Head north on expressway G15 from the bustling megacity of Shanghai to Nantong and you’ll witness the miraculous transformation of China’s last three decades in 80 miles. Towering apartment blocks whiz by in a blur to become crumbling concrete houses surrounded by fields of corn and wheat. Soon even those recede in the rearview mirror. Ahead lies the Sutong bridge, a masterpiece of engineering that has single-handedly hurled the northern bank of the Yangtze River into the 21st century. Before the bridge opened in 2008, the journey required a four-hour ferry ride. Now it takes 60 minutes by car.
The bridge has done more than just shorten the commute. It’s breathed new life into a region that until five years ago was farmland cut off from China’s economic boom. Today, this strip of the Yangzte River Delta is emerging as a hub of technological innovation and urban development, which makes it an ideal location for Shaw Industries’ biggest global expansion yet: a 215,000 square-foot carpet-tile plant under construction in an area known as the “Sutong Science & Technology Zone,” which will eventually anchor an entirely new city stretching over 19 square miles.
In China, progress moves fast, and Nantong is looking to break records. As our van turns off the highway toward the new factory, Shaw’s Director of Corporate Assets, Charles Dobbins, Jr., gazes out the window in awe. “The amazing thing is that you go away for six months, and when you come back you don’t recognize this place,” he says, marvelling at the new overpasses and factories in the distance.
Jeff Galloway, Shaw’s Director of Global operations is similarly floored as we reach the plant site. When he was last here in June for the factory’s groundbreaking, there was little more than dirt. Just two months later, the factory is already taking shape, as if out of thin air.
Leading a group of Shaw senior management around the site, Galloway points out what until recently could only be seen in blueprints. “This is where the employees will park their scooters,” he says, pointing to a garage that will feature solar panels, so workers can recharge their vehicles while saving energy.
Walking a little further, Galloway stops before a frame of steel pipes emerging from the ground. “This will be our office,” he says, over the growl of an excavator in the distance. “And here,” he adds excitedly, pointing to a mound of dried mud and concrete, “is where the Internet cable will go.”
Listening to Galloway, I realize that I’m hearing the language of modern China. No, he’s not speaking Mandarin – he’s using the future tense.
A little while later I’m standing in the Zone’s headquarters, a squat grey building that serves as the nucleus for Nantong’s development plans. Ariel Huang, a senior manager with the Zone, is showing me a huge scale-model of what the city will look like in a few years time. Her job is to assist Shaw in navigating Chinese rules and requirements, and she doubles as a full-time visionary.
Before us lies a vast miniature landscape of parks and office towers, apartments complexes and factories, including a brown rectangle that she proudly declares is the Shaw carpet tile plant. Some buildings already exist while others have yet to materialize, but it’s a matter of when, not if.
The area where Shaw’s plant is being constructed is part of phase one, a massive construction initiative that began in 2009. Huang checks off the relevant statistics with almost auctioneer speed: there will be 2,800 beds for workers and 180 apartments for management, plus a bank, school and movie theater. Phase two will include a golf course. I point toward an area dominated by a white skyscraper far taller than the rest, looming over a blue plastic disc representing a man-made lake that’s already being dug out of the earth.
“That will be the central business district,” she chirps. “We will even have an international school.” Construction of this final phase will start in the next three to five years.
When the city is complete, it will be home to an estimated 300,000 people (about the population of Tampa, FL) 120,000 of whom will be direct employees of the hundreds of companies like Shaw that are helping to turn Nantong’s dreams into reality.
Then it strikes me. Like Galloway, she too speaks in predictions. As if reading my mind Huang waves her hand over a miniature world that will soon be life-size. “This,” she says with a grin, “is our future.”