China Medical City (CMC) is a place whose name is in no way a misnomer. In 2005, a 30 square kilometer area north just of the Yangtze River between Shanghai and Nanjing was marked off and designated for the largest medical research center in China. It sits within Taizhou prefecture, splitting its Hailing and Gaogang districts in an area where there is, quite literally, nothing else — well, nothing else anymore. The agricultural villages that dotted this landscape for centuries had already been demolished and cleared away, their residents forced out, paid off, and relocated elsewhere, their fertile fields plowed up, leveled off, and neatly parceled into vacant dirt lots: the ideal canvas to paint a new city.
And a new city is exactly what CMC is meant to be.
This place is a new city specially made for medical and pharmaceutical research and production that is set to be home to 100,000 residents employed in the bio-science fields. Imagine a place that’s half the size of Manhattan full of scientists, lab techs, and pharmaceutical dealers. The vision was to make CMC a global epicenter for medical operations that would integrate all stages of the bio-medical industry together in the same place and host companies and research units from all over the world. In a way, the initiative is not unlike a medical themed version of what the Pearl River Delta (a.k.a The World’s Factory) was in the 90s and early 2000s. ¥100,000,000,000, more than 15 billion US dollars, were earmarked for the development of this project.
The CMC was the kind of all or nothing, larger than the largest, above and beyond type of project that China has become known for over the past fifteen years. It was as though some political demigod whipped out a map of the country, put his finger down between Shanghai and Nanjing, and proclaimed, “Let there be a medical city!” and so there was. Speaking simplistically, this isn’t far from the truth: Taizhou, the prefectural city that the CMC is located within, just happens to be the hometown of Hu Jintao, who was the president of the country at the time the the project was conceived and implemented, and he remained a staunch driving forces behind its development during his time in office. The project is also firmly backed by Li Yunchao, the current vice president of China, who was the party boss of Jiangsu province when the CMC was first conceived.
Though magnitude alone isn’t the only factor which makes this medical complex stand out from similar ones in Hangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing: in 2009 Taizhou’s CMC was 100% put under the direction of the central government. This means that provincial, prefectural, and municipal governments are bypassed when it comes to decision making or financing here. The CMC has its own local government, judicial precinct, and police department. For the businesses that operate here, the advantage is clear: because this is a national level bio-medical facility companies can leapfrog multiple bureaucratic levels and get their drugs directly in front of the CFDA (China’s drug regulation body) for approval. The advantages of this streamlining are obvious.
The plan for China Medical City is to turn it into a complete, self-sustaining, new city — and that’s exactly what it’s becoming. It is divided up into research and production, healthcare, education, business, and residential zones. Skyscrapers of a new central business district are also sprouting up from the development’s eastern sector. In 2014 the CMC is rolling — the scale models and renderings have given way to laboratories, facilities, hospitals, factories, and high-rises. But the place is still only 1/3 built, barely covering 11 of the 30 total square kilometers that have been allotted to it. If you look out from this development in any direction you see seemingly endless expanses of cleared lots, the blank canvases of the new China.
There is no mistaking this place. A large, disk shaped, building designed to look like a skin cell looms near the main entrance. “Inside the halls are made to look like blood vessels.” A giant sign that says, “National medical hi-tech development zone technological enterprise accelerator,” welcomes you in. Though there is no need thinking about whatever this mouthful really means, as on the ground below them are three five foot high letters rising up out of a flower garden: C-M-C. China Medical City, this says it all.
Once inside you see the masses of blank faced, cube-like, monotonous buildings which stand together in tight phalanxes, as though someone plopped a massive ice cube trays upside down upon the ground and called it urban design. A strict grid of super blocks which stretch for a kilometer between intersections are the rule here, and scattered within them are labs and factories with names like Walvax, Takeda, Guodan Biological, Beikie Biotech, Bio Perfect Technologies, AstraZeneca, and Edding Pharm stand in cold silence. Architecture here seems to only come in two colors: white and gray. Not that it really matters much, as a matching backdrop of whitish/ gray, polluted sky covers all.
CMC looks like a ghost city. A conspicuous stillness pervades the air: there is little movement, little noise, the buildings appear Potemkin-esque. It is easy to begin wondering if there actually any people here at all, that this isn’t one colossal stage set — but then you catch sight of a solitary lab coat scurrying from one white cube to another. You walk through here and there is little noise, the shear space between everything makes it seem even more empty. It is said that around 20,000 people currently live here, but 4 – 5,000 of them are Nanjing Zhong Yi Yao University students who were shipped in as part of the new areas vitalization plan.
