Hangzhou has seen its share of history. A millennium ago, the city was the seat of two separate dynasties for over 200 years, putting it in storied company with China’s six other ancient capitals. In 1972, during his “week that changed the world”, Richard Nixon strolled the shores of the city’s West Lake with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Their discussions by the water spurred China’s historic economic opening.
Forty-four years later, another meeting between Chinese and American leaders in Hangzhou marked a profound global change. It was here that President Xi Jinping and President Obama announced that both of their countries had ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change.
These days, Hangzhou is not content to be a mere witness to history. Instead, the city is writing its own story using broad green strokes.
Hangzhou is rapidly modernizing its public transit network. In 2008, it was Hangzhou that launched China’s first bike sharing system, which is now the world’s largest.
Its bus network is becoming greener as well. Seventy per cent of public buses in the city are now electric. It’s no small investment. Each bus costs US$145,000, which is about double the price of a conventional public bus.
But the outlay is well worth it, according to Vice Mayor Hu Wei. “The most important thing is that we can protect the environment and fight air pollution,” he says.
Even though the initial cost is high, over the lifetime of the bus the cost is the same or less compared to a conventional equivalent. And they are getting cheaper. Since the buses were introduced in 2014, operating costs have dropped by between 30–40 per cent.
“The challenge is to convince other businesses like tour companies to use these greener buses,” says the mayor.
The subway network is expanding as well. It already covers some 170 kilometres, but the city is building new lines that will bring it closer to 500. While the metro is currently more expensive than the bus, the expansion will allow the government to bring costs down for commuters.
In the face of persistent air pollution, investments are not the only tool at the government’s disposal. The government is also taking hard decisions. In 2015, a 59-year-old steel plant was shut down to improve air quality. The government estimates the closure will prevent 3,000 tonnes of soot from entering the skies in the city.
Speaking at World Environment Day celebrations in Hangzhou, Che Jun, the Party Secretary of Hangzhou’s home province of Zhejiang, painted a bleak picture of the area where the plant was located. “Air was permeated with a pungent smell. All of the rivers in the areas were strangers to fish and shrimp. All of Hangzhou was a victim,” he said.
Concerns over the economic impact of the shutdown were short-lived. The company “leveraged the tailwind of the digital economy… and was reborn” said Che. “In 2018, their profit hit CNY3.53 billion [US$511 million].”
The former home of the steel plant is now part of the 65 per cent tree cover that Hangzhou enjoys. This has heralded a natural revival. “This spring we saw tens of thousands of egrets coming to the city,” said Che. “Now, egrets flying against the setting sun has become an iconic image of the city this year.”
Hangzhou’s green rejuvenation may be nowhere more in evidence than Xixi National Wetland Park, a 2,800-acre integrated urban, agricultural and cultural wetland in the west of the city. Though the wetland has been a natural part of the landscape for almost 2,000 years, the government pushed for its revival in 2005. The park has come back to life, with the number of bird species seen in the park has increased from 79 before the rejuvenation to 181 today. And it’s a functional revival as well. As water circulates between Xixi, the Qiantang River and the UNESCO-listed Grand Canal, the wetland acts as a natural kidney, filtering pollutants from the water.
More than 700 years ago, the Venetian explorer Marco Polo said that while heaven may contain paradise, Earth had Suzhou and Hangzhou.
Today, city officials in Hangzhou are doing everything they can to maintain their claim to this earthbound eden.