By Jeffrey Lakshas and Christopher Green
Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province and home to 12 million people, is located in China’s heartland. Sometimes called the “Chicago of China” for its similar geographic location and role as a center of manufacturing, transportation, and higher education, Wuhan, in some ways, more closely mirrors Chicago’s sister city Pittsburgh because of its recent focus on high-tech research and quality of life. Perched on the 47th floor of a commercial high-rise, the consulate office has a view of two lakes and a man-made forest of hundreds of skyscrapers, visible symbols of the city’s growth and importance.
The Yangtze River (长江 Chángjiāng, literally the “Long River”) is an apt name for the world’s third-longest river and the longest in Asia. Its reach exceeds the Mississippi, the next longest, by more than 1,400 miles. While the Yellow River to the north was the cradle of Chinese civilization, the Yangtze River and its hundreds of tributaries have been even more critical for agriculture, commerce, and governance of vast empires for most of China’s long history.
The middle reaches of the Yangtze have had economic and military significance for thousands of years. Still, no time in history has captured the Chinese imagination as much as the Three Kingdoms period—a historical struggle between three successor states that emerged after the Han Dynasty collapsed in the CE. 200s. This period covers a hundred years of three-way strategic struggles to dominate the area that is now Hubei and Wuhan. The stories of that conflict were spun more than a thousand years later into “The Romance of Three Kingdoms,” which offers tales of heroism, bloodshed, love, cunning, and betrayal that easily rival those of Game of Thrones.
Five hundred years later, all modern Chinese school students read excerpts from “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” Dozens of movies and TV shows continue to bring the stories of this region to life. Fact and fiction are now hopelessly mixed, but the places remain. One can visit places like the Red Cliffs site of the most famous naval battle in China’s history and imagine the people who shaped history 1,800 years ago. Wuhan continues to play critical roles in China’s history. In early modern times, European ships trading for tea and other goods would sail to the port of Hankou (now Wuhan’s commercial and business district), ideally situated at the confluence of the Yangtze and Han Rivers. Ocean-going vessels that were too large to navigate the deadly Three Gorges up-river would also stop in Hankou. Hundreds of years later, Hubei’s Three Gorges would become the world’s largest dam and open hundreds of more miles of river to these cargo ships.
Modern Wuhan, however, would be unrecognizable to either the ancient strategists or the European traders. Adopting “Different Every Day” as its motto, the city is a booming megalopolis with thousands of high-rise buildings and dozens of bridges, tunnels, elevated highways, and ferries that weave the three old cities into one urban landscape, a mix of water, metal, and glass.
China’s central government, already heavily invested in developing China’s heartland, has doubled down after the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that the city is more vibrant and economically prosperous than ever before. This has shifted from its previous focus as a hub for manufacturing and transportation to high-tech research and development of optical electronics and biotechnology.
True to its motto, Wuhan has experienced rapid infrastructure improvements over the past several years, including new metro lines and bridges, renewal of public buildings, and large-scale construction of sporting venues, river walks, running paths, and parks. While the coronavirus outbreak in early 2020 and its accompanying 76-day citywide lockdown caused virtually all economic activity to halt, the national government invested heavily to revive the city when they emerged from the pandemic’s grip. As a result, Wuhan finished out 2020 with a reported 6.9 percent gross domestic product growth rate. Wuhan’s residents and the government are focused on putting the pandemic behind them and concentrating on a happier future.
Consulates started appearing in Wuhan (then Hankou) in the 1800s. The United States first established a consulate in Wuhan in 1861 to help protect trade interests at this inland port. U.S.-China-trade relations have been a major bilateral interest for more than 150 years. The diplomatic presence of the United States continued into the 20th century. Wuhan even housed the U.S. embassy when the city was briefly the war-time capital during World War II.
In modern times, the U.S. Consulate General in Wuhan is the newest, smallest, and fastest-growing U.S. consulate in China—it has doubled in staffing from 2016 to 2019, and expects more positions to be added in the next three years. The consulate continues to promote trade through the Foreign Commercial Service and analyzes the economic priorities of a region of four provinces—Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, and Henan—which have 270 million people and a combined economic output rivaling Brazil’s. The consulate—one of only four foreign consulates in Wuhan—conducts outreach to tens of thousands through media and cultural events and works on environmental protection and law enforcement collaboration.
The consulate office is located in a commercial high-rise that hosts dozens of offices as well as a mall, movie theater, Starbucks, McDonald’s, and 24/7 restaurants. Currently boasting approximately 15 direct-hire American positions, the consulate has a tight-knit community and plenty of opportunities for those interested in professional or personal growth. Most of the locally employed (LE) staff have joined within the past three years and bring enthusiasm and energy to their work. In 2020, many were recognized, and two were named Bureau of East Asian Pacific LE Staff of the Year for their exceptional performance during the early days of the pandemic and the consulate’s successful evacuation of 800 Americans. Like the city itself, the consulate is back on its feet after a challenging year and is looking forward to a bright future. Once the new office construction is completed, the consulate will more than double in size and open its consular section to routine American Citizen Services and tens of thousands of visa applicants.
Post housing includes serviced apartments in town and freestanding homes in residential neighborhoods near the Wuhan Yangtze International School. Families currently serving at post rate Wuhan as one of their best family-friendly assignments because of the supportive school environment and high quality of life. App-based shopping and food delivery are extremely convenient, with the consumer resources of all of China available at the swipe of a finger. Wuhan also offers plenty of parks, malls, concerts, athletic clubs, cycling paths, and other modern urban activities. While most are Chinese-language dominant, foreigners interested in participating are welcomed and assisted.
The city also boasts its fair share of top-notch museums, performances, and tourist attractions, featuring ancient artifacts, world-class acrobatics designed by a director of Cirque du Soleil, and Wuhan’s most famous landmark, the Yellow Crane Tower—a building that over the centuries has inspired several of the best Chinese poems ever written.
Further afield, the region features stunning natural beauty and sites of historical and cultural significance. Wudang Monastery, comparable to Henan’s Shaolin Monastery, sits atop a steep mountain peak in western Hubei. The famed “Avatar mountains” of Zhangjiajie are in Hunan, and the Three Gorges Dam is located within the Hubei Province, approximately 50 miles from the border with Chongqing. But perhaps a favorite activity of Wuhan’s visitors is the hour-long night cruise on the Yangtze River, where jaws drop at the skyline of hundreds of buildings lit up in a synchronized and ever-changing light show featuring Chinese historical and modern themes.
In terms of daily life, tourist attractions pale in comparison to the region’s cuisine. Hubei cuisine has won the heart of more than one officer as their all-time favorite, with restaurants everywhere selling must-try local delicacies such as its signature “hot, dry noodles,” a regular lunch of consulate officers. The consulate’s favorite stand sells them for the equivalent of less than $1 a bowl. The region’s thousands of rivers and lakes produce refreshing lotus, osmanthus, and crawfish dishes rarely seen elsewhere in China. And in the southern part of the consular district, super-spicy Hunan cuisine is rightly famed throughout China. No one goes hungry in central China.
Wuhan retains pockets of old China’s charm with quiet back streets, beautiful temples, and extraordinarily friendly people alongside its busy streets, glitzy malls, vast parks, rapid construction, and fashion-conscious young professionals. Somehow, Wuhan manages to have both unique history and culture while being the best post to experience the “real China,” modern without being Western, unassuming yet memorable, and different every day.
Jeffrey Lakshas is the nonimmigrant visa chief and Christopher Green is the management officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Wuhan.