Imagine a city like Los Angeles disappearing from the map completely. That's exactly what happened to Chaohu, a city in eastern China's Anhui province with a similar population — about 4 million — which has vanished in an administrative sleight of hand.
That was the Kafkaesque reality for Chaohu's inhabitants, who went to bed one night and woke up the morning of Aug. 22 to find out that their city no longer existed. For many, their first inkling that something had changed was from the local news.
"Anhui province is today announcing the cancellation of Chaohu city," the broadcast said. It went on to explain that the city once known as Chaohu had been divided into three. The nearby cities of Hefei, Wuhu and Ma'anshan each absorbed a piece of territory. The broadcast confusingly described the move as "an inherent need at a certain level of economic growth."
Complaints Of Illogical Redistricting
"I'm unhappy about it," says a man who gives his name as Mr. Luo. "Chaohu was great. Why did they get rid of it?"
Luo is busy gambling on cards — which is illegal in China — just yards from the police station. Among his fellow gamblers, this bemusement is common, followed by resignation.
Rumors had circulated for a few weeks beforehand, but there had been no public consultation and no official notice, with residents not being told about the new boundaries in advance.
This division of Chaohu has led to some strange anomalies.
For example, in Lintou town, a bridge serves as the new boundary dividing Hefei from Ma'anshan. This means that, for some, the five-minute bicycle ride between home and work has become a trip from Hefei to Ma'anshan and vice versa. The residents of Lintou complain that the redistricting is illogical.
"Ma'anshan is too far away," complains a man who gives his name as Mr. Zheng. "It's 50 miles away, compared to [Anhui's] provincial capital, Hefei, which is only about 30 miles away."
In the longer term, residents worry that being hitched to Ma'anshan will be bad for their village. Everyone is aware that Hefei is the major beneficiary of this move: Its area will increase by 40 percent, and it will become the biggest city in China in terms of area, according to the local media.
Hefei will also now take over the whole of Chao Lake, after which the city was named. Some argue this is good for the lake, since Hefei will be able to spend more money cleaning it up.
A 'Vampire City'
But if China's true religion is the pursuit of GDP growth, then Chaohu is being sacrificed to that end. One small district of Chaohu, Juchao, has been rechristened Chaohu, but it has been downgraded to a county-level town, and placed under the administration of Hefei.
Online, some Internet users have jokingly begun to refer to Hefei as a "vampire city," since they are accusing it of "sucking the blood" from Chaohu.
Economics professor Jiang Sanliang from Anhui University explains the thinking behind the decision:
"Chaohu's development hasn't been good, but Hefei is industrializing and urbanizing. It needs land, so absorbing Chaohu will benefit Hefei. The government hopes that redistributing the land will improve the entire province's GDP," he says.
In recent years, Hefei's GDP growth has been an average of 17 percent. So this move serves the long-term aim of boosting Hefei's competitive advantage by giving it land to expand, so it can challenge the more prominent cities of Nanjing and Wuhan.
In what used to be Chaohu, the city government offices are, for once, deserted.
There's no sign at the gate, because Chaohu city no longer exists. The government buildings themselves are eerily quiet, since the local government, too, has been dissolved and no one can really explain what's going on.
"I've got no official ID, so don't try to interview me," an officious official tells NPR as he bustles around his office in the news division of Chaohu city's former propaganda department.
He pretends to be busy dusting his shelves. In reality, he's waiting — with all the other ex-Chaohu officials — to find out which of the three cities he's been reassigned to.
A Hometown In Song Only
At the park, a surprising number of people are happy about the departure of government officials.
"It's a good thing," says one old man who gives him name as Mr. Guo, as others nod in agreement. "There's too much corruption. The officials take all our money."
He is sitting in a pavilion by a lake surrounded by willow trees, listening to a group of retirees singing songs and playing traditional Chinese instruments. As soon as the group is asked about the disappearance of Chaohu, a blazing row breaks out.
"We're not sure if this is good or bad," says Fan Shihong, shaking his head.
"Of course it will be good," the others yell back, subscribing to the bigger-is-better school of thought. This could even be the first step of a bigger redistricting project in Anhui, according to the Chinese press, during which some cities will disappear and others will expand.
Once the shouting is over, the musicians launch into a 1960s song named "Chaohu Is Good." It describes the long miles of shoreline alongside Chao Lake, and it mentions the songs sung in the willow shadows praising their hometown. All those are still there. But technically, their hometown of Chaohu is not.