The former small hamlet of fishermen has now become one of the most dynamically developing cities of the world. The economic successes of Shenzhen, also dubbed as China’s Silicon Valley, are expected to catch up with those of the former role model, Hong Kong. The success story of the city’s development can be the engine of China’s economy and can also serve as a model to other Chinese cities. Chinese leadership wants to give the city a key role in the ’Greater Bay Area’ initiative planned in the Pearl River Delta.
After Mao Zedong’s death, China needed a dramatic change to take the path of development, a basic condition of which was economic growth. Chinese leadership had to develop a robust reform plan, including the establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZs). Shenzhen was among the first areas to become such special zones. From a perspective of almost 40 years, it is visible what an enormous success story has taken place in the city and how it has become one of the most successful SEZs. A well-developed strategy of city governance and city development was an imperative, to prepare the city for the fast-paced development of its spatial area, economy and population. When reforms started to exhaust – because, among others, entire China became open and the distinguished role of SEZs ended – Shenzhen was forced to change its strategy. There is no better indication of its success than the fact that it is dubbed nowadays as China’s Silicon Valley. The Chinese Communist Party also had to take action about the reform, therefore Xi Jinping identified deepening reforms as the next stage. The ‘Greater Bay Area’ was announced within this concept, melting the Pearl River Delta into a single metropolis of unprecedented size.
Special Economic Zone
There was no concrete plan available for the implementation of Chinese reforms. They had to be developed in full detail, and the benchmark was their contribution to growth, and the main goal was to correct the flaws of the planned economy. For the sake of success, Chinese leadership was even willing to allow economic operators to meet existing market demands and earn some extra income, even at the cost of side-lining the planned economy. These initiatives, however, could not affect the position of the elite. In this framework, the decision was made to set up Special Economic Zones and allow only them to open up in terms of foreign economy, let foreign capital in, and establish incubators and joint ventures.[i]
The origin of development zones in China can be traced back to 1978, when the country’s leaders were searching for an adequate path to lift the country from poverty and bring about economic recovery. These special-function zones have become successful in China and still have an important role in its economy primarily because of the central Chinese government’s strong support and the relative autonomy of zone managers.[ii] Special Economic Zones were subject to unique economic regulations that differ from other areas in the same country. Their main aim was to create an attractive economic environment for the inflow of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). in order to achieve this, economic incentives were used, primarily in the form of tax incentives and lower tariffs to attract foreign currency and technological advancement, boosting economic growth. Special Economic Zones essentially acted as liberal economic environments promoting innovation and development within the boundaries of China. Chinese leadership was able to use SEZs to slowly implement national reforms that would have been otherwise impossible or extremely difficult, putting the country on the path to economic growth.[iii]
Development of Shenzhen and the role of city planning
At the beginning of reforms, during the 1970s, none of the cities of the later four special economic zones (Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Shantou and Xiamen) could be classified a metropolis, or even a town. All these cities are located along China’s south coast, near Hong Kong and Macao. Deng Xiaoping, the father of Chinese reform and opening-up, who launched China’s modernisation, visited Guangdong Province in 1977, where, among others, Shenzhen can be found.[iv] Two years after his visit, in July 1979, the then village was among the selected ones to become the venue of reform and opening-up, and they could start to depart from the plan-oriented economic system.[v]
Since May 1980, when SEZs actually started their operations, people have been continuously arriving from all over China. Shenzhen, which used to be no more than a small fishing village with less than 30,000 residents, has made history as China’s first Special Economic Zone where foreign investments and private enterprises were allowed.[vi] During his southern tour in 1992, Deng Xiaoping visited the city, where Shenzhen’s fast development also legitimised the success of the reforms and the necessity of continuing the reforms was confirmed.[vii] Today, Shenzhen has developed into a metropolis, with a population of almost 12 million and with China’s fourth largest GDP after Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.[viii]
