Just one hour northeast of Guangzhou's traffic congestion and smog lies an area of surprising natural beauty, with green mountains towering above unpolluted valleys and lakes. Welcome to Conghua, a small city (population 580,000) famed for its lychees and hot springs. The latter have attracted important visitors as diverse as former premier Zhou Enlai and US president Richard Nixon. Latter-day enthusiasts include officials from Guangzhou's Propaganda Bureau, which has built a multi-million yuan 'cadres training centre' in Conghua, complete with tennis courts and a swimming pool fed by hot springs. Although the extravagance sits awkwardly next to poor villages just a few hundred metres away, the centre and others like it have at least brought some investment and jobs to Conghua's rural areas. Conghua's per capita gross domestic product of about 12,000 yuan (HK$11,280) is one-third of Guangzhou's and slightly better than the provincial average. But Conghua's natural treasures have long been a drag on its development. About 70 per cent of the city's terrain is mountainous, 20 per cent is covered by water, and 80 per cent of its population is rural. Crucially, Guangzhou sources 60 to 70 per cent of its water from the Liuxi Reservoir in northeastern Conghua. Although Conghua technically enjoys municipality status, it falls under Guangzhou's administrative jurisdiction. The capital of Guangdong province has long used this administrative power to control development and prevent pollution of its drinking water. 'We need to protect the Liuxi River for Guangzhou. Polluting projects are absolutely not OK,' said Feng Jiexiong, editor of the twice-weekly Conghua News and director of Conghua's Foreign Propaganda Office. 'This has limited our development. Our leaders and people didn't like this policy very much, but there is nothing we could do.' The complicated political relationship between Guangzhou and Conghua will be simplified next year when the central Government is likely to formally approve Guangzhou's request to strip Conghua of its municipality status and make it a city district. Last year Guangzhou similarly reabsorbed the formerly independent cities of Panyu and Huadu, which border it to the south and northwest respectively. Guangzhou's development was constrained by the Baiyun mountains to its north and the Pearl River to the south and west. The provincial capital coveted Panyu for its deep-water port and wanted to build its new international airport in Huadu. Guangzhou also has applied to take over Zengcheng city to its east. All of these acquisitions will increase Guangzhou's total area more than five-fold and its official population from about seven to 10 million people. 'Guangzhou will be just like Hong Kong,' Mr Feng said. 'It will extend from the mountains [in Conghua] to the sea [in Panyu].' Conghua officials seem resigned to their fate, or even welcome it as the beginning of the end of centuries-long isolation. 'We were isolated for 500 years,' Mr Feng said. 'Nothing changed until the early 1990s.' It was then that a new road more than halved the two-hour journey to Guangzhou. 'We didn't have any good road, rail or water links to Guangzhou,' he said. 'The few investors who came to inspect Conghua would leave without even looking back once.' Conghua officials note that Guangzhou will have to help their home develop after it is 'reunified' with the provincial capital as a district. 'If Panyu hadn't rejoined Guangzhou, Guangzhou wouldn't have agreed to extend its [No 3] subway line there,' Mr Feng observed. Two expressways - the Beijing-Zhuhai expressway and one linking Guangzhou to its new airport in Huadu - should further reduce travel time between Conghua and Guangzhou to only 30 minutes and increase Conghua's appeal to commuters. 'The south wind from Guangzhou will soon reach Conghua,' said an official with the Guangdong Foreign Affairs Office.