The Geopolitics of the Yangtze River: Wuhan’s Rise

In a sense, Wuhan is the heart of modern China. It is not the country’s most important economic or cultural hub, and aside from a brief stint in the 1920s as the Nationalist Party government’s capital, it has never been China’s official political center. But while Wuhan wields less heft than Beijing, Shanghai or Chongqing, its location at the intersection of the country’s most important transport routes gives it a different kind of strategic significance for the Communist Party.

Situated at a bend in the Yangtze River near the geographic center of Han China, Wuhan is a natural transportation crossroads. From west to east, it binds the upper and lower stretches of the Yangtze together, serving as the intermediary for goods passing between the Sichuan Basin — western China’s industrial powerhouse — and the Yangtze River Delta. From north to south, it anchors the Beijing-Guangzhou railway, a 2,324-kilometer-long (1,444-mile-long) trunk line that gives China’s traditional political core, the North China Plain, direct access to the prosperous but historically restive Guangdong province.

Just as important as these national-level axes are the numerous interprovincial infrastructure linkages that converge on Wuhan. These roads, waterways and highways bring goods and people from inland provincial capitals such as Xian, Changsha, Kunming and Zhengzhou down to Wuhan’s ports and, from there, on to Shanghai. The city serves to integrate China’s disparate geographic and economic macro-regions into one coherent economic system and helps enable the central government to enforce political control and social management over these regions.

Wuhan’s Growing Significance

Beijing increasingly recognizes Wuhan’s importance in the evolving system of infrastructure linkages and as a core from which to gradually expand urbanization and industrial activity out into the rural hinterlands.

As a result, Beijing has launched state-level policy initiatives such as the “Rise of Central China” plan inaugurated in 2004 and the Hubei-Jiangxi-Hunan “Central Triangle” development program, which seeks to transform Wuhan, Changsha and Nanchang into one contiguous urban conglomerate to complement the Yangtze River Delta. Through these programs, Beijing has sought to build on Wuhan’s inherent advantages — its location roughly equidistant from both Chongqing and Shanghai; its physical, historical and economic ties to nearby urban centers such as Changsha and Jiujiang; an extremely high per capita distribution of top-level universities and research institutes; and well-established and influential steel and automaking industries, among others — to frame the city as both a driver and a model for future inland development. These efforts are most obviously manifested in Wuhan’s substantial economic growth over the last decade.

Between 2001 and 2011, fixed asset investment into Wuhan (much of it centrally allocated) rose nearly eightfold. Gross industrial output grew by 760 percent over the same period, while local government revenue grew by 680 percent and the city’s gross regional product more than quadrupled. In 2011, 418 million tons of goods passed through Wuhan, an increase of more than 255 million tons from a decade before. More freight passed through Wuhan last year than any other inland city besides Chongqing. (Notably, because Wuhan’s population is one-third the size of Chongqing’s, its per capita freight traffic is actually almost 70 percent higher.) Its economy is now larger than those of Bangladesh, Angola and Morocco. Alone, it contributes almost 35 percent of Hubei’s provincial gross domestic product despite housing only 17 percent of the province’s population.

Wuhan’s story over the past decade is one of unimpeded growth, rapid infrastructure development (on Dec. 12, 2012, the city opened the nation’s first cross-Yangtze River subway, and it plans to have eight metro lines in operation by 2017) and rising living standards (reported per capita income in 2011 was 4.5 times greater than a decade before). But this was not always the case. In fact, over the last half century, the city has seen its fortunes rise and fall in lockstep with changes in the national political and economic climate. For much of the past three decades, as Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening process got under way, local Party leaders in Wuhan have struggled against not only the natural disadvantages facing all inland cities relative to coastal metropolises but also against the direct and indirect burdens imposed by central policies and provincial-level politicking.

A closer look at Wuhan’s history, ancient and modern, helps explain both the particular dynamics of Wuhan’s current “rise” as well as broader elements in Chinese political and economic organization. Wuhan’s many iterations over the years reflect the extremely tight relationship between politics and economy in China, and the ways in which policy — whether at the central or provincial level — has shaped and guided the development of the Chinese economy throughout the Reform and Opening period.

Wuhan and the Evolution of the Middle Yangtze Region

The three cities that together constitute present-day Wuhan have existed in some form for more than 3,500 years and have served as important trading centers in central China since at least the sixth century B.C., when Hanyang (named, like its sister city, Hankou, after the Han River, a major tributary that flows into the Yangtze at Wuhan) emerged as a commercial hub in the prosperous and culturally sophisticated state of Chu. By the third century, the area around Wuhan had become the region’s most important trading center. As the core of the Middle Yangtze region, this area was highly sought after by the competing states of Shu, Wu and Wei, which in 208-209 fought one of the most famous battles in Chinese history, the Battle of Red Cliffs, in the hills outside present-day Wuhan.

Over the next 16 centuries, the Middle Yangtze geographic region — bound to the west by the outer wall of the Sichuan Basin, and to the south, east and north by a patchwork of mountain ranges — further coalesced into a distinct and relatively independent political, economic and cultural unit. In times of dynastic unity, the Middle Yangtze was loosely subsumed under the center’s control through bureaucratic and trade links. In times of disunity, it broke off into its own would-be state. Throughout, Wuhan remained the core around which the region’s economic life revolved. Though the Middle Yangtze at times served as a supplier of raw materials (timber, cotton and grain) to the more advanced Yangtze Delta region, it relied far more heavily on its own internal commercial networks than on inter-regional trade. Like most parts of China before the mid-20th century, the Middle Yangtze had far more to do with itself — economically and culturally — than with other parts of the Chinese Empire.

It is critical to remember the degree to which geography imbued the inhabitants and rulers of China’s regions with a strong sense of historical, cultural and political autonomy. As with the Middle Yangtze region, that autonomy was often undergirded by economic reality. Until recently, China has never had a truly unified economic system. Even today, these deep-seated regional differences manifest in strong competition between provinces for Beijing’s “favor” — government investment and preferential tax policies — and low levels of interprovincial trade. In fact, though Beijing ultimately desires to build a genuinely integrated national economy, it often utilizes its ability, as the center, to exacerbate regional rivalries to solidify its own political and economic influence. Wuhan’s experience over the last half century illustrates this strategy.

When Mao Zedong came to power, he sought to reassert central control over the economy by closing China to foreign trade. This entailed transferring much of the budding industrial plant around China’s major international ports — Shanghai and Guangzhou — to inland provinces, Mao’s primary power base. Some of that industrial plant went northeast in order to reinforce the region’s role as a buffer against invasion via the Korean Peninsula. Much of the rest went to central China, and especially to Wuhan, which Mao quickly transformed into one of the country’s most important industrial bases (founding, in the process, some of contemporary China’s most powerful state-owned enterprises, such as Wuhan Iron and Steel Co.). When Mao died, Wuhan ranked fourth among Chinese cities in terms of fixed asset investment, industrial profits, tax revenue contributions to the central government and gross industrial output.

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