Tug-of-war over Pearl River Delta
By Cristian Segura and Wu Zhong

BEIJING and HONG KONG - Chinese civilization originated and flourished from the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River in the north, and the country's power center has traditionally been based in the north.

Places such as Guangdong, on the southern coast, were considered "barbarian" and viewed with suspicion for their different cultural identity, while the people from these areas also tended to distance themselves politically from the power center.

In the late 1950s, though, chairman Mao Zedong launched a thorough reshuffle to get rid of local officials from senior posts in the Guangdong provincial government. This crackdown on "regionalism" was the result of these officials not always following Beijing's policies.

Since then, Beijing has seldom allowed a Guangdong native to hold the post of Guangdong Communist Party secretary, the leader of the province. This was in the hope that assigning a non-local person would bring the province under the direct control of Beijing.

Despite this, there have always been differences between Beijing and Guangdong in their approaches to economic development. Beijing prefers a centralized and bureaucratic management, while Guangdong, which has bustling and thriving Hong Kong as a neighbor and as a role model, is inclined towards a more liberal society, with the economy led by private businesses rather than by state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

The latest clash is over strategies for the economic and social integration of the rich Pearl River Delta (PRD). One of the government's aims is to make the delta more dynamic. It includes over 40,000 square kilometers and is home to the two Special Administrative Regions of Macau and Hong Kong, and nine cities in Guangdong province, including the capital Guangzhou. The area accounts for approximately one quarter of China's total trade value.

Thirty years ago, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chose the delta for the start of the reform and opening-up process. Guangdong had advantages for this. First, it was easier for Guangdong to adapt to a market economy, given its proximity to what were then the capitalist colonies of Hong Kong (Britain) and Macau (Portugal).



Second, there were fewer SOEs in Guangdong in comparison with the northern provinces because Beijing had refrained from investing in Guangdong (and Fujian) since 1949 in fear of a possible military invasion by rival Taiwan. Fewer SOEs meant less resistance to market-oriented reforms.

The concern in Beijing is that the municipalities in the PRD are too politically self-centered and defiant of higher authorities. Beijing believes it can better control this "insurrection" through a gradual integration of the main PRD cities into a "mega metropolitan area", with its development under central government control.

Early this year, the State Council, China's cabinet, unveiled a development plan for the PRD toward 2020, focusing on upgrading local industrial production and economic integration. However, while paying lip service, Guangdong provincial officials and most local party cadres in practice are trying to skirt around Beijing's guidance. They prefer a softer intervention in the economy and in society that allows greater freedom in decision-making processes, both with regard to the economy and social issues. This is despite the fact that such an approach has in the past resulted in "vicious competition" between PRD cities.

Of the more than 100 million residents in Guangdong, more than 60 million are Cantonese speakers who rarely watch China Central Television (CCTV) channels, which are broadcast mainly in Putonghua, says Li Zhigang, an associate professor at the Department of Urban Regional Planning of the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. Most people in Guangdong watch Hong Kong television, he says.

Like many other faculty members at universities in Guangdong, Li is not a Guangdonger and he does not speak Cantonese; he is from northern Hubei province and he moved to Guangzhou after receiving his PhD from the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom.

Li tries to be neutral when analyzing the different approaches of Beijing and Guangdong toward the PRD's development. He says the central government is worried because city governments in Guangdong simply get round or defy Beijing's policies as much as they can.

"The central government wants to see a coordinated development of PRD cities under its guidance, as happened in the Yangtze River Delta, where Shanghai is the undisputed leader. [But] in Guangdong, you have too many big cities which are reluctant to accept Guangzhou or any other city as the leader of the PRD region," says Li.

The Guangzhou-based Nanfang Daily in February published a story on how the Guangdong party chief, Wang Yang, a non-Guangdonger, had stirred up a fierce debate. He asked PRD city mayors to acknowledge Guangzhou as their "big brother". Wang stressed that local officials should team up "with a mentality of [respecting] the big brother ... While competition of cities at an appropriate level is encouraged, greater support must be given to their cooperation ... so that they can make a greater contribution to the modernization of the nation."

Joseph Cheng of the City University of Hong Kong and an expert on Chinese politics says that Wang Yang, who was formerly party chief of Chongqing municipality, "is having serious problems in gaining support from local [Guangdong] officials. He has almost lost control. Conflicts between the Guangdong party chief and local cadres are now commonplace, but Beijing will not allow a Guangdonger to be party secretary because it may reinforce regional power."

Until about six years ago, the central and Guangdong governments had the common aim of delegating greater administrative autonomy to the cities. Free competition among PRD cities had greatly revitalized and boosted their economic development.

But this changed when Hu Jintao became president in 2003 and prioritized the need for more balanced and coordinated economic development. The CCP wants to accomplish its motto of an "harmonious society" by reducing competition between regions. This competition is also seen as wasting economic resources.

Hence, all localities have been asked to first satisfy national interests before realizing regional ambitions. This clearly impacts Guangdong and its multiple power centers, as stated in the State Council's development plan for the PRD.

The plan envisions that 10 years from now, the PRD will be assembled into three main urban nodes, developed through mergers. Shenzhen and Dongguan will be a center on the east bank of the Pearl River; the Zhuhai Economic Special Zone will serve as the center for the urban areas on the west bank of the Pearl River; and finally, Guangzhou and Foshan will be merged into a larger city.

