03 Apr The Pearl River Mega City: A future arrived
For a British baby-boomer such as I, someone nurtured, educated and cultured into the notion of British Empire and associated global status, these are sobering times. I still vividly recall the moment when my primary school teacher raised a world map to the classroom wall and, with some swagger, pointed his cane to all the red bits proudly informing us that “these belong to us”.
Only much later, as the ‘red bits’ got fewer and fewer and I got wiser and wiser, did I take stock both of what we British had lost in Empire and what we had gained in divesting ourselves of such.
Now in my late 60s and a longish-term resident of the one South East Asian country never to have been colonised by the Western powers, I’m most grateful the days of empire are over. Today, the Western empires of yesteryear are an embarrassment, not to be discussed in polite Asian company. Indeed quite shortly the United Kingdom itself could follow its erstwhile empire into the history books.
If that happens in my lifetime, and it very well might, then what phenomenal events will I have witnessed.
This reflection is spurred by a trip I made last week to Foshan, southern China. It was my first time to the city, and only my second trip into the Pearl River Delta region, the first visit being exactly 16 years ago.
I was staggered by Shenzhen, Goungzhou and Dongguan back in April 2001. Last week I was awestruck. What has happened to China in those ensuing years is almost impossible to describe other than in superlatives. But to put it in perspective I will quote from Zhu Min, an economist and former deputy managing director at the International Monetary Fund:
“A decade ago, China’s manufacturing industry was less than half the size of that of the US. Today, it is the world’s largest, surpassing that of the US and Japan together.”
That is just a statement. But to venture into the Pearl River Mega City, is to confront the reality. Foshan, the part where I was staying, itself has a population of over 7 million. If one adds in Guangzhou, Dongguan, Shenzhen and other urban conurbations in the delta, the population rises to over 50 million. And that is without Hong Kong and Macau. Foshan is now designed for business. New condominiums sprout like elephant grass on the African savanna; five star hotels offer a world of lush carpeted luxury; ceramics factories and their overstated showrooms line up side by side for miles along the Foshan-Nanhai highway. I lost count of how many Porsche Panamera and Jaguar XF cars I saw. And despite all this dramatic change and rising wealth, the Foshan people remain humble and welcoming.
If you wish to see a version of the future, travel not to Hong Kong, go straight to Guangzhou. It is already with us. Within my lifetime I predict that Hong Kong will get physically and culturally swallowed up and digested into the Pearl River Delta Mega City, becoming just a segment in “one colossal megapolis”.
The drive behind this is not simply urbanisation, economics, or indeed, globalisation, it is the very character of the mainland Chinese people.
They may get a bad press as unsophisticated tourists, but have no doubt that they are very determined and hungry for a better life.
Their desire for growth is palpable. Already manufacturers and industries across China are embarking with no little urgency into the next stage of China’s quest for prosperity: Artificial Intelligence.
The Chinese business people that I met in Foshan are ambitious, clever, confident and astute. They know the future lies with them, not with the West, and they have no intention of letting that future pass them by.
As the United Kingdom implodes, Europe cracks open with self-doubt, and the USA succumbs to its own unique self-generated lunacy, who would bet against China in the world domination game?