However, for a city that experienced the type of rapid growth, it was very fortunate to have had forward thinking city officials and planners to help manage its success. Shenzhen officials remarkably were able to implement a total of three master plans within the span of 25 years; each adding to the fuel and direction of growth. The first master plan of 1986 put in six “cluster cities” that concentrated growth and infrastructure along three highways. In the ten years to follow this, unprecedented growth and lack of zoning controls lead to major urban sprawl in Shenzhen. By 1996, the urban sprawl covered over 645 sq. kilometres of land (Budapest is 525.3 sq. km). The city was running out of land and most of the structures being built were low-density manufacturing and housing units. City planners were also concerned about liveability and taking a page from more developed nations, created a new 1000 sq. kilometre growth boundary. “Periphery growth clusters” were also implemented around the existing six “cluster cities” to encourage growth and greater density while even more infrastructure, highways and a massive subway system began construction. By the mid 2000’s when a third master plan was being drawn up planners faced another dilemma entirely. The amount of space that could actually be used for development was dwindling, and quickly. Only about 100 sq. kilometres of legally developable land was left, and officials feared that without more space that the economic engine of Shenzhen would come to a halt. Eventually, instead of diminishing the green growth boundary, Chinese officials designated more than 200 square kilometres of occupied land as “urban regeneration areas”. The idea was to clear dilapidated low-density buildings and properties to build newer, higher density facilities. The government opted to buy back occupied land from private stakeholders and would then build new facilities themselves or give large plots back to developers. This plan was reinforced by stricter building codes. This tactic proved to be successful; Shenzhen has added almost 3 million people since the last master plan was put in place. This unprecedented growth however did not come without its consequences. The city also symbolizes many of China’s most acute problems — overcrowding, corruption, pollution and the stark absence of accountability.[ix] Only a quarter of Shenzhen ‘s population hold urban identity cards (hukou); the other 9 million people are migrant workers, but there are also undocumented workers, residing here illegally.[x] In recent years, the city has become infamous for its poor working conditions.[xi] Chinese “urban villages” or slums popped up illegally almost overnight on the designated growth boundaries and open spaces, further aggravating the problem, and the government has yet failed to address the problem properly.[xii]
The State Council has recently approved the removal of the barrier that was set up more than three decades ago to mark to mark the boundary between the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and the rest of the city. The boundary line set up in 1982 with wire fences that ran for 84.6 kilometres, marked the geographic boundary for China’s first special economic zone inside Shenzhen in 1980. This announcement gives the city government of Shenzhen and the provincial government of Guangdong to take the opportunity to improve the city’s public transport and better protect the environment, and primarily to develop public services and renovate public buildings. According to Qu Jian Qu Jian, deputy director of the Shenzhen-based China Development Institute, the removal of the line is due to the city’s dazzling rapid development. Preferential policies such as a tax reduction for the Special Economic Zone in Shenzhen were gradually cancelled by the year 2000, and since that time the idea of a special economic zone has no longer existed. Yet the boundary line does have its unique historic meaning, as it marked China’s first window, or trial run, for reform and opening-up. The line has resulted in heavy traffic jams during peak commuting hours, as today about 70 percent of the Shenzhen population works in the previous economic zone, but many of them live outside the zone. Qu Jian also highlighted the fact that the development plan for Shenzhen had originally envisioned a population of 1 million, but the population in Shenzhen reached 11.38 million in 2015. Urban facilities outside the line still lag behind those inside the Special Economic Zone, and the next key step after the boundary line is removed is to ensure a proper and balanced development for the whole city.[xiii]