Beyond that, further cooperation should lead to deeper regional integration, as the government's plan assesses, "Under the unified leadership and coordination of the provincial government, the cities will establish multi-stratum cooperation mechanisms ... Following the example of Guangzhou-Foshan integration and starting with the integration of transportation infrastructures, a situation of unified development [will be reached] where urban planning is integrated, infrastructure is commonly built and used, industries are developed through win-win cooperation, and public affairs are coordinately administered."

The Bauhinia Foundation, a policy think-tank for the Hong Kong government, published a study this year defending a merger of Hong Kong with a projected "world-class Pearl River Delta metropolis". In 2007, the foundation published a report recommending a merger between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, once the former British colony is fully part of China, in 2047.

The Shenzhen municipality said in a working paper in 2006 that the city "will position itself as part of an international metropolis with Hong Kong". Shenzhen is considered the most pro-Beijing city in Guangdong. It emerged 30 years ago and its success is a result of the blessing given to it by Deng Xiaoping. Moreover, its population is almost entirely made up of migrants from other provinces who have few links with Cantonese society.

According to Bauhinia, the PRD metropolis should comprise the nine cities mentioned in the central government's plan - Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Jiangmen, Zhuhai, Foshan, Huizhou and Zhaoqing - plus Hong Kong and Macau. Bauhinia estimates that this mega-metropolitan region would by 2038 be the world's biggest in terms of gross domestic product.

The Cantonese establishment, however, is against this merging process, and Bauhinia warns that "there are some problems in the Guangdong-Hong Kong integration process that need to be resolved". Bauhinia considers the risks of "competition and conflicts of interest among cities in the region" and emphasizes that if the PRD is to be a "unified territory", it will need to follow the State Council's plan.

Bauhinia has this to say of the Cantonese identity: "These ethnic and geographical ties are sure to grow even closer. The close relationships are reflected not only in economics, but in all facets of the economy, community, culture and livelihood. The close interactions between the people of Guangdong and Hong Kong are an undercurrent in the development of the relationship between the two territories. Indeed, this thread is becoming increasingly important."

Supporters of the idea for the PRD's unification point to Tokyo and London as examples. Professor Li, though, is skeptical of a complete merger happening. "There are too many political differences among the metropolitan entities."

At the 2005 annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), pro-Beijing Shenzhen representatives proposed to introduce on the agenda a discussion on a hypothetical future merger with Hong Kong, but Guangdong deputies blocked it. Since then, this topic has been avoided by the NPC, the highest state body and the only legislative house in the mainland, said a source in Hong Kong who wished to remain anonymous.

Christine Loh, chief executive officer of Civic Exchange, a public policy think-tank in Hong Kong, reported in 2007 that the Guangdong government "applied for the designation of a Guangzhou Development Zone" to compete with Shanghai and Tianjin, the port city south of Beijing. "Guangdong is highly political: it pursues every chance to assert itself."

The bottom line is that Guangdong has a more business-minded society than the rest of the country and is reluctant to accept intrusion by the mandarins, especially those from distant Beijing. In earlier times, Guangdong served as a base for strong federalist movements, but these were ultimately crushed by the military intervention of Sun Yat-sen, the foremost pioneer of republican China, in 1923.

The State Council's plan for the PRD does acknowledge the democratic role Guangdong has played for the country, "The Pearl River Delta, especially the special economic zones in the region, will continue to serve as an experimental field and demonstration area, deepen reform of the economic system and social administration system, advance the development of democracy and the rule of law." At the NPC's meeting in 2008, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao asked "people in Guangdong to further free their minds and continue to take the lead in the modernization process".

Despite this, there is a scarcity of Cantonese staff at Guangdong's universities and academic institutes. Twenty years ago, the majority of teachers at Jinan University were Cantonese. "Nowadays, they are the minority," says Shao Yi, a professor at the Institute for Chinese Dialects at Jinan University, in Guangzhou. Although the institute is focused on the study of native languages in Guangdong, about 90% of its researchers come from other provinces. Only Mandarin is used throughout the whole educational structure in Guangdong because the law requests it, says Shao.

Cheng, of the City University of Hong Kong, believes Cantonese is not promoted because the central government sees it "as a transmission channel for democratic ideas from Hong Kong".

The issue of Cantonese identity is sensitive. Six experts on Cantonese culture involved in the preservation of local languages and social traditions declined to be interviewed for this article.

Wu Wei, director of the Institute of Chinese Dialects, is confident that Cantonese will not disappear because it is used by the media and is a strong language that has been replacing local minority languages faster than Mandarin. But Li Zhigang says society in Guangdong "is being split into two worlds with no connections". That is, the local community and the booming migrant group.

"Hong Kong is what makes Guangdong special, more than their cultural identity. It helped the province to develop faster and more democratically," says Li.

People in favor of Cantonese singularity see the merging of PRD cities as a threat, especially a merger of Hong Kong with an expanding Shenzhen, or even worse, with a PRD mega city. In that scenario, Hong Kong would become a minor partner and lose its influence as an agent for modernization.

Cristian Segura is a European journalist based in Beijing. Wu Zhong is China Editor of Asia Times Online.