China's brave new city rises from the rust

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Once the vibrant heart of China's heavy industry, Manchuria is in need of major surgery. Home to thousands of ailing, state-owned enterprises, China's north-east has been crippled by the capitalist challenge.

Once the vibrant heart of China's heavy industry, Manchuria is in need of major surgery. Home to thousands of ailing, state-owned enterprises, China's north-east has been crippled by the capitalist challenge.

As government subsidies dry up, so do salaries and redundancy payments, sparking protests by workers. In the midst of this rustbelt, the shiny city of Dalian rises like a mirage.

Gleaming streets connect the spotless city centre to new residential areas springing up in the suburbs. There is fierce civic pride in the air. Dalian could be the Milton Keynes of the East, except that local people harbour more glamorous ambitions - the "Hong Kong of the North" is their aim.

It is an apt comparison for the coastal city, formerly known as Port Arthur, where skyscrapers jostle for space besides colonial architecture left by the Japanese and Russians.

But why the plastic cows, dotting parks, beachfronts and even government buildings? Can this city that is, in part, a beacon guiding China into the 21st century, not let go of the peasant life of the past?

"The famous writer Lu Xun praised the humble cow," explained Qin Guangli from Dalian Labour Bureau. "He said: 'They eat only grass, but produce milk for everybody's benefit.' We government officials should grasp the spirit of the cow, and eat grass to serve the people."

Dalian is perhaps the only city in China where they could graze their fill. Acres of grass adorn public squares and embankments. Should you be tempted to lie down on the city centrepiece, People's Square, you'll soon meet another Dalian first - young policewomen who patrol not on plastic horses, but on real ones.

These are not the scowling bribe-takers feared elsewhere in China. The feminine face of law and order is friendly, helpful, and backed by expertise in martial arts. The novelty draws the crowds, and reveals just one small part of Mayor Bo Xilai's master plan.

This is the China that works. Clean and orderly, thecity of 2.4 million is the envy of the rest of the country. Even the football team, champions for the past four years, still ride high atop the Chinese league.

Mayor Bo, one of China's most respected public figures, has enacted nothing short of a revolution in urban design and management.

By knocking down concrete - and bureaucratic - walls, and privatising companies, Mayor Bo has created a model for the future.

He hopes Dalian can also be a model in resolving the potential crisis that keeps Communist Party leaders awake at night - the threat of worker unrest coalescing into an organised movement.

China's entry into the World Trade Organisation could throw a further 11 million people out of work. The unemployed are left to fend for themselves in many Chinese cities, but, in Dalian, a lucky few undergo retraining and technological upgrading of their skills.

"The city government are innovators like us," explained Michael Rawding, head of Microsoft Greater China, on why the software giant chose Dalian for a new one-year retraining programme.

"We all worry about a digital divide whereby parts of society lack access to the knowledge economy. We must devise technology and programmes to bridge that divide."

The whirlwind of urban construction and landscaping has reaped considerable dividends in terms of foreign investment, particularly from Japan and South Korea.

But some citizens grumble that more money is spent on the streets than the people. Relatively modest local incomes place Dalian only tenth among China's top 18 cities.

Still, when their working day is done, the Olympic Shopping Square, its five rings bordered by WalMart and Carrefour supermarkets, makes its own demands on their paypackets.

At Zhongshan Square, a collision of baroque, Gothic and ultra-modern styles, older couples waltz under strobe lights blazing from a nearby skyscraper.

The young crowd favours hang-outs such as the Hollywood Disco Pub, where rock bands give way to erotic fashion shows.

But even in Dalian, the grass is always greener elsewhere. Back at People's Square, a policewoman sighed: "I've seen pictures of your horses guarding Buckingham Palace. They are much more beautiful than ours."