HANGZHOU, China – It came as a surprise when China announced that Hangzhou, a second tier city in the eastern province of Zhejiang, would host the 2016 G-20 leaders’ summit, the political equivalent of the Olympics or the World Cup.
Over the past decade, China has hosted a series of high-profile international events mainly in its first-tier cities, such as the 2008 Summer Olympics and the 2014 APEC in Beijing and the 2010 Expo in Shanghai, in order to showcase the break-neck pace of China’s economic developments since it adopted the Open Door in 1978.
It was only natural that questions were raised as to why this relatively obscure city was chosen to host the summit meeting of the world’s 20 largest economies, representing two-thirds of the global population and 85% of the global economy.
Hangzhou, the ancient capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), was traditionally hailed as one of the most beautiful cities in China.
“There is paradise in heaven, there are Suzhou and Hangzhou on earth,” as an old Chinese saying goes.
Indeed, Italian merchant and traveler Marco Polo in the 13th century described the place as “the world’s most magnificent and noble city”, and the present day Hangzhou attracts millions of tourists every year.
Now, the city has been transformed into a home for many high profile tech firms such as e-commerce giant Ali Baba, setting an example of how China’s splendid and rich culture and history in the past can still live on in a modern city with an innovative economy.
It’s an image that China wants to promote this weekend to the world’s top leaders, breaking away from its image as the world’s cheap labor factory.
The information economy, championed as a new driving force for economic development in the era of “new normal”, accounted for 23 percent of Hangzhou’s GDP, contributing to over 45 percent of GDP growth in 2015, according to Hangzhou city.
President Xi Jinping achieved one of the highest GDP growth rates in China during the period when he held the Communist Party’s top post in this Zhejiang province between 2002 and 2007.
Mr. Xi, who needs to address concerns being raised by the outside world of whether China is capable of tackling problems stemming from slowing economic growth and overcapacity, wants to keep the focus of this year’s G-20 summit on economic growth.
The summit will look at ways to build “an innovative, invigorated, interconnected and inclusive world economy,” he said.
“For the short term, you can affect an economic growth with fiscal and monetary policies,” Wang Dan, an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit, told Al Jazeera. “But, in the long run, it is technology. So, by focusing on the ability that the country can innovate, that is how you can generate a long term growth,”
“For China, it is beginning to catch up with the rest of the world in spending every year on research and development. The percentage is about 2.4% of the GDP, right now. That is close to what the United States is spending. And also, it’s growing at a fast pace,” she added.
To make that case, Hangzhou is an obvious choice as a G-20 summit venue.
Efforts put in place for preparations are jaw-dropping.
This city of nine million people has seen a massive facelift and the construction of new infrastructure, allocating to the event most of its $19 billion in fiscal expenditures earmarked for 2016.
Cities as far as 300km away from Hangzhou are affected by security and environment measures enacted in preparation for the summit. Factories have been shutdown and construction projects suspended to ensure a clear sky, and to emulate the success of what’s been dubbed “APEC Blue” in Beijing in 2014.
Closer to Hangzhou, measures are beyond imagination.
The city has placed all Hangzhou residents on a week-long vacation, encouraging them to leave the city or stay at home. It has also discouraged tourists from coming to the city.
Hangzhou residents have also been given discounts or free access to tourist attractions outside Hangzhou.
Security has been heightened not just at railway stations and airports, but also at every corner of the city.
Parcels can be only delivered by a small number of designated companies and need to be checked. Gas barrels cannot be delivered, but can only be purchased by presenting an ID in person.
Some parts of residential areas have been cordoned off and only residents with valid ID cards may enter.
Security check points have been set up around the perimeter of the West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage site that attracts millions of visitors a year. Vehicles with a special permit are allowed to enter, and visitors must go through an airport-level security check.
Furthermore, every manhole cover on the street has been sealed off with multiple security labels.
At peak tourist season, there is often barely any space to walk at West Lake.
When we arrived there on Wednesday morning, the place was deserted. Security personnel outnumbered the tourists.
Many restaurants have been closed in the area because they could not bring in food ingredients or gas.
“G20 has a big impact on many people’s lives here. They [migrant workers] had to go back to their hometowns. There are many restrictions here. No food. Everything is shut down. People can’t buy food,” one local resident told Al Jazeera, expressing her frustration,
However, there are also people who see the preparation measures in a more positive light, and take a sense of pride in being able to make contributions.
“Paintings and refurbishments are great. It looks clean and tidy now. Look, we have flowers, and how beautiful it is! It wasn’t like this before. It helped us a lot. It wasn’t this clean before. Safety is also better,” said another resident.
Over 1 million local residents have volunteered for safety and publicity related works since last December and more than four thousand students are doing voluntary works to help a series of G20-related events throughout week.