Politics and Dynamics of Development
The PRD’s boom in the past thirty years is not coincidental, as it must be understood in a historical perspective. The PRD lies south of Wu Ling (Five Mountains) and the area is thus called Lingnan (South of Mountains). During imperial dynasties, far from the reach of the emperors, it never carried much geopolitical significance. This status, in turn, created the environment for the somewhat anarchic Lingnan culture. In fact, local leaders perceived the area’s marginal status as an advantage, as it allowed them to exercise experimental policies even though they were unsure of the outcomes. For example, if an open trade policy failed, it wouldn't impact the rest of the country. Historically, Lingnan has always been a place where those in power adopted a make-the-most-of-it attitude. Lingnan culture has long been the forefront of experiments of a more open framework of politics, trade and culture.
The geopolitical marginality to the central government afforded Lingnan a chance to look outward for development and trade opportunities. A dense network of waterways and proximity to the South China Sea were Lingnan’s advantages. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during the Western Industrial Revolution, Guangzhou (Canton) had fully integrated into the global industrial chain as the gateway to China, making it the first and biggest trade portal of China. Trade and industry made the PRD the pioneer of international trade of its time.
The PRD was an early beneficiary of China’s economic reform program. In 1979, two special economic zones were established there, in Shenzhen and Zhuhai, and Guangdong was given permission to open up to foreign investment as well as to private business before other parts of China. The PRD has since become “the world factory” for electronic products, garments, toys, machinery, and other products.
The PRD’s role as the transformation lab of China still holds true today, a search for “PRD, testing ground” in Baidu, China’s answer to Google, yields many results: PRD to be testing ground for “national price reform,” “clouding computing in China,” “environment protection demonstration area,” and “financial reform,” among others.
Industry and Infrastructure
Infrastructure has always played a key role in the development path of the PRD. Historically, waterways and roads connect harbors and townships, laying the basic groundwork for the early business prosperity of the region. The region’s early infrastructure network radiated from Guangzhou, which took center stage in business and political activities.
Shortly after the economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, investments from Hong Kong flowed into the PRD, long before China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Real estate, clothing, machinery, electronics, food, textile, and chemicals were the developed industries. To aid the booming industries, infrastructure assumed a significant role in the region. A popular saying from the time expresses the direct connection between economic growth and mobility infrastructure: “In order to get rich, one must lay a road.”
This boom resulted in the fast growth of megacities like Shenzhen, Zhuhai, and Dongguang. At the same time, as foreign investment from Hong Kong and Macau focused on small- and medium-sized enterprises, many production facilities were also erected in small townships throughout the PRD. These new developments required a networked system of road, rail, and waterway.
Today, the government invests in large-scale infrastructure projects such as airports, railways, and harbors in the region, hoping that transportation improvements will attract foreign investment. The advancement of infrastructure underpins the building of a number of new towns. The equation looks like this: transportation + industry = new town and new population. In practice, this model may not always work: For example, Nansha district in Guangzhou, where eight-lane roads were paved and a harbor was opened before any industry arrived, is struggling to attract companies and professionals. Another example of infrastructure preceding development, is Shenzhen’s Dayun New Town, which is meant to spring up around the stadiums built for the 2011 Universiade, where new residents and high-tech and creative industries will enjoy the convenience of roads and public transportation constructed for the international student sports competition. If and how this plan will be realized is unknown.
Nonetheless, as the region continues to profit from industry, more and more residents become participants in the region’s mobility complex. Automobile enjoys enormous popularity. Shenzhen, for example, with over 2 million automobiles, scores second on a nationwide ranking of car ownership, and it is city with the highest car density (based on number of cars/length of road ratio) in China. The airports are well integrated into the mobility system, as one can, for example, easily travel from one of the region’s five airport to neighboring cities, and check in a flight in the “remote terminal” in one city before traveling via a comfortable bus directly to the airport in another city.
Daily Life and Mobility
Each of the major cities in the PRD exhibits diverse characteristics of culture. Guangzhou, celebrating a history of more than two thousand years, has long been the center of Cantonese culture, where a laid-back lifestyle with various fine schools of cooking is to be found. The modern Guangzhou provides a number of important cultural and academic institutions. The Guangzhou Triennale, for example, is a much-acclaimed event in the Asian art world.
Hong Kong, marked by its colonial past, is the most Westernized of China’s cities, and it lives up to its claim to be “Asia’s World City.” There, local Cantonese culture blends with the glare of a high-profile financial world, resulting in contrasting speeds of everyday life: the hectic life of office workers in megaskyscrapers is juxtaposed with people living in low-rise houses and carrying out traditional businesses. Hong Kong also boasts high-quality higher education and hosts a number of world-class cultural events every year.
The young city of Shenzhen was able to transform itself from a village of 26,000 people in the late 1970s to a thriving metropolis of fifteen million in 2012; in the process, it has created its own “Shenzhen Dream,” which is modeled on the American dream. Young, aspirational people come here to pursuit their dreams in all areas—career, love, and family. With the average age of its population at about thirty, it’s easy to understand why “pursuing the goal with all one’s might” is deemed the motto in Shenzhen.
In the PRD, mobility in daily life takes various forms. Intercity commuters live in one city and work in another, and an increasing number of people have businesses and homes in multiple cities. Intercity highways make most cities easily within reach of one another. Express trains connect the major cities, and a super high-speed railway system, part of China’s ambitious plan to connect cities throughout the country with high-speed rail by 2040, is being built.
