In the 1930’s, Hefei had become a backwater regional town in central Anhui with about 30,000 residents.
It was distanced from the bustle of Shanghai just 500 km away, and distanced in time from its importance as a barrier in wars between the north and the south over many dynasties in medieval China. It had been bypassed by the rail link to Shanghai port so its future was uncertain. However, a rail link in 1936 and a decision some 10 years later to make Hefei the capital of Anhui province opened the doors to a renaissance for the quiet administrative centre.
If ever the role of government in growth were doubted, Hefei should be a lesson. Like many Chinese towns that have ‘morphed’ into giant cities, it is not well known outside of China and some specialist communities of scientists. The province of Anhui, is virtually only known outside of China for Huangshan, the magnificent scenery of Yellow Mountain.
By the sixties, Hefei had a population of about 300,000 and a significant chemicals industry. But it was still a provincial town until the opening of its airport in 1977, though even today Hefei’s new airport is ranked only 35th busiest in China.
When I arrived in Hefei in about 1999, I was not sure whether I was in a construction zone or a demolition park. There were still only about 500,000 inhabitants and three hotels for international visitors. More often than not the plane could not land due to the smog assisted fog associated with the high humidity from Hefei’s large lake.
Concrete highways started and stopped in gut wrenching muddy potholed dirt tracks. The concrete just stopping at a crevasse ending in the mud, fortunately at that time foreigners did not drive. Driving techniques for the locals were still more like India, where the 3 survival criteria of good brakes, a good horn and good luck prevailed.
Yet there was a paradox. On an ’island’ in the lake had been established maybe 15 years earlier, an institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, one that was based in fusion research but also curiously, had a division undertaking photovoltaic research.
This was my target as we had agreed to collaborate on solar cells based on artificial photosynthesis. After escaping the dirt tracks we passed a series of brickyards with traditional brick kilns, being progressively shut down (and today being the site of apartment towers), and then discovered a well tarred road lined with trees leading to the security gate and eventually assign recording the role of the World Lab from Switzerland in establishing the fusion capability in China.
And today, after many return visits? Hefei, according to The Economist in 2012,is the world’s number 1 fastest growing metropolitan economy. There are 7 universities. High tech industry is booming. There are maybe 100 international hotels. Drivers generally obey the rules, the highways are first class, everywhere are mini-cities of pleasant apartment towers so unlike the boredom of many other cities, apartment blocks built just 25 years ago are being smashed down by sledgehammers to be replaced by air-conditioned international standard facilities, cars are booming.
Yet hidden in some small alcoves, you can still find the shops and a few stalls and the three wheeled trikes carrying mountains of old plastic or cardboard, or ferrying the locals in the 40 degree sweatbox of summer. I wonder how much longer we will see them among the now nearly 8 million inhabitants of the greater city.