Dongguan: due for a starring role

The city that has been defined by its proximity to Guangzhou and Shenzhen is stepping out on its own, with a high-tech transformation well under way.

Where Shenzhen ends and Dongguan begins is hard to notice. Blink while staring out the window on the high-speed railway and you will miss the tiny Dongbao River boundary, so dense is the collection of factories here in an area once dubbed the “workshop of the world”. Yet Guangdong’s third-richest city is distinct from its two gigantic neighbors, Shenzhen to the south and Guangzhou to the north. Like the middle child in a big family, Dongguan’s efforts over the years to stand out from its siblings are what have come to define it today. It is a plucky, upwardly mobile place that never seems to stop having to prove itself worthy of attention. 

Dongguan has done and seen it all over the past 40 years of China’s Reform and Opening program. Until recently, its role was largely confined to supporting the growth of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, first as an agricultural producer while farmland was being turned into factories by its neighbors, then as a recipient of their low-cost production bases that had to move out as real estate prices soared.  

As a prefecture-level city, Dongguan is actually not a city per se, more a collection of towns, with an administrative hub in the northern part (see the names ending in zhen on map below). Each of these towns, over the years, absorbed demand from wherever it came, but usually in clusters of certain types of manufacturers. 

Map below: Dongguan’s three main areas of focus for future development are the original city center, Songshan Lake (high-tech park), and the Humen transport hub.

Today, Dongguan is forging its own path, moving rapidly up the manufacturing chain into high-tech industries while creating a living environment befitting the rich city it has become. Songshan Lake has some of the country’s leading technology firms setting up R&D centers. Services now comprise more of the local economy than industry. 

Seldom has there been a moment for Dongguan to stop and catch its breath while this has been happening. And it hasn’t been plain sailing – indeed, it could be argued that Dongguan has taken some of the biggest knocks of Greater Bay Area cities in recent years. And yet here it is now, growing at nearly a percentage point faster than the province’s average (up +7.4% in 2018). 

As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Dongguan could look back on the 2008 Global Financial Crisis as a time full of pain, but a learning experience that was helpful. Until that moment, Dongguan had been China’s leading export and manufacturing base, a hothouse for churning out cheap clothes, toys and shoes bearing the ubiquitous “Made in China” label. Farmers that once produced geese and chicken were renowned for becoming overnight billionaires, driving Rolls Royces and showing up for board meetings in sandals. Dongguan had also become notorious for another kind of hothouse: its KTVs.  

The go-go years came to a resounding halt, however, when exports dried up in the wake of the crash in world markets. Dongguan was hit hard – harder than its neighbors, which had already been weaning themselves from a dependence on exports. And just like any nouveau riche at a casino that bets too big on black or red, it came as a shock to see what could happen when the ball stopped landing on its number. Dongguan wasn’t well enough prepared for the sudden collapse in demand from its trading partners. 

That was then. It has taken a decade of hard work, but today, with help from provincial and national government agencies, the city is transitioning to a smarter, leaner, cleaner version. Call it Dongguan 3.0.  

Smart manufacturing 

At the core of Dongguan 3.0 is still its prowess as a manufacturing hub. However, no longer is the city home to only low-cost, high-polluting factories. Those are moving inland at a rapid pace as Dongguan vaults up the value chain into robotics, IoT devices, and other types of smart manufacturing. And at the same time, not only is the environment being cleaned up, the city is being transformed into an attractive lifestyle destination, with parks, museums, and a wide range of cultural and entertainment venues far removed from its old image as a den of sleaze. 

The efforts are paying off. Dongguan was recently recognized by the United Nations Environment Programme as an “international garden city” with 10 forest parks, five natural reserves, 13 wetland parks, 1,071 parks and squares and 923.5 kilometer of greenways.  

It is fast developing as a city of sports, arts and culture too. Dongguan is considered China’s “national basketball city,” as the only prefecture-level city with three professional basketball clubs. It shares Mission Hills Golf Club, recognized by Guinness World Records as the largest gold facility in the world, with neighboring Shenzhen.  

