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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.