CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 28, December 2011


The 'Geneva of the East' | China Heritage Quarterly

Hangzhou and West Lake: The 'Geneva of the East'

James Z. Gao
University of Maryland

The following material is excerpted from James Z. Gao's The Communist Takeover of Hangzhou: The Transformation of City and Cadre, 1949-1954, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006, Chapter 8, 'The "Geneva of the East"', pp.216-221.—The Editor

It was comparatively quiet in the city in late 1953 and 1954. The CCP's original plan was to spend five years restoring the economy and then ten years developing it. Now the task of economic restoration was completed, and China's First Five-Year Plan for the country's industrialization was on track.[1]1 In the suburbs of Hangzhou and in nearby counties, collectivization unfolded in keeping with the strategy of advancing steadily and progressing slowly rather than rashly, while in the city the government made plans to nationalize all private industry.[2]2 However, the high tide of socialist transformation was yet to come in both urban and suburban areas.

Four years had passed since the takeover, and life in the city had started to revolve around the Communist economic and political campaigns, but no change was easy. Even the place names in the city resisted 'revolutionary changes'. To the local people, Jiefang Lu (Liberation Avenue) was still Yingzi Lu, as it had been before the PLA came; the Provincial Guest House was still the Xinxin Hotel, the Children's Palace was still Zhaoqing Temple, and 'Ten Views of West Lake' were still those inscribed by Qing emperor Kangxi. Nevertheless, since the main street connecting the downtown and the railway station had been renamed Liberation Avenue, anyone who came to Hangzhou and took this road would immediately be exposed to the key concept-liberation, the departure point of fundamental changes in the city.

In a sense, the railway station, which had greatly expanded to meet the increasing demands of transportation and communication, represented the combination of change and continuity. It had been rebuilt on the site of the old station, but the new building shared the architectural style of the new buildings of the municipal administration. The traditional palace-style roof and the huge, bright waiting rooms reflected the designer's idea of making both Eastern and Western elements serve the city. In 1953, the station had two special groups of passengers. One was the first group of students selected and sent to study in the Soviet Union. The other group involved high-echelon leaders of the Party and government… .

A Changed Strategy

Beijing announced the First Five-Year Plan in 1953. To travel the same road as the Soviet Union, China decided to put priority on heavy industry for the country's modernization. This plan, however, was not favorable to industrial development in Hangzhou. The 156 magnet projects sponsored by the Soviet Union and major state-funded enterprises were all located in inland provinces, and none of the 697 projected major industrial enterprises would be built in Hangzhou. That meant that no major investment from the central government would be available to develop the local economy.[3]

China had good reasons to develop its major industries in the inland provinces. First were the security considerations. The coastal areas were regarded as vulnerable, exposed to possible GMD counterattacks from Taiwan and to foreign invasion.[4] Second, in order to guarantee a power supply to Shanghai, the largest industrialized city in China, the government did not want Hangzhou to develop much industry because this would lead to a competition for electricity. Third, Zhejiang Province, the famous 'land of rice and fish', was the major grain contributor to the country. Since the Chinese government saw food production as the foundation of the national economy, it felt that Hangzhou should not build many factories because they would draw agricultural labor from the countryside. However, to guarantee state revenues, Beijing also wanted to keep the coastal economy prosperous.[5] The central government would not give the province significant financial or technological assistance, but it would continue to ask Zhejiang to contribute capital and manpower for the magnet projects in the interior. What could Zhejiang Province and the city of Hangzhou do to meet the country's inland-oriented development strategy? Were there any alternatives for the city's economy? The reorientation of urban development was a subject of protracted discussion among local leaders.

In 1953, a Soviet urban specialist, A. C. Maxim, was invited to attend a city work-planning meeting. The Russian was certainly impressed by the city's scenery and cultural resources, and at the planning meeting, Maxim presented a sophisticated plan that would develop Hangzhou as a city for recreation, tourism, and cultural activities.[6] The city could also become a center for international conferences and be known as 'the Geneva of the East'. Maxim approached urban design from the perspective of the Soviet model. He said that function, economy, and beauty were the basic requirements of the Soviet Communist Party and government for urban development. Not every city had to develop its own industry since the Soviet people deserved a variety of living spaces.

