Guangzhou Races Towards the Future
by Clare Cheung
Hong Kong Standard

Getting off the train, walking out of Guangzhou railway station, the first thing that catches the eye is a monster 80-storey tower looming like a rocket out of a sprawling lower block of modest shops, restaurants and offices. This modern skyscraper, the city's highest building, seems a fitting symbol of the economy's swift progress and the city's ambitions for the new millennium.

In the past 50 years, Guangzhou has grown rapidly from a coastal trade port into an industrial and commercial city. Due to its proximity, it shares many similarities with Hong Kong- the Cantonese language and food, a new metro and of course, the zest for high-rise living.

It has ambitions to challenge Hong Kong's status as the most internationalised city in China.

Expressways, modern-looking buildings, and cultural parks are sprouting up everywhere you look. Today Guangzhou is radiating its charm and opening its arms to the outside world. It has become a highly attractive place to live and work, a magnet for people in the neighbouring poorer towns and for the nouveau riche urbanites.

It has been a rapid transformation - unthinkable before Deng Xiaoping took over in Beijing. When the communists seized control in 1949, people across the mainland were living in unimaginable poverty and hardship, with no hope of a better life.

''People did not eat enough and lived under insecurity before the open-door policy,'' said Jessie Zhang, an executive secretary at a private club. ''Compared with then, we are living quite comfortably. Even those who have become unemployed lately still have enough savings to maintain their lifestyles for one to two years without causing any social unrest or being tempted towards crime.

''The 1990s are especially an era of change. Infrastructure like transportation and housing have been developing very rapidly. I am very positive about future growth.''

People from poorer areas are moving to Guangzhou in search of opportunity and better standard of living. Ah Jing, a 20 year-old working in a sports shop, came to Guangzhou a few months ago, fresh from school in Zhanjiang.
''Zhanjiang's economy is far poorer than Guangzhou's. Zhanjiang is a coastal city and in principle, it should have great development potential. But officials there are so corrupt that it has undermined the development of the city.''

She said her brother, a secondary school teacher back home, has only been paid half his salary because of the corruption among officials, and the local government is strapped for cash. ''He will not move to Guangzhou because for him it is more difficult to get a teaching job here,'' she said.

Ah Lan, a farmer's daughter who came from the outskirts of Guangzhou propern a cafe in Shibafu Beilu- a busy shopping district downtown. ''Three out of four children in our family are working in the city. Most of the young people in the rural areas are looking for jobs in the city instead of helping their families doing farm work. The city is providing more opportunities and better prospects for young people,'' she said.

The Guangzhou government plans to invest 17 billion yuan (HK$15.95 billion) in development and renewal, Vice-Mayor Li Zhuosha was quoted recently as saying in a local economic magazine.

''The government has put forward plans to develop Guangzhou into the core city for the whole of southeastern China,'' said Dr Sui Guangjun, a teacher at a leading university.

''The rapid development of the city has given Guangzhou a chance to compete with other cities. But we are facing strong competition from Shenzhen and Hong Kong in terms of talent, technology and resources,'' Dr Sui said.

 ''Guangzhou has its own disadvantages as well since it is an old city and we still have many historical problems which cannot be resolved overnight. But luckily what the government is doing now is taking us in the right direction.''

The municipal government's open attitude has allowed many small businesses to flourish. Some areas like Beijing Lu, and Shang/Xia Jiulu (known as Walking Street as cars are not permitted at night or on weekends house many small- and medium-sized businesses, capitalising on the rapid economic advancement of the city.

Everything one could want is here: shopping centres selling clothes, shoes, wigs, accessories, jewellery as well as bookshops, restaurants, cafes, and food markets.

These places are most popular among the younger generation where they can spend the whole day shopping and eating.

Education and catering are the two most profitable businesses in Guangzhou nowadays, according to one taxi driver. ''Many local people are very serious about their children's education and will pay several thousand yuan a month in tuition fees for their children to study in a private school with English-speaking teachers.

''Since Guangzhou people like eating out, restaurants, no matter small or large, are mushrooming everywhere.''

He said that although the economy was not as strong as before and almost every household has one family member who has lost their job, living standards were nevertheless sustainable as one of the country's richest cities.

However, Ah Qing, a salesgirl in a small boutique in Li Wan Qu, an old area next to Walking Street, said there were too many small businesses and competition was keen. ''Many people who have become unemployed started up their own businesses and the market has been nearly saturated,'' she said. While many locals start up business in a small way, larger-scale private enterprises are also blossoming under the government's encouragement.

''The private economy has been developing very rapidly in Guangzhou and state-owned enterprises are correspondingly shrinking,'' Wang Lian, a director of an information-technology consultancy firm, said.

''The Guangzhou government is rather open-minded and willing to invest in the city development. There are more chances to start up a joint venture with the government, more banks are willing to lend to private businesses, and more taxation incentives are given to private enterprises,'' Mr Wang said.

The mainland's economic future is a common talking point. Most people are positive about the city's future prospects, but they are divided and somewhat apprehensive about the possibility of China joining the World Trade Organisation. The thrust is not communism, which is regarded as a dead and buried issue. But there is a keen nationalistic edge to the discussions.

''It's not that urgent for China to enter WTO this year. It doesn't matter if we wait for another half (year) to one year,'' he said.
Most of the industries have been prepared for the possible changes inclusion in the world trade body would bring, Mr. Wang said. ''Imported goods find it difficult to compete with us on prices. We produce products like television sets and refrigerators in enormous quantity at low prices.''

Ms. Zhang from the private club said it makes no difference if China enters WTO at all. ''WTO will help China to be more internationalised. But we have no loss if we do not enter the organisation. China is an underdeveloped country with huge potential. It is the outside world which wants to take advantage of China rather than the other way round,'' she said.

Dr Sui is more hopeful. ''I think the chance (of China's entry into WTO) is high this year. China has done its best and made the biggest compromises. I don't think it will make any further compromise beyond the existing offer.''

Ah Qing said she believes China is in a favourable position in the negotiations after the US bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade last May.

Another taxi driver said he wanted the mainland to join the WTO. ''We can buy cheaper food. Besides, it helps raise China's reputation in the world.'' He hoped to see a strong China emerge which would supersede the US as an economic giant. ''I wish I could see it happen during my lifetime.''