A few years ago, Guangzhou was known for its numerous dilapidated buildings, polluted air and rivers, illegal hawking and traffic chaos. Living in this run-down capital of Guangdong province was no fun, even though its residents were the richest city in China in terms of per capita GDP and disposable income. Only 27 percent of the 10,000 local residents interviewed in a 1998 government survey said they were 'satisfied' with the living environment.
Today, Guangzhou is a different city – more orderly, more efficient and cleaner. Traffic has greatly improved, thanks to the completion of a ring road, expressways and a modern subway. The air and the famous Pearl River that runs through the city have become cleaner. Many illegal structures erected in neglected public spaces have disappeared, replaced by trees and flowerbeds. Long-time residents confirm a marked improvement in the environment. "I used to get a headache from the bad air whenever I walked down the main Huaxi East Road. It has gotten much better," says Dan Rebecca, who runs a local wholesale bakery business and is head of the American Chamber Commerce in Guangzhou. According to Steve Lewis, branch manager of the transportation company Santa Fe: "It used to take two hours to get from the airport to the city centre; now, it is much faster."
Guangzhou's urban infrastructure has lagged behind its achievement of double-digit economic growth in recent years and as the contributor of one-quarter of Guangdong's GDP. While Shanghai and Shenzhen have been busy building boulevards, skyscrapers and spacious public squares, Guangzhou held back from tackling the problem of overcrowding because of the major disruptions it would cause to everyday life. In addition, Guangzhou had to cope with some 2m migrant workers who at any one time are struggling to find work in the city.
Politics also played a part in Guangzhou's deterioration. The central government has lavished resources on Shanghai and Beijing, the country's two most important cities. Guangzhou, traditionally less obedient to the centre, was given little political and financial support to upgrade its infrastructure.
By the late 1990s, Guangzhou's deterioration had become so glaring to China' richest province that Li Changchun made it a priority to modernise the city when he assumed governorship of Guangdong in 1998. He summarised his mission in the slogan: 'One small change in a year, moderate change in three years and major change by the year 2010'.
Once the direction was set, there was no lack of political or financial support. Local cadres such as Guangzhou mayor Lin Shusen and his team had waited for years for an opportunity to revive the city's faded glories. Lin, a native southerner, has proudly said that Guangzhou was on par with Hong Kong in terms of economic development until the onset of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s.
To revive its fortunes, Guangzhou needed first to get traffic moving, in a city where millions of people and goods converge from all corners of the Pearl River Delta.
In the 1996-2000 five-year plan, the city spent Yn30bn, or half of all its spending on urban reconstruction, to improve its neglected transportation system. It constructed a modern subway, elevated roads, an expressway to the airport, more port facilities and many highways to link Guangzhou to neighbouring cities.
It also built a badly needed ring-road, which allows vehicles to bypass the neglected central areas. The Yn1bn ring-road has helped vehicles to move at an average speed of 30km/hour in the city centre, compared with just 10km/hour in 1997.
Other projects soon to be completed are new subway lines reaching to the suburbs, a new airport and a light rail system running from the airport to the main railway station.
Guangzhou has also taken steps to beautify the city. Government workers have cleared 13m sq metres of illegal structures and replaced them with flowerbeds, trees and public squares. They also painted the facades of 5,000 old buildings that face the main roads. Modern skyscrapers also look smarter, particularly at night when they are lit up on orders from the government. Guangzhou has rediscovered the beauty of the Pearl River, which was smelly and strewn with rubbish. Planners realise that the river is a valuable asset in reinventing Guangzhou as a waterfront city, like Hong Kong and Sydney. Now the waterfront is clean, brightly lit and a popular promenade.
There has also been increased interest in preserving Guangzhou's pre-1949 architecture. In Laiwa, the old commercial heart of the city, charming 100-year-old houses with balconies have been restored. Traditional Cantonese cuisine has made a strong comeback too in expensive restaurants in this carefully cleaned-up district.
Shamian, the old colonial district, has been made prettier. At the end of 2001, the National Relic Bureau passed a law to preserve 53 old buildings, the small alleys and even old trees in the area. Residents there were moved out, while up-market retailers and restaurants moved in. Guangzhou now realises the vast commercial opportunities offered by what it regarded as the shameful colonial past of this former treaty port.
As a reward for its efforts, Guangzhou was granted the right to host the National Sports Games in November 2001. A month later, it won the title of International Garden City in a national contest.
Moving people to the suburbs
Guangzhou's long-term plan is to move its population out to the suburbs, so that space in the city centre can be freed up for parks, museums and other public venues. It lobbied Beijing for a larger administrative area and was given neighbouring Panyu and Huadu in July 2000, boosting its land area by 50 percent to a total of 7,434 sq km and its population by 1.5m to 7m.
Panyu is a particularly important addition to Guangzhou, providing it with a deepwater port. The city had been searching for a new port for many years, to complement the saturated Huangpu. Huangpu was once China's greatest ports but it is unsuitable for today's ocean-going vessels. It has only five berths and can handle ships of up to 35,000 tonnes. Nansha, which was absorbed by Guangzhou along with Panyu, offers good access to the sea. Its deep water can deal with ships of up to 50,000 tonnes.
Guangzhou believes Nansha will help it reclaim its industrial might, which has been overshadowed by the dynamic economies of nearby Dongguan, Xunde and Zhongshan. By relocating its industries from the city centre to Nansha, Guangzhou will have abundant land to build state-of-the-art plants for industries such as steelmaking and automobile assembly.
In its headlong rush to establish what city officials call 'big logistics and big communications' for Nansha, some critics say Guangzhou will be merely duplicating what other cities have already built. They argue that the region already has too many airports, port facilities, capital-intensive plants and highways. For example, Zhuhai airport, which is just two hours by car from Guangzhou, is utilising only 10-20 percent of its capacity. Does southern China really need another major international airport like Guangzhou's new Baiyun airport? The same doubt has been raised for the proposed Nansha port, whose construction will require much expensive dredging. Southern China is already served by more than 60 ports, of which the biggest are Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Shekou and Huangpu.
Some local residents criticise the government for being preoccupied with high-sounding projects and superficial changes. We have seen ambitious politicians come and go," complains a Guangzhou-based Chinese lawyer. "With each change of mayor, we see projects and policies pursued by his predecessor being overturned. There has been no consistency in government policies. The same will happen in future."