Dongguan boasts a number of different theatres, libraries and museums, making its cultural square in the city center the most concentrated in all of China. The Dongguan Yulan theatre, a striking multipurpose venue shaped like an unfolding lotus petal, is one of its landmark performing arts centers.  

It’s not all pretty, of course. With almost one million registered factories in Dongguan, air pollution can still be a serious problem. But city officials have been taking measures to mitigate them in recent years. Last year, they began deploying drones fitted with high-end gas sensors that hover over the city’s myriad factories and detect pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and PM2.5. The drones transmit real-time monitoring data and geographic coordinates, allowing inspectors to pinpoint where there are dangerous levels of pollutants so that law enforcement can step in. 

Location, location, location  

Dongguan still has some lucky stars to count. Being situated next door to Shenzhen, the world’s leading tech hub, has its perks. Guangzhou, the provincial capital, has plenty of work to hand off. And now, its strategic positioning at the heart of the Greater Bay Area is likely to bring immense benefits to Dongguan, just for being where it is. 

Located on the east side of the Pearl River, Dongguan has always been an important node on the region’s myriad trade routes. These routes are now being called the “Guangzhou-Shenzhen technological innovation corridor”. It is still essentially the same: Dongguan is positioned squarely in the middle of a supply chain. Only now, as the city continues to drive its industrial upgrading plans higher, it is contributing more than just land and labor. It is fast becoming a center for R&D as well. This much has been made evident by the recent decision to site a new Greater Bay Area University in Dongguan’s Jiaoyi Bay area. And it is already home to the new campus of Huawei Technologies, which will eventually house more than 30,000 of its staff, including a large R&D department. 

Looking at the region’s infrastructure plans, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Dongguan’s best days lie ahead of it. High-speed and intercity railway lines are criss-crossing and merging here, while its metro system is being built out quickly. It’s not quite like Rome was 2,000 years ago, but it does seem that all railway lines are inevitably going to lead to Dongguan in the near future. 

Here are some of them: 

The Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong High-Speed Railway conveniently omits Dongguan’s name, but it has a stop here, at the Humen Railway Station. With the HSR trains travelling at more than 300km/h, it takes only about 30 minutes to get here from Kowloon West, and less than that coming down from Guangzhou South. The Humen station is still being built out into its full capacity. In the next two years, it will be a hub for connecting the HSR with the Dongguan Metro (see below) and the Intercity Railway Line between Shenzhen and Guangzhou.  

This line is not to be mixed up with the old  Kowloon-Canton Through Train (KTT), which runs from Hunghom in Hong Kong up to Guangzhou East. That line (see map) currently stops out east in Changping, but will probably be discontinued once the new lines are all up and running. 

Pictured below: High-speed Railway lines (in red) running through HumenHumen South, and Dongguan South (Tangxia), and the old KKT line (black) running through Changping 

Another high-speed railway line, the Huizhou-Maoming Railway, is being built from the eastern side of the Bay (Huizhou), running through Shenzhen and Dongguan, before passing over the mouth of the Pearl River and on to the western side of the Bay, running out to Maoming and eventually on down to Hainan in the far south. It, too, will have a key station in Dongguan, at Humen South, which begins construction next year and finishes in 2023. 

But wait, there is a third. Dongguan South station at Tangxia is where the GanzhouShenzhen Railway comes through, from Ganzhou in Jiangxi province, passing through Heyuan, Huizhou, Dongguan and ending at Shenzhen North. This station started construction in 2016 and is scheduled for completion next June.  

