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Developing the Last Virgin Island

China's economic engine is set to go offshore as the government eyes the country's last virgin island for development.

Chongming Island is located at the Yangtze River's mouth, near Shanghai, and is the third largest island in China. With the Huangpu River to the south, Chongming overlooks the Baoshan District where China's giant steel manufacturer Baosteel is located, and the Pudong New Area where Shanghai's new icon is taking shape.

Under the draft development plan, which has been submitted to the Shanghai municipal government for approval, Chongming, with an area of 1,225 square kilometres, one-fifth of Shanghai's total area, will be built into a centre of tourism, ecology, scientific and technological research, and serve as a bridge linking the Yangtze River Delta and the north, by the year 2020.

It is regarded as a key strategic step for Shanghai's development in the new century, and follows its successful development in Pudong since 1990s.

"Chongming Island will be developed into an ecological island and holiday centre, a base of international organizations and ecological agriculture," said Sun Lei, vice-governor of Chongming County.

"Our long-term goal is to create an important strategic space for sustainable development of Shanghai in the 21st century, and develop into an important industrial base, a recreation and tourism base, as well as an ecological demonstration zone," said Sun.

The focus will expand to other fields such as trade, a nautical transfer station, exporting and processing and environmental-friendly agriculture.

The plan has been designed with a specific approach for different areas of the island.

The central area, which boasts Chongming Dongping Forest Park, will become the core area in the future featuring seasonal forest sceneries and a recreational centre.

The northern part, overlooking neighbouring Jiangsu Province, is planned for high-tech research centres and large-scale projects such as theme parks and sports centres. The wetlands will be preserved for ecological agriculture.

The southern area, the current location of Chongming's downtown, will be developed into environmental-friendly residential areas.

The western part which boasts tranquil lakes and natural charms is designed for facilities of international conferences and the location of international organizations.

The eastern part, where Dongtan wetlands are located and a resting place for birds migrating between Siberia and Australia, will be preserved as a showcase of the island's friendly ecological environment.

"This is smart growth in action," said Philip Enquist, a planning partner from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill which took part in preparing the development blue print.

"Shanghai is taking a bold step to embrace growth without sacrificing Chongming Island's agriculture, wildlife or ecology. It's the right thing to do, whether it's in the growing cities of Southeast Asia or the expanding suburbs of the United States," said Enquist.

"Chongming is a late-comer to the development of the outskirts areas of Shanghai because of the transportation inconvenience," said Jiang Fuming, director of Chongming Ecological Island Research centre from Tongji University.

The transportation bottleneck will be eased when a project composing of a cross-river tunnel and an expressway is completed.

The project has been approved by the State Council and is scheduled to start this month.

The total investment is estimated to top 12.3 billion yuan (US$1.48 billion) according to Hu Jun, vice-head of Chongming County.

The total length of the cross-river bridge will be 25.5 kilometres.

The project is designed to start from Pudong and extend across the Changxing Island to Chenjia in Chongming County.

More expressways are also planned to form a road network on the island by 2020.

"It will only take 45 minutes to reach Shanghai's downtown area or the coastal cities in Jiangsu Province from Chongming," said Hu.

Currently it takes two hours to reach the main land and in bad weather it takes longer. Once bridges and tunnels connect to the island, sea transportation might be cut completely.

But there are problems. The island lacks skilled workers.

"Chongming is a place focusing on education. About 2,000 high school students from the island go to universities all over the country every year. But Chongming only receives back less than 10 university graduates every year," said Zhou Weijie, vice-head of Chongming County.

"A majority of senior governmental officials of Chongming are borrowed from governmental departments of Shanghai. Most of them will work in Chongming for three or four years," said Zhou.

Shanghai's decision to fully develop the isolated island will surely bring more tourists.

Song Youfa, a 70-year-old local islander, runs a busy family restaurant.

His three-storied house is a destination for tourists from Shanghai and the neighbouring cities. The tourists arrive to enjoy the countryside sceneries and special dishes.

Song also took pride in his experience of hosting President Hu Jintao on July 27.

Song is not alone in Qianwei Village in receiving tourists. Most villagers are engaged in such family-style restaurants.

A row of three-storied premises stand by a river overlooking reeds that sway in the breeze and white egrets fly over the wetlands. To protect the ecological environment, all the villagers build their houses in a designated area.

The village launched an eco-tour programme called "Happy Farmers' Family" in 1999 and has formed 10 tourist zones.

Not far from their residential area, is located an agriculture park filled with the fragrance of lavenders and peppermint. A landfill gas generator disposes of human and poultry waste.

Instead of building factories that cause pollution, the village relies on tourism and an ecological agriculture.

However, experts worry that Chongming will have to sacrifice its environment when bringing in industrial projects, which will cause pollution on the fragile ecological system.

"It is true that Chongming needs large investment to carry out its development plan. But we have a strict criteria on bringing in new industries and other projects," said Sun.

Chongming refused Baosteel Co Ltd's proposal to build an automobile dismantling factory on the island recently although China's biggest steel company promised to adopt new technology to lessen the pollution.

"We welcome investments in tourism and ecological agriculture. A theme park such as Disney Park is what we expect," said Sun.

"We will make regulations and any projects and industries to be built in Chongming will comply with laws and be put under strict assessment and supervision by a special group formed by representatives from local government and residents and experts," said Sun.

Another big worry lies in the rapid-growing population, which is expected to grow to 800,000 from the current 600,000 by 2020.

"The growing population and the gradually increasing tourists are not all good news for the island's environment," said Professor Jiang Fuming, director of Chongming ecological island research centre.

"The growing traffic generated by the cross-sea transportation project and the expressway network will cause emissions and air pollution," said Tao Fanghua, an ecological expert from Shanghai Normal University.

"The noise caused by land and air traffic that bring in floods of tourists will cause a passive impact on the environment such as on the migration of birds that visit the island," said a bird watcher who refused to be named.

(China Daily December 2, 2004)

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Chongming Island Opens for Full Development
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Shanghai Municipality
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