In accordance with Maxim's suggestions, the Hangzhou city planners decided to divide the city into four districts. The downtown (Shangcheng and Xiacheng districts) would remain the commercial areas; the scenic areas around West Lake would be reserved as public space for recreation; the belt along the Qiantang River would be developed into a special zone for higher education; finally, the city would have a limited number of factories, all of which would be concentrated in the districts of Gongshu and Jianggan, the areas farthest from downtown and from West Lake. Maxim also insisted that the Genshamen Power Station be moved out of the city since it produced too much smoke. The government and the people should treasure West Lake, and most residences should be kept a certain distance from the lakeshore.[7]

The planning meeting also discussed how to control the size of the urban population. Some people suggested that the population of Hangzhou could increase to 1.2 million. Maxim countered that a city with a population of 1.2 million had to be an industrial city, and this did not match the nature of Hangzhou. He suggested that the total urban population should not exceed 800,000.[8]

Many years later the Chinese started to criticize their early economic policy in the 1950s because it had blindly followed the 'Russian model'. However, it should not be forgotten that Maxim offered Hangzhou valuable advice for building a 'Geneva of the East'. Maxim was not the first person to initiate such a plan, but in the early 1950s, advice from a Soviet expert was influential, and it helped the city leaders make their final decision on the development of the city.

There was no doubt that Hangzhou had all the advantages to become a city for recreation, tourism, and cultural activities. Tourism had long been a local industry. Its scenic beauty and cultural facilities had won Hangzhou the reputation of 'a paradise on earth'. In addition, the local hotels and restaurants, teahouses, gift stores, temples, and handicrafts products served to make the city prosperous. An American missionary described the unique appeal of the city: 'Scenes of [West] Lake and hills and valleys and bamboo groves and the Chi'en T'ang [Qiantang] River, pagodas and temples and tombs and grottos were celebrated in poetry and prose, in painting and (in more modem times) photographs, and were familiar to people everywhere in China.'[9] Since everyone wanted to see it at least once, tourists from all parts of the country came to the city. In 1932, the artist Lin Fengmian wrote: 'Aren't spring and fall the best seasons for the sale of the local products of Hangzhou: silk, tea, umbrellas, bamboo sticks, and paper fans? Aren't they the best seasons for the hotels and restaurants in Hangzhou? Why? It is because West Lake is most beautiful in spring and fall and thus attracts the most tourists, isn't it?'[10]

Indeed a great number of urban dwellers—boatmen, rickshawmen, waiters, handicrafts makers, shopkeepers, prostitutes, actors and actresses, and thousands of monks and nuns—made their living by serving the tourists and pilgrims. … [B]efore 1949, high-ranking officials in Nanjing and millions of residents in Shanghai regarded Hangzhou as their backyard garden. Moreover, in the last two years of the Civil War, feeling the approach of doomsday and wanting to enjoy life while they could, even more rich people poured into Hangzhou and spent money like water, boosting the city's thriving economy.[11]

When the Communists came, they did not destroy this structure but made an effort to keep the city clean and tidy. As soon as the CCP took over the city, it initiated several projects to construct new roads, develop new gardens, and clean up the lake water. These projects were a part of the social relief programs to help unemployed workers and the urban poor.[12] When Jiang Hua was appointed the first Communist mayor of Hangzhou, he issued an administrative order protecting the trees, flowers, temples, and historical relics. The order prohibited fishing or washing vegetables in West Lake, and peddlers were not allowed to do business on the lakeshore.[13] The city government, however, did not intend to develop a tourist industry but to make West Lake a big fish pond that would raise eighty thousand green carp, sixty thousand silver carp, and sixty thousand abalone in the first year. In addition, a great number of trees and flowers, most of economic value, were planted around the lake and in the nearby mountains.[14] It was clear that although the city leaders treasured the natural resources of Hangzhou, they were heeding the Party's general call for 'transforming consumer-oriented towns into productive cities'. The plan to 'reform West Lake' was a combination of preserving the lake's scenic beauty and exploiting its productive potential.[15]

Now, in his visit to Hangzhou, Maxim suggested that the city leaders give up the attempt to make Hangzhou an industrial city, thus totally changing the urban development strategy. This was not merely an economic issue. First, it meant that the city could not expect a quick increase of industrial workers. This might be a setback for the Communists, who urged the expansion of the political force of the proletarian class in the cities. Second, Maxim's proposal would require the city to preserve a more traditional culture. That would have an important bearing on the city's management of the temples, historical sites, and artistic activities, and it would affect the government's policy toward cultural celebrities and cause difficulties for the Communists in consolidating the new regime and pursuing social transformation. Third, the proposal frustrated local cadres, such as the head of the Bureau of Industry, Gu Dehuan, who had fought and worked their whole lives to achieve quick industrial growth.