Within the boundaries of cities, mobility options vary for people of different income levels. Workers live close to the factories, and they take the bus to the city center to do shopping on the weekend. White-collar workers may use public transportation or drive a private car, depending on which gets them to their destination with greater speed. Some white-collar workers rely solely on taxis, which are plentiful and relatively cheap. Due to the high level of traffic, it is generally considered dangerous to ride a bicycle more than a short distance in the PRD’s cities.
In the run up to Universiade in 2011, Shenzhen launched a green transportation scheme curiously nicknamed “BMW,” which stands for bicycle, metro, and walk. The middle class embraced the idea during the Universiade period, and many continue to participate in its efforts to reduce the number of cars on the roads on any given day. This shows an emerging class of residents that places value on the environment and seeks to pursue a healthier lifestyle and a lighter footprint.
In almost all PRD cities, except for Hong Kong, the public transportation system’s intermodal connections are not always well planned, which means that changing from one modality to another can sometimes be a frustrating experience. The concept of “seamless mobility” appeals to those who desire better efficiency and physical comfort. Shenzhen government has already partially addressed this problem and plans to increase bus and subway train frequency in order to reduce the interchange waiting time to no more than five minutes.
Population and Integration
A look into the population structure in the four key cities of the PRD reveals the region’s open secret of success: The factories are largely powered by people from other provinces in China, or migrant workers. Portraits of this class don’t always have a positive tone: In Dongguan, according to a 2004 report in the Washington Post, most of the millions of migrant workers were eighteen- to twenty-two-year-old women, who toiled at assembly lines for more than sixty hours a week for wages that amount to about $120 per month. According to standard practice, most live at their factories in company-provided dormitories and eat in company cafeterias—and hand back one-third of their pay for food and lodging. Many of these migrant workers live in the PRD for years to earn enough money to start their own small business or simply to provide for the coming years, and then return to their less developed hometowns, which are usually villages.
This large, floating population is most easily influenced by changes in the industry. Many now-defunct companies had problems meeting their payrolls before they shut down, leaving workers unable to collect months of back pay. In Dongguan, at the beginning of 2009, Phonex Satellite Television reported that millions of migrant laborers, most from China’s underdeveloped rural areas, loss their jobs and had to leave the city, thanks to the global financial crisis.
Recent years, however, have seen the fate of workers far improved. Policymakers in the deep inland areas of China have made efforts to boost their own industries—many of them in the export sector. The migrant workers are welcomed at home like never before. For example, a report in the Economist notes that, “Officials across the county have been busying themselves with what until three or four years ago would have been an unthinkable task: persuading migrants to stay in Jintang after the new-year festivities rather than go back to the coast. They hold meetings with migrant-worker representatives and offer tax breaks and help secure loans for those wanting to start up businesses.” Factories in the PRD have to make attractive deals to compete for workers. A 2012 report in Southern Metropolis Daily reveals that basic income in most Dongguan factories has increased to at least $200 per month, and lodging and cafeteria situations have also proved.
The success of the PRD in recent decades is based on a rather simple logic: Ensure the best production pipeline, best transportation pipeline, best personnel pipeline, and the result is massive profits. But the formula isn’t full proof. Challenges are arising in all the areas where the PRD once counted on easy success: production, transportation, and personnel.
Production orders are moving away from the PRD and to inland China. There, local governments offer attractive bargains to manufacturers of foreign brands in order to encourage them to open facilities in their cities, where labor costs are still relatively low. Land transportation infrastructure in areas like Chengdu and Chongqing are in place to welcome the new industries. With this, a tide of migrant workers will move from the PRD to work near or in their hometowns.
Furthermore, with the advent of a “Third Revolution,” a term used by the Economist to describe the digitalization of manufacturing that allows for flexible production, offshore competition in terms of labor costs may become nearly irrelevant. The Boston Consulting Group reckons that in areas such as transport, computers, fabricated metals, and machinery, 10 to 30 percent of the goods that the U.S. now imports from China could be made at home by 2020. The PRD must face the inevitable coming of an age of post-industrialization and consider what other forms of production it can offer.
When companies relocate, all of the factory spaces and ancillary spaces (dormitories, recreational centers, and so on) are simply left behind. The concrete jungle of roads and bridges, once congested arteries for the transportation of goods, will seem be free of traffic in time. The massive building of infrastructure, production space, and living quarters in the past two to three decades has been so extreme, that there is not sufficient land left for any large-scale future development.
Hong Kong may well remain a global financial center in the future, thanks to its robust business infrastructure. But the capacity of other PRD cities to attract domestic and foreign business investment is not yet clear.
The social integration of the PRD population is still a considerable challenge. Over the course of its thirty years, Shenzhen has produced both economic miracles and a large middle class, with the majority of its members sporting private cars and living in comfortable apartments. Enjoying a more international perspective (traveling abroad and sending their children to study outside of China) Shenzhen’s middle class enjoys a very high living standard in comparison to residents of other major Chinese cities. The question is how much of the floating population in the PRD cities are going to become permanent residents and seek a higher quality of life as the once-newcomers to Shenzhen did, but in an increasingly competitive environment. The task of social integration seems to have been interpreted by local officials as simply erecting libraries, concert halls, activity centers, and science museums in the cases of young cities like Dongguang. What remains little addressed, however, are education opportunities, higher-skilled job opportunities, and other programs that ensure social integration. Even in Shenzhen, there are calls for certain social processes like public participation to ensure that efforts to build a strong and healthy middle class are addressed through broad consensus. This leads to a question of identity. How will the PRD perceive its own identity, and how will that identity be perceived by the outside world? It helps to consider these complex challenges through the lens of mobility. As the success of the PRD has been heavily based on infrastructure to enable the efficient movement of goods, is there a way to reimagine mobility as, perhaps, a means to activate the creative potential of people and foster new kinds of material and cultural production?