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Imagine a city with about as many people as Los Angeles just vanishing from the map. That happened in Chaohu in eastern China. About four million people live there, still do in fact, and they're not too happy about having their city deleted by an administrative sleight of hand.

NPR's Louisa Lim explains.

LOUISA LIM: So you go to bed one night and wake up the next morning to find out that your city no longer exists. It might sound Kafkaesque, but that's exactly what happened a few weeks ago to the four million residents of the sleepy city of Chaohu in eastern China's Anhui Province, famous for its huge freshwater lake and an ancient Han dynasty tomb.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: 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. Each of these three parts has been given to one of three nearby cities, Hefei, Wuhu and Ma'anshan. The broadcast confusingly explained the move as an inherent need at a certain level of economic growth.

I'm unhappy about it, said Mr. Luo. Chaohu was great. Why did they get rid of it? He's busy gambling on cards, which is illegal, just yards from the police station.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

LIM: This seemingly arbitrary government decision was enforced with no public consultation and little notice.

So this division of Chaohu has led to some strange anomalies. For example, just down the road from where I'm standing, there's a bridge and the houses on the other side of the bridge are now all in Hefei while the houses on this side of the bridge are in Ma'anshan. And the villagers here are not very happy with this arrangement. They say it'll be extremely inconvenient for them.

MR: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: Ma'anshan is too far away, complains a man who gives his name as Mr. Zheng. It's 50 miles away compared to the provincial capital, Hefei, which is only about 30 miles away. In the longer term, the 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. Its area will increase by 40 percent. It'll become the biggest city in China in terms of area.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

LIM: And Hefei now gets the whole of Chaohu Lake, after which the city was named.

If China's true religion is the pursuit of GDP growth, then Chaohu is being sacrificed to that end. Economics Professor Jiang Sanliang from Anhui University explains the thinking.

JIANG SANLIANG: (Through Translator) Chaohu's development hasn't been good, but Hefei is industrializing and urbanizing. It needs land, so the government hopes that redistributing the land will improve the entire province's GDP.

LIM: I've now come to the Chaohu city government building. It's eerily quiet since the local government, too, has been dissolved and no one can really tell us what's going on.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: I've got no official ID so don't try to interview me, says an officious official at the former news division of the propaganda department of Chaohu city. He's pretending to be busy dusting his shelves. In actual fact, he's waiting with all the other ex-Chaohu officials to find out which of the three cities he's been reassigned to.

Down at the park, a surprising number of people are happy about the departure of the government officials.

MR: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: It's a good thing, says one old man who gives his name as Mr. Guo, as others nod in agreement. There's too much corruption. The officials take all our money. He's sitting in a pavilion by a lake surrounded by willow trees listening to a group of retirees singing songs and playing traditional Chinese instruments. But as soon as I ask about the disappearance of Chaohu, the blazing row breaks out.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: We're not sure if this is good or bad, says Fan Shihong, shaking his head.

FAN SHIHONG: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: 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, others will expand.

GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: Once the shouting is over, the musicians launch into a 1960 song named "Chaohu is Good." It describes the long miles of shoreline alongside Chaohu Lake and it mentions the song sung in the willow shadows praising their hometown. All those are still there, but technically, their hometown of Chaohu is not.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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