Pearl River Delta

China Experiments with a New Kind of Megalopolis

Beijing is building a megacity in the Pearl River Delta that it hopes will one day rival New York and Tokyo. This colossal urbanization project is a bold attempt at metropolitan integration -- and perhaps also a plan by the Chinese leadership to keep Hong Kong under its thumb.

Justin Chin/ Bloomberg via Getty Images

Friday, 9/6/2019   06:04 PM

At night, when the sky clears, it's not difficult to guess where the bridge leads. The clouds on the other side of the bay glow orange, illuminated by the city of Hong Kong, with its population of 7 million, just beyond the horizon. Another glow can be seen farther north: the high-tech boomtown of Shenzhen, with 13 million inhabitants. There is a third and fourth patch of light in the sky even beyond that: Dongguan, with 8 million people, and Guangzhou, population 15 million.

In the haze of daylight, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, modern-day China's most recent gargantuan building project, seems to end somewhere out in the open sea. But it actually spans the mouth of the Pearl River Delta, an area that has grown to become the world's largest metropolitan region. The bridge crosses 55 kilometers (34 miles) of open water and has been designed to last 120 years and withstand the ravages of storms and typhoons. It is a monument to a rapidly rising world power.

Here, in the country's south, is where China's economic miracle began 40 years ago. Small towns became cities and cities became megacities. Some 16 million people lived in the region in 1980. Today, it's home to more than 70 million who, in an area smaller than Lithuania, generate an economic output roughly equivalent to Russia. If the Pearl River Delta were an independent country, it would qualify for membership in the G-20 forum of the world's largest economies.

But Beijing has even greater ambitions. In February, the Communist Party announced plans to expand the delta into a city of cities that will rival the economic might and modernity of the world's major metropolises, like Tokyo, Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area. Indeed, that is where China drew inspiration for the name of the project: The Greater Bay Area.

Chen Yalei hails from the northern part of the delta, from the provincial capital of Guangzhou, once known as Canton. He was 15 years old when he left China for the first time in 1993 and traveled to Hong Kong with a group of gifted students for a mathematics competition. "It seemed unreal," he says. "Everything was so civilized, so clean. Even the weather seemed better than on the mainland. It was another world."

Today, the 41-year-old Chen lives in Hong Kong as a financial broker and travels regularly between the cities on the Pearl River and across China: "Hong Kong seems small, old-fashioned and expensive today. Shenzhen, on the other hand, feels like Shanghai."

International Newsletter: Sign up for our newsletter -- and get the very best of SPIEGEL in English sent to your email inbox twice weekly.

Chen says that Hong Kong, which for decades was seen as superior to other Chinese cities, won't be able to resist much longer being pulled into the maelstrom of economic and technological advances on the mainland. "Other cities in the delta will also lose their importance when everything here is consolidated," he says. "The Greater Bay Area is a huge opportunity for China."

China's leadership likes to forge vast plans, not all of which pan out. Long-pursued reform proposals to redistribute responsibilities from the overcrowded capital Beijing to neighboring cities have been delayed. The Shanghai Free-Trade Zone, announced in 2013, has not attracted as many investors as anticipated. In the port city of Tianjin -- where one municipal district was promoted as "China's Manhattan" -- the new skyscrapers have not filled up as expected.

Meanwhile, other plans that might have initially seemed grotesquely oversized, like the multi-trillion-dollar project to build the New Silk Road, are progressing at a pace that has unnerved many in the West. Can China succeed in building a new kind of metropolis on the Pearl River, one that shapes the 21st century, just as New York marked the 20th century and Paris the 19th?

Already, the nine mainland Chinese cities and the two special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao form a unique urban ensemble. Shenzhen has become a center for research and development that ranks alongside Silicon Valley. The area around the industrial city of Dongguan produces one-third of the world's jeans, while Foshan accounts for more than half of all refrigerators and air-conditioning units manufactured worldwide. Hong Kong is Asia's leading financial center and Macao is the largest gambling city in the world, with six times the gaming volume of Las Vegas.

Liang Xu / Xinhua

The Hong Kong - Zhuhai - Macau Bridge is 55 kilometers long.

But China is rapidly evolving, and its economic and political rivalry with the U.S. is forcing the country to change its business model. China can no longer merely remain the "the world's workbench." Its companies have to become more productive, efficient and competitive, and to achieve this they need better access to technical expertise and global financial markets.