Meanwhile, the GuangzhouDongguanShenzhen intercity rail, which chugs along at 160 km/h, is scheduled for operation by the October National Day holiday this year. The 76 km railway has taken 11 years to build and will run from Guangzhou’s Xintang, passing through 10 stations in Dongguan and end at the Shenzhen Airport station. The advantage of this line over the HSR is that it is easily accessed from multiple points within Dongguan, and the trains run at five-minute intervals. The beauty of this line is that it will connect Dongguan directly to the Guangzhou East station in Tianhe, which is the heart of the capital’s CBD. Upon completion, it will take only one hour from Guangzhou East to Shenzhen International Airport in Bao’an. Being right in the middle, Dongguan is again perfectly situated: 30 minutes to Guangzhou, 30 minutes to the Shenzhen airport. 

Photo below: the GuangzhouDongguanShenzhen intercity rail 

Dongguan has three metro lines, grandly named Metro Lines 12, 3. The second one is open, the first is only opening in 2024, and the third is set to begin construction this year. Don’t ask why they are going in this order. According to the city’s masterplan, the north end of Line 1 will be connected with Guangzhou’s Line 5 while its south end will link with Shenzhen’s Line 6. A side track will also be added, connecting it to the Ganzhou/Shenzhen HSR, and Shenzhen’s Line 22 in the south.  

Line 2, which has been in operation since May 2016, is currently being extended southward to link with Shenzhen’s Line 20.  

The south end of Line 3 will be linked with Shenzhen’s Line 11.  

Pictured below: How Dongguan’s metro is to be connected with Guangzhou and Shenzhen’s. 

Dongguan is not just an intersection for railways. In April this year, the Nansha Bridge, formerly known as the Second Humen Bridge, opened to traffic. It links Guangzhou’s Nansha special economic zone on the western side of the Bay with Dongguan’s Shatian on the eastern side. The eight-lane bridge has also helped to divert traffic from the original Humen Bridge in the south, thereby shortening the travel time between Guangzhou and Dongguan to 15 minutes.  

Photo below: the Nansha Bridge and the Humen Bridge.

The Dongguan ring road is a 68-kilometer six-lane expressway that links the city center with the nine townships (or industrial parks) along the route. The first phase had 3.4 kilometers and was completed in 2010, the second phase 22.3 kilometers long and completed in February 2018. The third phase began the construction in December last year and is expected to open to traffic in 2022. This section of the road will pass through Songshan Lake, home to Huawei, Oppo, Vivom and a bunch of other tech giants. They chose Songshan Lake partly for its clean environment and scenery, but also undoubtedly because the third ring road will be connected with the Dongguan/Shenzhen expressway, facilitating the commute of trucks and passenger vehicles between the two cities.  

Pictured below: the Dongguan ring road.  

Songshan Lake: Dongguan’s innovation hub 

The 72 sq km Songshan Lake Hi-Tech Industrial Development Zone is well worth a visit. Cleverly masterplanned, with lots of greenery, the zone is being positioned as an “innovation center” for the region’s high-tech industries. That shouldn’t conjure images of ivory towers. Think more of labs where sparks fly, as trial-and-error research into smart manufacturing can be done. The city has more than 3,000 national-level hi-tech companies, and so there is plenty of work to go around here for talented researchers. 

The park is already home to such technological heavyweights as Huawei, cover glass manufacturer Lens Technology, drone maker DJI, and Kuang-Chi Science and Shanghai Power Science and Technology. Their industries they are engaged in focus on “next-gen IT”, biopharmaceuticals, smart equipment, new energy and new materials.  

According to the city’s masterplan, by next year Songshan Lake will be built into a sustainable, international, urban living area that combines city dwellings with industrial development. The park aims to be ranked among China’s top 20 high-tech zones, with a living population of 200,000 and a working population of 490,000.  

And yes, it will have its own transport hub. The Songshan Lake North station will become a new CBD, complemented by a science museum, a gymnasium, a concert hall and a youth activity center. The South Lake area, on the other hand, will be a headquarters base with a cluster of international R&D institutes and the national scientific labs.   

Editor’s note: This is just an introductory feature on Dongguan. We will be conducting in-depth research on the city in the coming weeks and months. If you are interested to know more, please contact us.