AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Time again for the NPR Cities Project.
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CORNISH: China became a majority urban country this year. More than half of the people now live in urban areas. There is no country where people have moved from the countryside to the cities more quickly than in China. Here in the U.S., we've often heard about the rapid growth of cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. Today, we go to a place that's not nearly so well known but with more people than New York City.
Here to tell us about this city is NPR's Frank Langfitt. And, Frank, exactly where are you in China?
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, right now, I'm in the downtown area of Wuhan. It's a city of about of 10 million along the Yangtze River. It's about 750 miles inland from Shanghai by train. And to give you sense of the growth of population, if you went back to the '80s, there were may be three-some-million here. Now, were at about 10 million. And these kind of cities here in central and inland China are where the growth is happening in the country today.
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LANGFITT: Right now, I'm looking out on what's going to be one of the city's first subway lines. And if you can imagine New York City or Chicago without a subway or an L, that's kind of what traffic is like right now in Wuhan. And so, there's a big focus on infrastructure and trying to catch up with all this growth.
CORNISH: So, with that kind of population growth, what does that mean for the economy?
LANGFITT: A lot. I mean, I've been working my way around town and I was talking to a planning official. And he said growth here now is averaging about 12.5 percent. And GDP should double in the next five years. And what you're seeing driving in is a mix of things. You have a lot cheaper land here than you do in a place like Shanghai or Beijing, lower wages. And there are also a lot of universities, so there is a better labor pool. And what you're seeing is more Chinese and foreign companies setting up shop here. There's also a growing consumer market that they want to tap.
And so, the key to kind of managing this growth, though, really is the infrastructure, and particularly transportation.
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LANGFITT: Wuhan has public transport. It's got thousands of taxis. It's got public buses. I just stepped on its light rail and people on the train appreciate it. But they say traffic is still really bad in this town and they're really looking forward to having a subway.
Here's a guy I just talked to named Mr. Jiang.
JIANG WEI: (Foreign language spoken)
LANGFITT: Developed cities all have subway systems, Mr. Jiang says, and Wuhan needs to join the rank of big international cities.
Jiang Wei is 29 and sells construction materials. He says his trip today would take two hours by car. Jiang says he can't wait until the subway opens.
WEI: (Foreign language spoken)
LANGFITT: I'll definitely stop driving and instead take the subway, he says.
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LANGFITT: Wuhan's growth is drawing people from different parts of the country. Right now, I'm standing at the foot of a light rail station and I've just met a man named Abdullah, and he's from western China. And it took him several days to get here by train. And he set up a tent in the rain and he's selling dates and nuts to commuters.
ABDULLAH: (Through Translator) The wage level in my hometown is very low. We grow walnuts, grapes and dates and they sell very well here.
LANGFITT: Abdullah is listening to music from his native Xinjiang autonomous region. He came to Wuhan because there's less competition than on China's bustling east coast, but still lots of customers.
ABDULLAH: (Through Translator) Wuhan has lots of money and it's good for my business. Business in Wuhan is great.
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LANGFITT: Chinese migrant workers aren't the only people moving to Wuhan. So are foreign business people. You can find some of them at the Aloha Diner.
JANIE CORUM: My name is Janie Corum.
LANGFITT: Corum moved here from Hawaii nearly nine years ago. She runs a business services company and this diner, where the Texas size burger comes on toasted focaccia and a surfboard hangs over the bar. Corum runs the local American Chamber of Commerce. She says U.S companies here include Cummins, the giant engine manufacturer, and more are on the way.
CORUM: Well, I know General Motors is getting ready to come in but - that's going to be a big operation. TRW just came in. General Electric has a large contingency here in central China, particularly in Wuhan.
LANGFITT: China's east coast is no longer a cheap place to do business, so companies are increasingly looking inland to cut costs. Panalpina is a global logistics firm, which helps companies move freight by air and sea. It moved its China back-office services to Wuhan several years ago.
Beat Rohrer - a Swiss executive who runs that back-office operation - explains why.
BEAT ROHRER: The talent pool and the lower cost in terms of salaries and rent were the two predominant factors. Wuhan has over 60 universities and roughly one million students. We probably operate at about one third of the cost that you would spend in Shanghai.
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LANGFITT: I met a few of the city's many students at a Chinese restaurant to see what they make of Wuhan. Yun Peng studies at Central China Normal University. He's interning with a headhunter who recently helped Amazon hire about 200 workers for an operations center here.
Yun came from western China to study. But now he has a local girlfriend and plans to stay.
YUN PENG: (Through translator) I've spent seven years here and now I'm emotionally attached to the place. I also see opportunities in this city, which is very important. It's urbanized quickly in recent years. You can see, and even predict, that there will be more and more opportunities.
LANGFITT: But some of Yun's fellow interns are looking to move on to cities where life is better and there's more to do. Wuhan's rapid growth is taking a toll. In June, a post-apocalyptic smog enveloped the city, sparking fears there'd been an industrial accident.
Wang Lulu is applying for jobs near Shanghai. She says people in Wuhan still fight to get on the bus and refuse to give up seats to elderly passengers. She thinks east coasters are more polite.
WANG LULU: (Through translator) There's a lot more greenery there than here in Wuhan. Secondly, the personality of people there is milder. People interact in a more refined and courteous way.
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LANGFITT: When I was talking to the students, they said there are more fun things to do these days in Wuhan. They directed me to a place called Han Street, and here I am. It opened about six months ago. It's a giant shopping street about maybe several football fields long and it's full of faux European architecture and it's loaded with foreign brands. Right now I can see H&M. Down the street is Marks and Spencer. There's a Dairy Queen, a Haagen-Daz, you name it.
I bumped into Yu Xiaoqin. She's a 24-year-old cashier who works at a steakhouse here. She thinks Han Street is great.
YU XIAOQIN: (Through translator) Actually, most people came here to see this kind of European architecture because before in Wuhan, we didn't have much.
LANGFITT: The government here bulldozed old dormitories from a state-owned machine factory to make way for Han Street. Many of the people here, to be honest, seem to be wealthier tourists from the east coast. When Yu took a job here, she nearly doubled her salary to 320 bucks a month, but a denim dress down the street at the Gap would cost her a week's salary, so she mostly window shops.
XIAOQIN: (Through translator) I like Marks and Spencer, but I rarely buy things from the store. For me, it's expensive.
LANGFITT: Han Street's a symbol of the ambitions of central Chinese cities like Wuhan and the ambitions of foreign brands that want to tap this emerging market, but people like Yu are also a reminder that most people in this part of China still don't have that much money. And for all of its fast-paced growth, Wuhan remains a work in progress.
At Han Street in Wuhan, China, this is Frank Langfitt for the NPR Cities Project.
CORNISH: You can follow the Cities Project on Twitter @NPR Cities and you can contribute photos from the heart of your city. Go to NPR.org/NPRCities to learn how. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.