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Why Wuxi is not your ordinary Chinese city

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Peter Ford

(Read caption) A man fishes outside the office of Wuxi's 5-30 incentive program which has brought dozens of foreign-educated Chinese scientists to the city. The city of 5 million people is unknown outside China, but it is seeking to escape its national image as one of the worst polluters in China.

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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. 

Once, the worst polluter in China

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

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