Hefei's makeover has to be seen to be believed
Visitors check out an intelligent urban planning system developed by iFlytek, a Hefei-based artificial intelligence pioneer, in Hefei, Anhui province, in May. [ZHANG YAZI/CHINA NEWS SERVICE]
A few weeks ago, I took a high-speed train from Beijing to Hefei, capital of Anhui province, for a three-day business trip to my hometown, where I had spent the first 18 years of my life.
During the five hours on the train, I was filled with old memories. In June 2008, I was about to graduate from university and keen to leave the province for a better start to my career.
Like many of my classmates, I wanted to work in a bigger city and a more developed region, as Anhui was then less open and economically backward. Finding a good job with attractive career prospects was going to be difficult here, I thought.
However, during my recent trip in June, as colleagues and I visited many companies, my perception of Anhui changed, as several enterprises in some of the most advanced and emerging sectors, such as new energy vehicles and voice recognition, had set up their headquarters in Hefei over the past 15 years.
I quickly realized that these companies had ushered in better career opportunities for people of the province.
During an interview at iFlytek Co Ltd, an artificial intelligence pioneer in Hefei, I came to learn that Liu Chenxuan, a manager of its education products, had graduated from a university in Shanghai but started her career at iFlytek in Anhui.
"I am doing my PhD in artificial intelligence at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei. I am willing to work and further my studies here because companies like iFlytek provide extensive application scenarios for AI technologies. Such scenarios are of paramount value and importance to AI researchers," she said, explaining why she was happy about living and working in the province.
Liu also said several young people in the AI field were calling Hefei home now for similar reasons.
One of the places we visited during my trip was the USTC Silicon Valley, a hub for high-quality innovation and high-tech startups, which was built on the strength of USTC graduates and talent.
USTC is the best university in Anhui and has had a modern, well-facilitated campus since the 1990s.
Cheng Yu, an official at the hub, told me that more graduates from USTC are willing to stay in Hefei after graduation. In the past, most preferred to leave for bigger cities. Several startups in the hub were actually founded by USTC alumni, he said.
"The local government has been rolling out conducive policies for them to start a business in emerging industries here, and existing companies in these fields have formulated a very comprehensive industrial chain, which is very important for these businesses," Cheng said.
Latest data from the human resources department of Hefei show that Hefei will make efforts to retain some 52 percent of university graduates from the city this year.
It also aims to attract 350,000 university graduates to Hefei from other provinces, and cultivate some 25,000 highly skilled talent.
Last year, Hefei's GDP came in at 1.2 trillion yuan ($168 billion). It took only 14 years for the city's GDP to cross 1 trillion yuan from about 100 billion yuan.
While emerging and high-tech companies undoubtedly underpin such growth, the younger generation definitely has more and better options in my home city.