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Wednesday, 27 March, 2002, 16:43 GMT
Chinese city's plans to rise again
Guangzhou now wants to be a good place to live
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By the BBC's Duncan Hewitt in Guangzhou
When China's economic reforms began in the 1980s, the southern city of Guangzhou led the way.

Boosted by preferential policies and its proximity to Hong Kong, Guangzhou quickly became an icon of China's modernisation.

Yet by the late 1990s it had faded from the limelight, eclipsed by the revival of Shanghai and even by the growth of its near neighbour Shenzhen.

Now the city could be ready to rise again.

Back in the 1980s, when swift economic growth made it the envy of China, everyone wanted Guangzhou fashions and trendy young men coveted Guangzhou permed hairstyles.

The city had China's first flyovers, its first supermarkets; and it attracted immigrants from across the country.

Musician Wang Lei was one of them

"When I first came here I thought I'd come to America," he says. "It's the one place in China that feels pretty free."

Yet while the economy boomed, growing by almost 20% a year in the early 1990s, Guangzhou - also known as Canton - was not an easy place to live.

We're spending almost $2bn a year to make Guangzhou a good place for working and living

Deputy mayor Shen Bainian
"I didn't like this place at all," said dancer Hou Ying, who moved to the city from northern China eight years ago.

"The air was bad, it was too crowded, and the traffic was chaos - cars driving up and down the pavements. It was terrifying."

By the second half of the 1990s, as Shanghai's modernisation began to win praise, Guangzhou's failings became all too evident, according to Tom Mitchell, Guangzhou correspondent for the South China Morning Post.

"Guangzhou was developing incredibly fast, which meant there was a lot of money flowing through the system. But the development just wasn't channelled in any rational way," he said. "It was just a mess.


Guangzhou's deputy mayor Shen Bainian argues that for all the new money flowing in, Guangzhou never had the solid foundations for development which Shanghai possessed.

They really believe Guangzhou was a great city that was cheated out of its greatness

Tom Mitchell, South China Morning Post
But he admits the city was not helped by Guangdong's notorious corruption problems, which have famously made its roads the most expensive to build in China.

"Shanghai was five years ahead of us in urban construction. We admired that but before the mid '90s we just didn't have the resources," he says.

"They'd always been China's number one city - we ranked number six or seven - and when the government gave Shanghai freedom, and set up the stock exchange there, they could attract investment much more easily.

"But it's true that corruption, caused by the lack of a thorough management system, did hinder our economic development."

One thing definitely not missing in Guangzhou is a sense of energy.

On Sunday afternoons the city centre is packed with people. There are lots of blue sunglasses and orange hair, lots of Japanese and Korean influences.

Hong Kong skyline
Guangzhou was boosted by Hong Kong's success
There are people sitting out in the street, there are lots of stalls selling everything from candyfloss to shampoo, there are people trying to raise money for charity.

It's typical of the street life for which Guangzhou is really famous.

Now the city is trying to complement that natural energy with a better managed environment. In the past two years, under new, locally born mayor Lin Shusen, it has opened a Hong Kong-style subway, built a major road network, and begun to tackle air and water pollution

The construction work is aimed at fulfilling Guangzhou's Shanghai-style slogan of a medium change in three years, a big change in 10. Key in that plan is construction of a new deep water port further down the Pearl River estuary.

"They really believe Guangzhou was a great city that was cheated out of its greatness and particularly by the Cultural Revolution," says Tom Mitchell, referring to the 1966-1976 period when Hong Kong in particular became economically dominant.

Deputy mayor Shen Bainian is less outspoken. But he believes Guangzhou is moving ahead.

"We're spending almost $2bn a year to make Guangzhou a good place for working and living. We want to build it into an ecological city, we have a good natural environment and we're improving it.

"And we will develop our service industries - trade, finance - so we become a service centre for all the 40 million people of the Pearl River delta."

The question for Guangzhou is whether it now has the capacity to implement these visions and retain its pre-eminence among the fast growing delta cities.

And if so, will it be at the cost of the sense of freedom which has attracted so many to the city over the years?

See also:

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