I easily walked through the developed part of the CMC and into the expanse of dirt lots, gravel stock piles, and back fill mounds culled from the digging of myriad foundations that was one the site of old villages. Chains of almost interlinking cranes dominate the horizon. I knew that I was walking upon the blank canvas of the future, not a wasteland, but it sure looked the same. I watched an old guy farming on a dirt pile that was wedged in between a defacto garbage dump and a gravel stock yard. Neat rows of little green seedling were peaking out of the rubbish strewn heap of construction refuse, but the farmer didn’t seem to mind. Right next to him some workers in a gravel yard that hugged a small canal, they were unloading a barge, piling the gravel onto conveyor belts, and loading it into machines that would crush the small pieces of stone up even smaller. A pile of empty medicine bottles and other pharmaceutical discharge rose up in the foreground. Beyond this there was nothing but fallow fields stretching far beyond the distance I cared to walk. A group of young migrant workers on lunch break amused themselves by smashing glass bottles under an overpass bridge.
Having seen enough of nothing, I turned back and caught sight of something across the expanse that not only appeared out of place but completely otherworldly in this landscape: a full fledged European clock tower rising up next to a church steeple. It was the skyline of a hamlet — Euro style. It was Oriental Windsor County, a place as aesthetically distant from the sensually numbing research bunkers, pharmaceutical compounds, and factories of the rest of the CMC as you could probably get. The contrast was as stark as a well cropped mullet.
I walked into the main square of European replica town, and stood before the 60 foot high clock tower. Just beyond the clock tower was bar called Treasure Island which proudly advertised international beers. A Starbucks was on the other side, and the steeple of a full scale church rose up in the near distance. The rigid stone tiles that covered the streets poked into the soles of my feet. The shop-lined streets meandered in a curvy, askance, semi-circular patterns around the district, and the main intersections had overzealous fountains and statues of European warriors on horse back and yet bare-breasted maidens being fondled by butt ass naked angels. Bright red, London style phone booths were scattered around the complex, serving as shelters for security guards, but their broken windows hint at the fact that they may have made better use of as targets for stone throwing drunks.
The church, of course, was just a prop. I walked into it and discovered an empty cavity lined with of grey concrete. From the outside from a distance it looked like a a regular Western style church, but on closer inspection it was clear that it was all concrete, as though it was made from pour-in molds and assembled like a kit. The insides were unfinished, but that didn’t matter much: it was just a prop for people getting wedding photos to stand in front of. Brides in China don’t go to church to get married.
The exteriors of all the buildings in the neighborhood were decorated to look aged and worn — like they do in real Europe. Faded blotches and rain water damage were purposefully painted. Ashen murals advertising 1940s era Western movies were graffitied on the buildings. Though this attempt at style did not cover up the fact that these buildings really were showing signs of deteriorating — many before they were ever inhabited and used. New Chinese buildings are disposable: they’re built to be torn down and built again, it’s a system that works on the same premise as modern household appliances: manufactured to break to be purchased again . . . Though built less than two years ago, wear and tear was eating at the place. Even the walls that were purposefully painted to appear old and worn were peeling apart and crumbling away — perhaps fulfilling their own prophecy. No problem though, as the entire place could rather easily be crumpled up like a paper cup and tossed out as though it never existed at all.
“Why did they make that place look like England?” I once asked a PR rep for CMC.
“Because we want our western guests to feel at home,” she replied.
I went into the Starbucks. Where there’s a luxury class new city in China there will be a Starbucks. This company’s circular green and white logo has become emblematic of the country’s new city movement. Starbucks is generally among the first players to claim a piece of turf in China’s new outposts of progress, often moving in before the cranes and backhoes move out — serving over priced coffee, sweet tea drinks, and pastries to the relocated white collar workers and the new-age homesteaders who gradually trickle in to the new city.
“What is there to do here?” I asked the girl who was pouring my coffee. Starbucks shipped her in from Shandong.
“There is a restaurant, some places to go shopping, a bar, Starbucks, and nothing.”
I met Chou on one of the winding cobblestone streets in front of the Lava Cafe. He runs the place. He told me that he is a Taiwanese architect who spent 10 years in the USA studying at the University of Chicago and then working in California. Then in 2007 he took a job as a project manager at an interior design firm in Shanghai. It was here that he fell under the radar of the CMC, who was impressed by his work enough to invite him over to lead a project.
“When they first invited me I had no idea where Taizhou was,” Chou told me as we sat together in the patio in front of his cafe. “I’d never heard of Taizhou before. They told me it was near Yangzhou, and I at least heard of that city, but I still had no idea where it was.”