In 2010, the 30th anniversary of Shenzhen’s conversion into a SEZ, then Chinese president Hu Jintao called the city a miracle. Today, the boomtown is one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.[xiv] As the city had been given a free hand to introduce reforms and accumulate wealth,[xv] by 1980, many people in the village had televisions, fridges, stereos and electric cookers – all luxuries at that time. While other Chinese citizens earned less than 100 yuan ($15) per month, the average annual household income in the Shenzhen exceeded 10,000 yuan. By 1985, the residents had started factories making clothes, watches and jewellery, encouraging traders of Hong Kong to invest. Huaqiangbei, a sub-district of Shenzhen’s centre, used to be a collection of manufacturers. At first they made electronic devices. Shenzhen Electronics Group came into being in 1986. Following SEG, more companies were founded and Shenzhen started to take shape as a manufacturing hub. Then the Ministry of the Electronics Industry provided experts; the city government of Shenzhen gave land and exempted taxes. At the height of its prosperity, about 70 percent of the world’s cell phones were made in China, while 80 percent of China’s cell phones were from Huaqiangbei.[xvi]
In 2012, Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, conducted an inspection tour of Guangdong. As a result, Xi said that China’s reform had come to a juncture where it would be more complicated to tackle difficult issues, and the CPC had to exercise political courage and deepen reform in important areas.[xvii] As entire China developed, SEZs practically lost their significance. In order for Shenzhen to retain its competitiveness and advantage, a new growth strategy was required, and, as the Chinese President had put it, reforms had to be deepened. Shenzhen officials hit on the idea of the city becoming China’s Silicon Valley, a centre of technological research, innovation and development. Those who believed in the suggestion have not been disappointed; the city spectacularly reinvented itself and is now a hotbed of private economic growth and home to tech giants such as Tencent, Huawei and ZTE. Incentives offered including tax, housing and funding are drawing global tech and science talents, with the goal of becoming the world’s innovation centre. The result and continuation of this development is manifested in the fact that since 2013, Shenzhen has been devoting more than 4 per cent of GDP to research and development.[xviii]
The city can be regarded as the financial centre of South China, as it is the home of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. Historically, state-owned companies, the old economy of China dependent on fixed asset investment for the past 25 to 30 years, are generally listed in Shanghai as it’s the oldest exchange and has a lot of the bigger companies. Mining companies, oil companies, banks and insurers tend to be on the Shanghai exchange. Whereas in Shenzhen, it tends to be what is called new economy – areas historically more accessible to private companies, like technology, export sectors, automation, manufacturing, healthcare, some internet companies. Now there is a massive transition in China toward more services and the consumer economy. Generally, the split between state-owned and new economy in Shanghai is probably like 70/30 and the reverse is true for Shenzhen. So this is why experts recommend Shenzhen for foreign investors. [xix] Beijing still boasts the greatest number of wealthy individuals in 2017 in the country, although runner-up Shenzhen is fast closing the gap, according to a report. While Beijing had 22 fewer wealthiest residents, for a total of 300, Shenzhen gained 28, for a total of 223 of wealthy Chinese with a net worth of at least US$300.[xx]
|Top Shenzhen-based companies:
· BGI – Beijing Genomics Institute华大基因
Founded in 1999, BGI is the first citizen-managed, nonprofit research institution in China. The firm owns 230 of the largest, high-throughput gene-sequencing machines, which can sequence 30,000 human genomes a year. This performance has helped the company to become one of the world’s largest genome mapping companies.
· BYD – „Build Your Dreams” 比亚迪
Established in 1995, BYD specialises in IT, automobiles and renewable energy. The firm is the largest supplier of rechargeable batteries in the world and has the largest market share for nickel-cadmium batteries, cell phone batteries, chargers and keypads.
· ZTE – Zhongxing New Telecommunications Equipment 中兴(通讯)
ZTE, one of China’s largest telecoms equipment company, was founded in 1985. The company is well positioned to make heavy investments in innovative technologies, such as wireless charging, cloud computing and 5G.
· Huawei 华为
Founded in 1987, Chinese telecom giant Huawei invested more than 190 billion yuan in research and development in the past decade. Alongside ZTE, it is China’s other important telecoms equipment maker and smartphone manufacturer.
· Tencent 腾讯
Founded in 1998, Tencent offers all kinds of internet-based services, from games to search, software development, e-commerce and instant messaging. Tencent is one of the best performing stocks of the past decade. Tencent ’s messaging platforms are among the most popular in China, with more than one billion monthly active users.
