Steel, Cars, and Innovation: How Wuhan Rewrote its Story


Often called “the Chicago of China”, Wuhan went from looking like an open-air factory to being a hub for innovation, attracting young talents. But what do steel, cars, and Alibaba have to do with the story of Hubei’s capital?


Three days ago, a city in Central China hosted the annual Yangtze River crossing event to commemorate Chairman Mao Zedong‘s swim across the Yangtze River on July 16, 1966. It is Wuhan, capital of Hubei province and China’s seventh most populous city.

Over 2,400 participants from all over the PRC and other countries joined the Yangtze River crossing in Wuhan, one of China’s top 15 new first-tier cities, which went from looking like an open-air factory to be the “Dragon’s thoroughfare”, a hub for talents and innovation.

Today, Hubei’s capital represents Chinese economic growth so much so that even the country’s tech giant Alibaba has chosen the city to test its AliHealth new digital tools.


how did wuhan rewrite its story - chicago of china - cifnews

© Wikimedia Commons. Wuhan, Hubei. Located at the confluence of the Yangtze and the Han rivers, Wuhan is sometimes referred to as “the Chicago of China”.


With a population of over 10 million, Wuhan is the most populous city in Central China. Lying in the eastern Jianghan Plain, at the confluence of the Yangtze and the Han rivers, it is sometimes referred to as “the Chicago of China” by foreign sources because of its geographical and industrial location, but also for its challenging individualistic streak.

Wuhan’s history dates back 3,500 years, making it one of the most ancient cities in the People’s Republic. Long known as an arts center, especially for poetry and for intellectual studies, since its early days, Wuhan has served as a busy and important port city.

Indeed, thanks to its location on the middle reaches of the Yangtze River‘s intersection with the Han River, Wuhan has always been an important center for the river trading of China. Then it became a crucial transportation hub when the railways were extended on a north-south axis through the city in the late 19th century.

Looking at its skyline, the capital of Hubei is no way inferior to Western metropolia. However, although Wuhan cannot compete with China’s major coastal cities yet, it occupies a place of absolute importance in the country’s history. At the beginning of the 20th century, the revolt that overthrew the Qing Dynasty began right here while, during the war against Japan, the city became a base for the authorities. Plus, Chairman Mao loved to swim in Wuhan’s part of the Yangtze River.


In the early ’90s, Wuhan looked like a huge factory, hosting the world’s largest iron producers. The Wuhan Iron and Steel Corp still employs 80,000 people and occupies 20 sq km of the city with its factories and workshops.


Nevertheless, in the early 1990s, Wuhan looked like a huge open-air factory. Here, the Wuhan Iron and Steel Corp – one of the world’s largest iron producers and among the 500 largest companies – employs 80,000 people and occupies 20 square kilometers of the city with its factories and workshops.

However, in recent years, Hubei’s capital is reinventing itself, just like its American “twin”. Following Europe’s imposition of anti-dumping duties on imports of a grade of electrical steel from five countries, including China, in 2015, Wuhan understood the need to move away from steel.

Therefore, as well as many other cities in the PRC, Wuhan has been a massive building site in the last few years. Between 2015 and 2016, it hosted around 11,000 construction sites. The city council has approved the construction of new subway lines, foreseeing that there will be 12 by 2020. “There wasn’t much change in the 2000s,” says Liu Yi, a young PSA executive. “But in 2010 it all speeded up, with Beijing driving development.”

In the last three years, numerous stores and shopping malls with amazing architecture were thus inaugurated. During the same years, some of the tallest skyscrapers in Asia were also built in Wuhan, including Wuhan Center and two of the world’s tallest buildings that are still under construction, Riverview Plaza A1 and Wuhan Greenland Center.


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© Unsplash. Donghu Lake, Wuhan, Hubei. Once known as “the city of a hundred lakes”, Wuhan hosted 127 lakes in the ‘80s. But decades of rapid urbanization have reduced the number of lakes to 30.


With good transport links and a cheap, well-educated labor force, Wuhan aims to corner the Chinese automobile-building sector. As a transport hub, Hubei’s provincial capital aims to become China’s car city. The automobile industry, in fact, represents 20% of the city’s economy, with 200,000 direct jobs and more than a million indirectly.

And the car industry in Wuhan is growing fast. As early as 2014, Wuhan was the seventh-largest car manufacturing center in the world, with 1.13 million vehicles assembled. In 2015, General Motors and its Chinese partner, the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, launched a plant capable of producing 240,000 vehicles annually.

The launch was followed by Renault, which rolled out an assembly unit in the same year. With the plants operated by the Dongfeng-PSA Peugeot Citroën joint venture and Honda, among others, Wuhan has opened new car factories, showing it is capable of producing over 2 million vehicles a year, in an area smaller than the European capitals’ average basin.

According to Yin Xinmin, a professor of Economics at the Fudan University of Shanghai, the initial “objective was to develop six large firms. To develop the automobile, it was necessary to create everything that gravitated around it.” Therefore, “Hubei, with its capital Wuhan, was an ideal candidate, being one of the earliest industrial centers in China. Plus, the region is well-connected, thanks in particular to the Yangtze river.”


However, Wuhan is not all about the automotive industry. The provincial capital is also one of China’s largest university towns, with 1.3 million students that allow a steady stream of eager young technicians and engineers.


Although it is already one of China’s largest university towns, Wuhan announced a plan to attract 1 million university graduates in the next five years by offering favorable policies and lower housing prices, in addition to encouraging businesses to prioritize local graduates when hiring.

Thanks to a young and stimulating environment, many Chinese companies are, therefore, investing in the city. For example, after having opened new Hema stores in China’s major cities, Alibaba’s supermarkets now also serve consumers in Wuhan.

Moreover, here, the Central Hospital of Wuhan is working with AliHealthAlibaba Health Information Technology – to upgrade the hospital. From payment technology to delivery logistics, AliHealth helps to provide more convenient and stable services to patients, making hospital visits cash-free and cards-free.

“Patients previously had to run to the hospital counters or self-service kiosks to check-in, pay, pick up medication and retrieve their diagnosis reports. Now, all these steps are seamlessly connected within a smartphone,” said Wang Peiyu, vice president of AliHealth.

Alibaba’s “Future Hospital” thus aims to make hospital visits a painless experience in China, starting in the central city of Wuhan. Within the first two weeks of the launch in March, nearly 15,000 people have already used the digital solution and Alibaba said it now plans to expand the model to more health institutions across the country.


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© Pixabay. University of Wuhan, Hubei. Wuhan announced a plan to attract 1 million university graduates in the next five years by offering favorable policies and lower housing prices.


Located in the “Land of Fish and Rice”, as Hubei is often called, Wuhan experienced an impressive industrial growth compared to other Central China’s towns. Thanks to the city development, the province’s overall economy now ranks seventh in the country, allowing the per capita income of Hubei’s population to triple since 2010.

Wuhan belongs to the Dragon’s 15 new first-tier cities, whose local governments’ preferential policies to attract talent and the integrated competitiveness, including lower living costs and better living environment, contribute to their rising attractiveness.

In particular, Wuhan was and is a great example of the “new normal” that the leaders of the Communist Party talked about when they tried to reinvent themselves by moving forward in a globalized world. Although it is not at the level of China’s major coastal cities yet, Wuhan is already actively contributing to the country’s mission towards technological independence and hi-tech supremacy.

Its automotive industry, the talent’s attractiveness, its stimulating environment for innovation, as well as its location and connection with the rest of the country, make Wuhan a central hub with enormous potential. The capital of Hubei has a long history, but the final chapter in its story has not yet been written.


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