From my base in Hong Kong, I set out on a Pearl River Delta loop, hitting Shenzhen and Dongguan and then Guangzhou, Zhuhai and Macau.
Why? Because this unprecedented, interconnected story of breakneck urbanization, technological innovation and post-modern megacity sprawl showcases no less than the future dreamed up by the collective leadership in Beijing. And it doesn’t hurt that southern China is the starting point of the Maritime Silk Road.
I was very privileged to visit Shenzhen and Guangzhou only a few days after the Little Helmsman Deng Xiaoping, then 88, embarked on his legendary six-week “southern tour” in January-February 1992. His target at the time was to turbo-charge the “get rich is glorious” Chinese manufacturing miracle, still in its infancy.
In the early 1990s, agriculture, mining and fishing were responsible for 27 percent of the Chinese economy, while manufacturing and construction accounted for 40 percent, and services for 30 percent, according to Hong Kong banking sources. At the start of the 2010s, agriculture was already down to only 10 percent, with manufacturing at 46 percent and services at 44 percent. A generation of business leaders often referred to as the “Gang of 92” – when many of them started – were imprinting their mark on a new China.
Now the Pearl River Delta – China’s number one hub of labor-intensive manufacturing – is in the process of replacing workers with robots on a large scale, a further sign that China is about to take off technologically, big time. And that’s all part of a “Made in China 2025” strategy announced only two months ago by Beijing, centered on relentless innovation – and commercialization. The China 2.0 new industrial revolution is a go – with a bang.
The megacity confederation
China today, on the ground, looks and feels like a confederation of megacities fiercely competing with each other for everything; investment (internal and foreign), industries, tech talent, global visibility. Beijing does support provinces and regions – much as the Song dynasty did – but up to a point. China, de facto, is already federalized. It’s up to each province to determine its own economic strategy.
That’s a long and winding road since the 1960s – when China was under the yoke of the Cultural Revolution (to seize the seismic shift, check out The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962-1976, by University of Hong Kong professor Frank Dikotter, based on previously classified party documents). It’s also enlightening to compare it with the fact that the UN, during the 1960s, was starting to promote the concept of the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) as an infrastructure and growth template.
Now there are more than 4,000 SEZs scattered all across the world – living and breathing experiments of strategic investment bound to absorb working masses and turbo-charge modernity. And Shenzhen, of course, is the mother of all SEZs.