Against this background, Western investors are more and more convinced that companies can succeed more easily and have better prospects if they do business in China instead of California. The difference between Western and Eastern work ethics is also becoming increasingly obvious. Asian workers are famous for their commitment, and most of them work from early in the morning until late at night six days of the week.[xxi] In addition to its significance in finance, the city has become an incubator hub for tech and start-up companies. Shenzhen is increasingly attracting start-ups that may have previously only outsourced their manufacturing here; for example, it has become a global magnet for hardware companies.[xxii] Thanks to relatively cheap parts, cheap labour, cheap shipping, cheap manufacturers and crowdsourcing, this city is often seen as a dreamworld by developers: you can build a prototype, craft a kickstarter campaign and, if it is a success, you are off the races. Haxlr8r (hack-cellerator), for example, is a hardware start-up accelerator focussing on robotics, portable or wearable technology and the Internet of Things companies.[xxiii] A 111-day programme has been developed, mostly taking place in Shenzhen, but the demo day is organised in San Francisco. Voltera, a company formerly based in San Francisco that makes circuit-board 3D printers, participated in the program, and then moved to Shenzhen to take control of its supply chain and manufacturing processes, and to have headquarters in the electronics capital of the world.[xxiv]
Greater Bay Area
Urbanisation has never taken place so fast and to such a high degree as it has in the Pearl River Delta. According to the Chinese government’s plan, urban elements of the area will be brought together into a huge megacity named the “Greater Bay Area”. The government work report delivered by Premier Li Keqiang in March 2017 formally identified the Greater Bay Area as a key component of China’s strategic national development plan. Bringing together Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Macau – as well as Zhuhai, Huizhou, Dongguan, Foshan, Jiangmen, Zhaoqing and Zhongshan – with more collaboration and physical, economic, social, cultural and no doubt political integration is on the cards in the coming years. With the opening of the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai Bridge and the express rail link, these cities will be between 10 and 50 per cent closer together in travel time. If we compare present-day data to the plan, the combined area of the planned Greater Bay Area houses 66 million people and has a gross domestic product of US$1.4 trillion (HK$10.95 trillion). Compare this with the Greater New York’s 20 million people and GDP of US$1.5 trillion and the potential is immediately clear. However, the success model is by no means assured. The differences between these adjacent cities, especially between Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland cities, are evident from day to day. This project is not about achieving overnight homogeneity, but providing larger business and social opportunities for all.[xxv]
As China makes the transition from a labour-intensive, manufacturing-based economy into a services- and innovation-oriented society driven by a growing middle class, the Greater Bay Area will lead the country towards a new growth model.[xxvi] Therefore they are working on upgrading the Silicon Valley to extend it over the entire region of the pearl River Delta in the Great Bay Area concept. Several policies were adopted that are hoped to facilitate the plan, since they show their strong commitment to foreign capital and overseas companies. Their aim is to establish an open economy on a higher level and to make Guangdong Province, Hong Kong and Macau become the centres of technology and innovation. Hong Kong is still trying to redefine it role in the strategy. CCP has already developed the goal suiting them, namely, closer cooperation with Shenzhen and combining Hong Kong’s strength, which is highly skilled people, with Shenzhen’s highly industrial city. According to the city’s CCP Secretary Wang Weizhong, they just would like to provide a platform for Hong Kong’s young people to realise their dream of creating companies. China expects GDP in the Greater Bay Area to triple to US$4.62 trillion by 2030 from US$1.38 trillion last year, surpassing the Tokyo, New York and San Francisco metropolitan areas. This concept helps the cities shift from competition to collaboration. The market in China is considered big and still growing fast to attract foreign investments, which is very important for innovation. At the moment, the region is not open and attractive enough for foreign companies, since it mostly attracts companies from the domestic market. The US’ Silicon Valley, however, has companies from all over the world (India, China and Europe, etc.).[xxvii]
Guangzhou and Shenzhen could be the biggest economies in the “Greater Bay Area” by the end of 2018, estimates suggest, overtaking Hong Kong and forcing it into third place. Guangzhou’s GDP is expected to grow to 2.31 trillion yuan (US$354 billion) this year. It grew about 7 per cent to 2.15 trillion yuan in 2017, and its growth target in 2018 is about 7.5 per cent. Shenzhen’s GDP is estimated to be 2.32 trillion yuan, narrowly beating out a GDP of 2.28 trillion yuan projected for Hong Kong in 2018. In 2017, it overtook Hong Kong’s growth per cent (3.7), with its GDP exceeding 2 trillion yuan and a growth per cent of 8.8, and cemented its role as an engine of the Pearl River Delta. [xxviii] The gap in growth between the three will be even wider in the coming years if Shenzhen and Guangzhou keep up their remarkable expansion Spending on research and development has been recently classified as investment rather than an expense.[xxix] Hong Kong needs drive and vision as it seeks to integrate with the Greater Bay Area, and is still trying to define its role in the strategy.[xxx] This is also felt by Hong Kong’s leaders, and they plan to invest 4 per cent of its gross domestic product in research and development (R&D); the level of such investment in the city in 2016 was 0.73 per cent of GDP.[xxxi]
