RETIRED city official Zhen Ziong was catching up on old times with his former colleague Huang Gangbo at the Lakewood Golf Club in Zhuhai earlier last week.
Huang, the club chairman, had invited Zhen, who was once in charge of the city’s development, to the club to seek his advice on how best to position a new clubhouse that his company was planning to build.
“He is the man who oversaw the development of this Jing Ding town where our golf club is located,” explained Huang about Zhen’s presence to his Malaysian business partners.
A quick look at the proposed site and it was decided that a feng shui master’s expertise was needed. As they waited for the master to arrive, Huang and Zhen re-told their stories to the younger audience especially about the early days of Zhuhai.
Inevitably, talk steered towards the proposed mega bridge project that will connect Zhuhai to Hong Kong.
“When we first proposed the bridge in the 1990s, we – the Zhuhai officials – were the ones who were urgently trying to push for it but Hong Kong was lukewarm towards the idea. Now that Hong Kong is in trouble, they are the ones pushing for the bridge urgently,” remarked Huang.
Zhen, who laughed aloud at this, was quick to point out that the reasons for Zhuhai to push for the link over the Pearl River was still valid today.
“Hong Kong may want the bridge for its own economic reason but Zhuhai will definitely benefit,” the older man said.
This bridge, spanning between 26km and 32km depending on the proposal, is seen by its proponents as the lifeline needed by Hong Kong to re-start its stalled economic engine after five years of recession.
The Hong Kong government had stated after a study some years ago that the bridge was not needed till 2016 but now admit that the link was urgently needed to solidify its economic ties with the Pearl River delta.
The link was first proposed by the Zhuhai Municipal Council as one way to speed up the development of the Zhuhai Special Economic Zone (SEZ) that seems to lag behind Shenzhen, another SEZ in Guangdong.
The bridge, estimated to cost more than HK15bil (RM7.38bil), looks certain to be built.
Preliminary environmental impact assessment reports were expected to be ready by March, said Guangdong director of environmental protection Yuan Zheng.
Huang said: “Zhuhai is a well-planned SEZ and we must be careful not to spoil all our effort in turning into a garden city because of our haste in welcoming the bridge.”
Zhuhai, one of the earliest special economic zones established in China in 1980, is located in Southern Guangdong and lies on the western shore of the Pearl River Delta.
Covering an area of 1,514 sq miles and a 690km coastline, it is better known in Southern China by its Cantonese name Chee Hoi meaning sea pearl.
While Shenzhen came under the direct control of the Central Government in Beijing, Zhuhai came under the purview of the Guangdong provincial government.
As Shenzhen progressed at breakneck speed, many of its construction and development plans seemed haphazard.
The Guangdong authorities were keen to avoid repeating the mistakes of Shenzhen and had encouraged the Zhuhai officials to develop a city and industrial area in harmony with its surroundings.
Today, Zhuhai is a city with huge roads, well-manicured gardens and no traffic jams. There are no skyscrapers to spoil the skyline and the industries brought into its manufacturing zone are controlled to avoid pollution that now affects many other Chinese cities. Its GDP has been hovering between 9% and 12% for the past decade.
Zhuhai was voted one of the “Forty Best of China’s Tourist Resorts” by the National Tourism Bureau.
For the people of Guangdong, parochial pride is focused on Zhuhai because they were never allowed to take part in the development of Shenzhen. In fact, most of the seven million of those living in Shenzhen are from outside the province.
Zhuhai is a “local project” with Cantonese being widely spoken among its 1.2 million residents, unlike Shenzhen where Mandarin is the main language.
Jian Xiong, 28, who works as a driver for one of the multinationals located in Zhuhai, is an original Zhuhai resident and had seen the city grow.
“My father was a farmer and we used to help him after school. The farm is gone; a new sports stadium stands on the land where we used to farm. But my father is very proud of what Zhuhai has become. He is not bitter about losing the farm because none of his children wanted to continue farming,” said Jian.
Because Shenzhen and Zhuhai are SEZs, the Chinese authorities ordered a second border to be built at the edge of each city limit when the two regions were being developed. Non-resident Chinese must apply for permits to travel to these two cities while foreigners could move freely in and out.
These second borders were established to encase the two regions into a controlled environment for China’s experiment into open market economy.
Last week, the Guangdong government for the first time threw its weight behind calls for the scrapping of the second border.
It is learnt that the second border would be removed before the end of the year.
Malaysian businessman Datuk Lim Hock San, an associate of Huang, said: “Zhuhai is a rare place in China because its rapid development was achieved without rash decisions. Everything here is well planned.
“When the bridge from Hong Kong is built, Zhuhai will benefit the most. It will have direct access to Hong Kong and the financial houses there. Investments will roll in.
“There is plenty of land for more factories. Dismantling of the borders would mean more workers from all over the country would come here,” said Lim, the managing director of LBS Bhd, while observing the site assessment by the Feng Shui master.
Master Li, after looking at his Sim Poon (compass) and the surrounding areas, declared that the proposed clubhouse needed to be moved to a nearby site.
“The mountain (Southern Mountain) behind is the back of the dragon. This is the prosperity symbol of Zhuhai. The present site is located at the dragon’s foot – not very stable and thus bad for business.”
Of the new site, about 100m away, Li said it was near the dragon’s shoulder, thus was very strong and stable and good for business.
“We must take heed of such advice and never leave things to chance,” said Lim.
Looking at the way Zhuhai has developed, the Guangdong officials obviously did not leave their plans to chance.