Reaching for the sky: the amazing story of Shenzhen | China Unlocked

China’s development over the last four decades has been described as the greatest social transformation in human history. There is, perhaps, no other city that epitomizes the gargantuan changes that have taken place in China more than Shenzhen.

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By Duncan Gordon

At the summit of Liuhuashan Hill a towering bronze statue of the man who made Shenzhen gazes out over the city’s sea of skyscrapers. But surely even Deng Xiaoping could not have imagined what this city would look like today. The former Chinese leader is a huge presence in the collective conscience of one of China’s most prosperous cities. Apart from the imposing statue of Deng in Shenzhen’s biggest park, billboards dotted around the city bear his image and his name frequently comes up in conversation with local tour guides and government officials: a constant reminder of the amazing transformation that has taken place here in the Pearl River Delta.

In 1980 Shenzhen was a small town with a population of about 30,000. Now it is a metropolis of more than 10 million people. In that year, the Chinese government, headed by Deng Xiaoping, established the country’s first special economic zone in Shenzhen. As the Director of the Information Office of the Shenzhen Municipal Government, Han Wang Xi, put it, “Shenzhen became a window of the reform and opening up policy.” The economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 changed China forever, setting it on the path to becoming the country it is today.

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The statue of Deng Xiaoping atop Liuhuashan Park

The Urban Planning Museum might not be on the top of tourists’ to-do lists when they visit a city. However, visitors should make an exception for Shenzhen. The small museum in Lianhuashan Park displays a timeline of Shenzhen’s astronomic development, from 1979 until the present day. As visitors walk around the museum, photos of one dusty road, laden with trucks and bicycles, cutting through the countryside towards the small town of Shenzhen are replaced by images of the metropolis that has taken its place. The pace of change is breathless.

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Shenzhen, seen from Hong Kong’s Crest Hill in 1964
Pearl River project : Shenzhen Lowu after
Shenzhen, from the same location in 2015

Insatiable ambition

Han Wang Xi says that the key to Shenzhen’s development was opening the city to outsiders and encouraging innovation. Today, 95 per cent of Shenzhen residents are migrants who arrive in the coastal city with dreams of success and a drive to achieve them. “Shenzhen is different to other cities. We are full of energy and innovation. There are so many young people here,” Han states. Crucial to enabling the economy in Shenzhen to flourish was giving entrepreneurs the free reign to innovate.

“The government has played a smaller role in Shenzhen, enabling marketisation to play its role. That was a core element of reform and opening up, and that has allowed our city to thrive,” says Han. Shenzhen has certainly done that. The leafy, immaculate boulevards of the carefully planned city are lined with banks and insurance firms. Shenzhen has a mature finance industry and borders Asia’s number one financial hub, Hong Kong. Moreover, its location within the Pearl River Delta, the manufacturing heartland of China, coupled with the city’s excellent transport infrastructure, have maintained Shenzhen’s position as the top mainland city in terms of total exports volume for 25 years. It is also the third-busiest container port in the world and truly next level logistics mean that Shenzhen factories can ship products within one hour of coming off the production line.

Shenzhen’s insatiable ambition is best symbolized by its skyscrapers. The city’s spires of glass and steel have shot up towards the sun like buds in spring, the local economic conditions providing fertile ground for vertical growth. There are over 1100 high-rises in total in Shenzhen. From the sixty-ninth floor of the 384-metre Shun Hing Square tower, visitors can eat lunch overlooking the Shenzhen River which separates Shenzhen from Hong Kong. The northern bank of the river is a forest of edifices, while beyond the southern bank are the green, hilly expanses of Hong Kong’s New Territories. The difference is stark. Just a few hundred metres away is the Kingkey Finance Tower, standing even taller at 441.8 metres (the precise height is no accident – when pronounced in Mandarin the numbers sound similar to ‘a desperate desire to get rich’. Not just a gimmick in this city of dreams). For the best view in town, however, one must ascend the 600 metres of the Ping An Finance Centre. Completed in 2016, the fourth tallest building in the world dominates the skyline.

Tech hub

While Shenzhen has enticed millions of people from all over China to move to the country’s far south, it is also home to China’s third largest expat population, after Shanghai and Beijing. Aside from abundant job opportunities, foreigners are drawn to Shenzhen’s subtropical climate and good air quality. The city’s avenues are bursting with green, while mango and lychee trees bring south China’s natural richness to the urban landscape. Bustling restaurants serve up delicious Cantonese style fresh seafood day and night, served to the soundtrack of Mandarin and Cantonese chatter mixing in the air.

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The seafood in Shenzhen’s restaurants is fresh out the sea.

Han Wang Xi confirms that Shenzhen plans to maintain its growing reputation as an international hub. “The city leaders want Shenzhen to become a modern, international, outward-looking city; a real hub for innovation and technology. Shenzhen has achieved miracles in the past and continues to take giant steps. We are reaping the fruits of being open to outsiders,” says Han. Technology is an important part of Shenzhen’s character. Dubbed by some ‘China’s Silicon Valley’, it is a haven for indigenous tech start-ups, some of which have gone on to achieve international stardom. Two of the country’s tech giants, Huawei and Tencent, were both founded in Shenzhen, in 1987 and 2000 respectively. Huawei is China’s best-known mobile phone manufacturer abroad, while Tencent’s messaging app WeChat has become a ubiquitous part of life in China, counting over 700 million active daily users.

Strolling back down the paths of Lianhuashan Hill, enjoying the cool spring breeze and listening to the laughter of children playing beneath the banyan trees, it is easy to forget the tireless efforts of the government and the millions of migrants that went into making Shenzhen the successful, attractive city it is today. Shenzhen’s new generation of leaders are determined to continue Deng Xiaoping’s legacy and ensure it continues to set an example for other developing cities, regions, and countries to follow.

 

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