As a backlash of the initiative, however, from 2004 to 2012, over 160 million peasants have lost their land.[xxxii] Furthermore, environmental pollution is an increasingly relevant issue, air quality is a hot topic of discussion among global leaders as a threat to the people’s quality of life, including in China. While the effects of air pollution may not be immediately visible, its long-term risk represents a severe problem. In the Pearl River Delta, there are considerable efforts currently in place to manage the problem, especially in light of President Xi Jinping’s national strategy on “ecological civilisation”. A the 19th Party Congress, Xi Jinping’s speech had 89 mentions of environment and just 70 of the Chinese economy.[xxxiii] As there is huge freight traffic in the region of the Pearl River Delta, especially by sea, an agreement on the Prevention and Control of Air Pollution from Vessels was signed between the Mainland and Hong Kong in 2016, between Hong Kong’s Environment Bureau and China’s Maritime Safety Administration. The Greater Bay Area will not only present opportunities for economic growth, but is an important test bed and role model of sustainability collaboration for China and the rest of the world.[xxxiv]
This year is the 40th anniversary of China’s opening-up to the outside world and 38 years since Shenzhen became the country’s first special economic zone.[xxxv] Shenzhen is a microcosm of China’s success story. Its economy has grown 10,000-fold in the 40 years since the nation’s economic opening to the world. In 2017 it became the biggest economy in Guangdong province and it is tipped to soon eclipse Hong Kong. The fence that once separated Shenzhen from the rest of the country is going to be scrapped. It restricted the movement of people and goods in and out of a zone that had special tax concessions. The model was Hong Kong; the city’s entrepreneurs played an instrumental role in the evolution of Shenzhen from a fishing village of a few thousand people to the metropolis of 12 million that it has become. With the narrowing of the gap in development with the rest of Guangdong province, restricting migration and urbanisation through artificial barriers no longer makes sense. Deng Xiaoping set up the four special economic zones in China, but Shenzhen was by far the most successful. The removal of the barriers is in line with the creation of the “Greater Bay Area”, announced in 2017, the integration of nine Guangdong cities and Hong Kong and Macau into an economic and business hub. Shenzhen can be the inspiration to other Chinese cities, just as Hong Kong was when it drove its northern neighbour to greater achievement.[xxxvi]
The large-scale initiative planned in the pearl River Delta seeks to promote collaboration and not competition in the region as well as Hong Kong’s and Macau’s greater integration with mainland China. Due to its colonial past, Hong Kong has to redefine its role in the initiative, but seeing its economic data and the weakening of its trading position, Shenzhen has started to rise and taking over its place. There are signs of collaboration in several areas, but if Hong Kong fails to keep pace with Shenzhen, it will fall into second or even third place in the region, and will have a weaker position vis-à-vis Chinese leadership.
Author: Alexandra Zoltai
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[ii] ’Understanding Development Zones in China.’ In: China Briefing, 2011. október 5.
[iii] ’Special Economic Zone – SEZ.’ In: Investopedia.
[iv] Yakowicz, Will: 5 Things to Know About Doing Business in Shenzhen. In Inc. 2015. február 24.
[v] Zhang Jingya: Backgrounder: China’s first 4 special economic zones. In. CCTV, 2010. július 9.
[vi] Chen, Celia: Guangdong to set up its version of Silicon Valley ont he doorstep of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. In: South China Morning Post, 2017. november 22.
[vii] Yakowicz, Will: 5 Things to Know About Doing Business in Shenzhen. In Inc. 2015. február 24.
[viii] Yakowicz, Will: 5 Things to Know About Doing Business in Shenzhen. In Inc. 2015. február 24.
[ix] Gladstone, Rick: 深圳奇迹背后的残酷主题. In: The New York Times, 2015. december 22.
[x] Chen, Celia: Guangdong to set up its version of Silicon Valley ont he doorstep of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. In: South China Morning Post, 2017. november 22.
[xi] Gladstone, Rick: 深圳奇迹背后的残酷主题. In: The New York Times, 2015. december 22.
[xii] ’Shenzen: The „Instant City”.’ In: Encountering Urbanization, 2011. június 22.
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[xv] Yakowicz, Will: 5 Things to Know About Doing Business in Shenzhen. In Inc. 2015. február 24.
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[xvii] „Shenzhen: A story of change.” In: China Daily, 2017. február 20.
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[xix] Fensom, Anthony: Interview: China Stocks. In: The Diplomat, 2016. február 4.
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[xxii] Lindsay, Greg: Top 5 startup hubs of the future – and they’re not in th U.S. In: Inc., 2015. február 24.
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