The Yangtze River Delta has long been one of China’s richest regions, with fertile fishing grounds and rice paddies that have given way to a sprawling megalopolis that includes Shanghai. Chinese President Xi Jinping has been trying for years to turn the area into an even bigger economic powerhouse, hoping to create a Silicon Valley of the east.

The country’s economic slowdown, driven in part by tensions with the U.S. and a slumping property market, is now starting to weigh on the project. Plans include an expanded high-speed rail network and a $2.6 billion artificial canal town meant to symbolize its ecofriendly ambitions. While few would dispute that the region remains a key economic driver, even Xi’s goal of creating a more efficiently run economic bloc and high-tech Arcadia hasn’t been spared the impact of the recent uncertainties.

"As the world splits into blocks, we don’t know to what extent trade would be curtailed,” said Shanghai-based independent economist Andy Xie. "International trade drives wealth creation here.”