This poses significant challenges for planners in Beijing. The differences between the mainland and the two former colonies of Hong Kong and Macao, which were returned to China in 1997 and 1999 respectively, go far beyond whether traffic drives on the left or the right. They also have diverging judicial, taxation and administrative traditions. There is free movement of capital and freedom of the press in Hong Kong and Macao, while China has capital control and censorship.

And the social differences are even greater. Hong Kong has an abundance of self-confident young people pushing for democratic reforms, as impressively demonstrated by the protest marches of recent months. On the mainland, there is an equally self-confident, well educated and digitally savvy younger generation that has thus far proved to be more interested in social advancement than in political participation or data privacy protection.

"It's bitter for young people in Hong Kong," says Chen, "but there are now at least as many qualified candidates from the mainland for many of the jobs in their city."

Can these different systems and societies be linked? How should competition between these 11 cities be organized without individual regions losing out and, more importantly, without two liberal special administrative zones being forced to merge with the structure of mainland China?

Urban development is largely complete in European and North American cities, and many metropolitan areas there have stagnating populations. At the same time, countries like India, Pakistan, Nigeria and the Philippines are experiencing rapid urbanization. What can they learn from China? Does it make sense to create metropolitan areas with populations of over 70 million people? Or, given the daunting dimensions involved, is it an overwhelming challenge, even for planning-obsessed China?

Shenzhen: 'It Was So Bad, But It Felt So Good'

It's 9:30 a.m. in Shenzhen. The temperature is 23.4 degrees Celsius (74 degrees Fahrenheit) and the air quality is 34 micrograms of fine particles per cubic meter, just above the recommended limit. Traffic is moving at an average speed of 29.3 kilometers per hour, not bad for this time of day, and 4.296 million people are currently in the Longgang district, with the highest density of traffic now at four nodes, flashing yellow and red on a real-time map. The rest of the area is displayed in green and black.

Kiran Ridley / Getty Images

Hong Kong student leader Joshua Wong is a staunch opponent of the Greater Bay Area initiative.

All of these -- and hundreds of other parameters -- can be viewed on a giant monitor in the Longgang district administration's Smart Center, with new information arriving by the minute. At 8:23 a.m., the system located an unauthorized street vendor. At 8:59 a.m., it detected illegally dumped construction debris. And at 9:01 a.m., it reported a suspicious pile of waste.

Longgang is one of China's most modern urban districts, with streetlights and park lighting that adjust their brightness to match the number of cars and pedestrians. There are even sensor-fitted trash cans that are only serviced by garbage collectors when they are actually full.

Longgang is also subjected to continuous surveillance. In the spring of 2017, a couple reported that their three-year-old son Xuanxuan had been abducted. A security camera captured the scene, and it took the police precisely two seconds to identify the kidnapper using facial recognition software. They located the perpetrator and the child on a train shortly thereafter.

The Smart Center collects images, traffic information and movement data from hundreds of thousands of video cameras and mobile devices. During the first six months of 2017, the number of thefts in Longgang declined by more than half. Now, says one staff member, data from the Smart Center is used to clear up 85 percent of all criminal complaints, ranging from traffic offenses to pickpocketing. Just about every corner of public space is under the watchful gaze of a surveillance camera.

Shenzhen is home to the internet company Tencent, network supplier Huawei and battery giant BYD, along with thousands of start-ups. Some of these companies dominate entire districts, with modern skyscrapers and glass facades separated by wide, urban expressways.

Shenzhen's rise began in the 1980s, with reformer Deng Xiaoping's Open Door Policy, which welcomed outside investment, including from the West. A small statue of him testifies to this. Now, the city's economic performance surpasses that of Hong Kong. Shenzhen is a model for many urban areas in China because it can push through reforms even faster than Beijing and Shanghai. A few years ago, the municipal government decided to make all 22,000 taxis electric -- and the conversion was completed by early 2019. Not surprisingly, Shenzhen has become quieter and cleaner.

For neighboring cities in the Pearl River Delta, Shenzhen is both role model and rival. The city is building subways and industrial parks, and recruiting top talent from around the world, all of which is making it both attractive and expensive.

"We've reached a tipping point," says Eric Pan, 36. The entrepreneur from Sichuan Province operates what they call a "makerspace," an incubator for hardware and software engineers with branches in Silicon Valley, Tokyo and, most recently, Berlin. "So far, Shenzhen has thrived thanks to the strength of its synergies," he says. "If you had an idea, you'd find a factory right on the other side of the street that could launch series production."

When he came to Shenzhen 15 years ago, he found a haphazard, creative chaos. "It was so bad, but it felt so good," he remarks. The more organized, efficient and wealthy the city becomes, Pan says, the higher the rents soar.

All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with permission