness and reform." So far, he has more than delivered.
"With a history less than 100 years, Dalian is young and energetic. She takes pride in the sweetest apples, freshest abalone, finest diamonds and best seaport in China. She is called the 'Football City', 'Fashion City' and 'Home of Track and Field'," remarks an official, pride barely masked in his voice.
As for India, Bo seems to subscribe to the traditional Chinese notion of it being a "western heaven". And he's keen to visit the country at the earliest opportunity, since "after all, it's the birthplace of the Buddha".
Way back in 1984, as part of Deng Xiaoping's reform movement, Dalian was declared an economic-development zone. Basically, it allowed the city to independently approve investment projects of up to $30 million without going through the red tape of seeking provincial authorisation. But until Bo became mayor in 1992, things had moved slowly. Bo would have none of that. In the first year of his taking office, he went to Hong Kong, then still a British colony, and returned with contracts worth nearly US $3 billion. Subsequent trips to South Korea and Japan brought equally promising returns. In just two years, foreign investments exceeded the total of the eight previous years. "The people of Dalian are good-natured, straightforward and open-minded. A modern temperament keeps them always forging ahead. We welcome friends from all over the world to share the pleasures of developing Dalian." This is how Bo sells his city to would-be investors.
Some years ago, his decision to lead a 300-strong business delegation to the US raised a few eyebrows among his colleagues, who felt it would be an immense waste of time and money. The team returned with over $1 billion worth of business. But even if they hadn't, explains Bo, the exposure would have been worth it. "I explained to them (the delegation) that it didn't matter if they did business or not, they could play tourist, practice their English, look around and taste McDonald's." Today, McDonald's is a familiar name in the city.
The Chinese describe Bo as a 'princeling', since he is the son of Bo Yibo, a former vice-premier, a man who had participated in the Long March, and was a close associate of Mao. But his father was jailed as a "capitalist sympathiser" during the cultural revolution, and Bo too spent five years in prison. On his release, he acquired a Master's in journalism from the Academy of Social Sciences. Then, in 1984 he was appointed party secretary of Jinxian province. After he transformed the province into a fashionable tourist resort, he was made deputy mayor of Dalian. Four years later, he was mayor.
Critics wonder whether Mao would have approved of the way the younger Bo runs his city. But the fact is that Mao's portraits, if any, are eclipsed by the neon signs and kfc and Intel hoardings.
So where's the catch? For one, no one is granted a residence permit in Dalian unless he or she happens to be a graduate, and under 45. Bluntly put, the unproductive are unwelcome. But accuse Bo of being discriminatory, and he has a ready response. Explains an aide: "Look at it this way. We're actually encouraging young people to study. We are sending out the message: if they want to live the good life, they must have the necessary qualifications. What's wrong with that?"
In a nightclub atop the Shangri La hotel, three young Filipino women belt out raunchy rock songs. "If this is communism, gimme more," murmurs an American businessman who's arrived to explore the possibilities of opening up an office in Dalian.
Expressing surprise over the fact that he didn't have to grease any palms to get an audience with Bo, he notes that the same is not true for Shanghai, China's other big port town. In fact, Bo's set up hotlines throughout Dalian for people who have any complaints against civic authorities. And officials found guilty are meted out quick and harsh punishments.
If there's one thing Bo is proud of showing off to visitors, it's the musical fountains that dot his domain. All are operated by remote control from his office. Press a few buttons and the fountains swing into song: Beethoven, Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky, even Venga Boys.
But how does Bo reconcile this open worship of capitalism with communism? "Good life is not the monopoly of capitalism," he retorts. "We too have the right to pursue happiness and well-being. Good food, good housing, good education, don't we deserve it? We pursue our ideas but we pursue the good life too. Does that make us any less patriotic or nationalistic? Why call us copycats? Communism, after all, is meant to give happiness: that's what we're doing." No one's complaining.
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