In the final analysis, the urban development strategy was a political issue. The southbound cadres came with a sense of mission to liberate the city. They believed that after the Communist takeover, Hangzhou would no longer belong to the rich and powerful but to working people, and therefore its function and appearance had to be changed. Could the city continue to exist in its traditional form? Was the Russian suggestion a rational choice for this city's long-term development?

In the winter of 1953, Mao Zedong made his first visit to Hangzhou; the visit offered the city leaders an answer to the above questions and legitimized the changing development strategy. Mao introduced a new viewpoint: the city's natural beauties and cultural facilities were its capital in the country's political game. Hangzhou would and should play a special role in the country's economy, as well as in Communist politics.


[1] The State Planning Commission had worked out the outline of this plan in 1952; it was revised many times and finally released in July 1955.

[2] CCP Zhejiang Committee, 'Outline of City Work in 1954'; in CCP Zhejiang Committee, Zhongguo gongcandang Zhejiang, 1941-1993 (Chronology of the CCP in Zhejiang, 1949 – 1993), Beijing: CCP History Press, 1996, p.45.

[3] Li Fuchun, 'Report on the First Five-Year Plan for the Development of the National Economy of the People's Republic of China'; Second Session of the First Chinese People's Congress; cited in People's Daily, 6 July 1955, p.1. Li Fuchun was the chair of the State Planning Commission in 1955.

[4] See Gu Dehuan, 'Speech at the Conference of the Directors of the Departments of City Industry in.Zhejiang Province' (May 1956). Cited in Le Zixing et al., eds., Ideal, devotion, and style: In memory of Comrade Gu Dehuan (Lixiang fengxian fengfan: Huainian Gu Dehuan tongzhi), Ningbo: Ningbo Chubanshe, 1995, p.260. Gu was the director of the Zhejiang Bureau of Industry and Mines at that time. In this speech, he argued that the central government's policy on coastal-inland divisions 'had negative side effects'.

[5] According to Doak Barnett, industrial and commercial taxes were the largest source of state revenue. From 1950 to 1954, they increased 3.5 times, from U.S. $1.3 billion to U.S. $4.4 billion. The increase mainly resulted from the Communists' efforts to regularize and rationalize the tax system in the coastal cities. See A. Doak Barnett, Communist China: The Early Years, 1949-55, New York: Praeger, 1964, pp.218-21.

[6] Minutes of the City Planning Meeting (1 September 1953); Hangzhou Municipal Archives (hereafter HMA), 1/9/47.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Eugenia Barnett Schultheis, Hangchow, My Home: Growing Up in Heaven Below, Fort Bragg, CA: Lost Coast Press, 2000, p.157.

[10] Lin Fengmian, Artistic Hangzhou (1932); cited in Wu Zhanlei ed., Yi Jiangnan: Mingren bixiade lao Hangzhou (Remembering Jiangnan: Hangzhou penned by famous writers), Beijing: Beijing Chubanshe, 2000, pp.292-93. Lin Fengmian (1900-1991) was an artist and educator who studied art in France. When he returned to China, he served as president of the National Art School in Beijing and founded the Chinese Art School in Hangzhou. In the 1970s he moved to Hong Kong and lived out his life there.

[11] On the 'morbid prosperity', see Zhejiang Daily, 17 May 1950, p.3.

[12] Yu Senwen, 'Urban Construction in the Past Year' (1950); HMA, 23/3/53. Yu was director of the Bureau of Urban Construction in 1950.

[13] 'Announcement of the People's Government of the City of Hangzhou' (November 16, 1949); HMA, 23/1/60.

[14] Yu Senwen, 'A Report to Mayor Jiang Hua and Deputy Mayor Wu Xian on the Plan for Fish Production in West Lake (Draft)' (November 1949); HMA, 23/1/60.

[15] Zhejiang Daily, 1 October 1950, p.6.