Culture

We did the #10YearChallenge on 5 Chinese cities

Jan 23, 2019

The #10YearChallenge, where people post two pictures of themselves—one from today and one from a decade ago—to see how much they have (or haven’t) changed, has taken the internet by storm.

Here at Goldthread, we thought it would be a fun experiment to apply the challenge to China, which has seen some dramatic changes in the past decade.

In 2009, the country had just come off hosting the Summer Olympics. Its population was 1.3 billion, the iPhone 3G had just come out, and WeChat didn’t exist yet.

Ten years later, China is the world’s second-largest economy, it has an additional 100 million people, and its tech sector is one of the fastest-growing in the world.

In 2009, there were about 300 million Chinese using the internet on their phones. Now, there are over 700 million.

With that astronomic growth has come significant alterations to the country’s skylines.

Five of the world’s 10 tallest buildings are now in mainland China. A majority of the population lives in urban areas compared to 2009, when the figure was less than half.

What the #10YearChallenge reveals is a country undergoing rapid urbanization. Shantytowns have been razed to make way for pristine glass skyscrapers, cities are absorbing rural districts, and millions have moved from villages to newly-built suburbs outside major urban areas.

Here are five cities that have witnessed some considerable change in the past 10 years and what their stories say about China’s development.

Shanghai

The Shanghai skyline in 2008.
The Shanghai skyline in 2008. / Photo: Shutterstock
The Shanghai skyline in 2018. Note the supertall skyscraper on the right.
The Shanghai skyline in 2018. Note the supertall skyscraper on the right. / Photo: Shutterstock

As a global financial hub, Shanghai has always had a cosmopolitan streak. In particular, its Lujiazui skyline has been a showpiece of China’s rise since the 1990s, when the country began trading with the world again after decades of a closed economy.

(Read more: The best places to eat in Shanghai)

Little has changed about the skyline between 2008 and 2018, except for the addition of the Shanghai Tower, currently China’s tallest building and the second-tallest in the world (after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai).

Completed in 2014, the 128-story Shanghai Tower boasts the world’s highest observation deck and second-fastest elevators, solidifying Lujiazui’s place as the architectural manifestation of China’s ambitions.

Shenzhen

The Shenzhen skyline in 2008.
The Shenzhen skyline in 2008. / Photo: Randomwire
The Shenzhen skyline in 2018. The new building in the middle is the Ping An Finance Centre.
The Shenzhen skyline in 2018. The new building in the middle is the Ping An Finance Centre. / Photo: Shutterstock

Forty years ago, Shenzhen was an economic backwater bordering the financial center of Hong Kong. The tiny market town had no more than 30,000 people.

Now, it boasts a population of over 10 million, and its gross domestic product nearly rivals that of Hong Kong. In 2017, it was $332 billion, compared to Hong Kong’s $341 billion.

(Watch: Buying food with facial recognition in Shenzhen)

That same year, Ping An Insurance, China’s largest insurance company, opened its new headquarters in Shenzhen.

The 115-story Ping An Finance Centre is the second-tallest building in the country and fourth-tallest in the world. It shares the record of highest observation deck with the Shanghai Tower.

Beijing

The Qianmen neighborhood of Beijing in 2008.
The Qianmen neighborhood of Beijing in 2008. / Photo: Alamy
The same neighborhood in 2013. Note the international brands.
The same neighborhood in 2013. Note the international brands. / Photo: Alamy

In 2008, the neighborhood of Qianmen, just south of Tiananmen Square, went through a complete overhaul ahead of the Summer Olympics.

Before, the area was home to a slew of small restaurants, shops, and brothels. Many families also lived in tight courtyards known as hutong.

(Read more: Inside the secret spaces of Beijing’s rebellious artists)

That was all razed and redeveloped. When Qianmen reopened just weeks before the Olympics, the government billed it as the city’s next great tourist destination and an example of how the new can coexist with the old.

Indeed, some of Beijing’s oldest restaurants are on the main pedestrian street, including a famous Peking duck establishment that has served several U.S. presidents.

Over the years, though, many international brands have opened up shop on the street. Now, names like Häagen-Dazs, Samsung, and Starbucks sit where smaller stores once were.

Macau

Macau’s Cotai Strip in 2008. Several casinos are still under construction.
Macau’s Cotai Strip in 2008. Several casinos are still under construction. / Photo: AFP
The Cotai Strip in 2018, with the casinos complete.
The Cotai Strip in 2018, with the casinos complete. / Photo: Shutterstock

Macau is a city built on casinos.

From the 1960s, one company held a monopoly over gambling in the city. But in 2002, the government ended the four-decade stranglehold on the industry and let in Vegas-based giants like Wynn and Sands.

(Read more: Living paycheck to paycheck in Asia’s Vegas)

Development exploded, especially on the Cotai Strip. Today, it houses some of the world’s most audacious casinos, including The Venetian Macao.

Macau is now the biggest gambling hub in the world in terms of revenue, first eclipsing Las Vegas in 2006.

Chongqing

The neighborhood of Shibati in Chongqing in 2014.
The neighborhood of Shibati in Chongqing in 2014. / Photo: Alamy
A proposed mockup of the same neighborhood after it’s redeveloped.
A proposed mockup of the same neighborhood after it’s redeveloped. / Photo: ISA

Shibati is one of Chongqing’s last remaining neighborhoods still resisting developers. It’s a maze of old shops and homes sitting on a hill next to the central business district, surrounded by skyscrapers on all sides.

The city’s plan is to eventually turn the area into a tourist destination similar to Qianmen, building new structures but preserving some of the architectural style and layout of Shibati.

(Watch: Chongqing’s most famous ballroom dancing DJ)

Over the past few years, the government has been encouraging residents, many of them poor migrant workers, to move out, and has been tearing down houses in the neighborhood one by one.

Artists have been documenting life in this tight-knit neighborhood before it disappears for good, including one French filmmaker, who produced a documentary that’s now making the festival rounds.

It’s a touching portrait of the individuals left to grapple with China’s breakneck development, as they seek to reconcile their desire for progress with longing for an idyllic past.

#10YearChallenge urbanization world’s second-largest economy Shenzhen Chongqing