Though this initial geographic disorientation did not seem to impact his work. “I pulled it off,” Chou said of that first job. He then set up camp in CMC with his own design firm and has been here ever since.
Chou was around 35 years old, spoke American English without a trace of a foreign accent. This was emphasized with excessive slang — “dude” and “man” potmarked his statements. I couldn’t see the Taiwan for the California. “I’m kind of a hybrid,” he admitted.
Three months ago he opened up the Lava Cafe with his Russian girlfriend. They cater parties and sell high-end coffee, cakes, and snacks.
“Is the rent free?” I asked him as we sat back in some chairs out on the cafe’s patio, knowing that it’s normal thing in China’s new cities or developments for businesses big and small to be lured in with an offer of free rent for a certain number of years.
“We get two years free,” he replied, “but I’ve already used up more than a year of that.”
“How much will it be when you have to pay rent?”
He thought for a moment before responding that the annual cost would be around 40,000 RMB per year, or roughly $537 per month — less than the rent for my less than glamorous apartment in Xiamen.
“What do you think about the progress of the CMC? Do you think that it is stagnant or doomed to fail?” I asked.
Chou just stared ahead calmly and said simply,”It’s a long journey, lets hope we can survive it. You cannot have high expectations,” he continued. “It’s a long term thing.”
“Do you think they can pull it off?” I asked.
“There’s no turning back now,” he replied with a laugh. “It’s been a rocky road. You always have to adapt. You have to always be learning how to always do everything better. It hasn’t come to the time to make a conclusion, but right now it’s acceptable.”
“You seem very hopeful and optimistic.”
“Those who don’t have hope are gone already,” he replied with a laugh.
That was true. I told the saga of an American investor that I’d previously interviewed.
In 2009 he was invited to start up a contract manufacturing organization at the CMC to produce globally compliant pharmaceuticals which abide by FDA and EU regulations. He responded to the opportunity with an enthusiastic “yes.”
“From March 2009-June 2010 I spent 18 months working on the proposal to have CMC fund a biologics contract manufacturing company,” he told me. “Once the JV was approved I spent a year living and working in CMC.”
He was to provide the know how and the CMC would take care of the rest. On the promise of $100M USD of funding he was given a 20,000 sq foot facility and the JV was born.
Though the Americans quickly discovered that the Chinese do business their own way. The CMC admitted that they over-extended their resources, and, as he put it on his blog, “every invoice and paycheck has to go through government processing so it can juggle its books to keep everything running, which is more bureaucratic and byzantine than you can imagine . . . One has to become the perpetual “squeaky wheel” to get what they need, and it can be exhausting and distracting.” Eventually, the bottom fell out. “The CMC funding was only made on paper and they stopped paying me in June 2011,” he recalled. “The project was reassigned to a Chinese Pharma company and the US team left. After completing all milestones and performance under budget, the project began with enthusiasm and finished with disappointment.”
“I knew trying to build a GMP biobusiness in China, or anywhere for that matter, wouldn’t be easy. I didn’t expect the government, with all that trade surplus money, would renege on their contractual obligations, so everyone, be advised . . . My advice to those considering working in China is to fully understand the business environment and perspective, because they are very different than in the West, plus always retain your leverage in business relationships. Once they disappear, you are gone.”
“Foreigners can’t do business in China,” Chou remarked with a snort and laugh after I finished the story. “They can’t understand how it works. It’s like a hustle game, if you start dancing in political games you’re going to dig a hole you can’t get out of.”
“What are the problems that the CMC is currently facing?” I asked.
“Not enough people,” Chou said simply.
“But I’ve been here before,” I said, “and the change that I’ve seen from a year ago is incredible. The last time I was here there was seriously nobody, this place was a ghost town, but now there are people in the streets, the restaurants are full at meal times, a gym is opening, you’re here with your cafe. It seems to me as if this place is coming alive.”
“Yes,” Chou agreed, “in the past 6 months lots of businesses have moved in and it has really, as you put it, come alive. Before it was pretty sorry.”
I took a sip of my coffee and looked over the faux British architecture that surrounded us. “What do you think of the British theme here?” I asked.
“The architecture here is a little ironic,” he said with a gruff laugh. “You would think that because I’m an architect this should be exciting for me. I led a group of prospective investors around here once and one guy was interested in buying a place but he asked if he could get a new one!” Chou was laughing. “The people that come here don’t get it. They ask how old the buildings are and when I tell them that they were just built they look surprised.”
“It’s a metaphor,” Chou concluded.
He then paused for a long moment and took in the scene around him, then turned to me with a wide smile on his face and said, “Being in China now is like studying human history. It is like something you can only learn from a book or see in a movie, but here it is happening right in front of you.”