Songshan Lake is proving to be a drawcard for international talent. But can Dongguan really become an ‘international city’? The city government thinks so. And so does Huawei.
At a recent weekend in Songshan Lake’s We Valley, a local incubator, a group of 80 gathered for a 48-hour startup event. They formed groups to work on venture ideas and at the end of the 48 hours presented them to a panel of judges. The winning team was awarded a funding of RMB10,000 to kickstart its idea.
The event itself was not unusual, given that we were in the heart of Dongguan’s technological innovation zone. Similar activities have been taking place here almost every weekend. But this was Dongguan’s first English-only startup event. Among the 80-plus participants, about a quarter were foreigners and the rest overseas-educated young Chinese.
The event was organized by the government-backed Dongguan Overseas Scholars Association, hosted by a Techstars-certified startup facilitator, Taiwanese-American “Rickey”. It was promoted by HERE!, a Dongguan-based media and marketing company founded by Israeli Ziv Glikman.
“The event was part of Dongguan’s effort to be seen as an increasingly international city,” said Glikman, whose monthly English magazine HERE! has been an indispensable guide for foreigners living in or visiting Dongguan since its founding 14 years ago. “Therefore, to have foreign faces present and to have it conducted in English was especially important to the local government.”
Vivian Chen, chairman of the Dongguan Overseas Scholars Association, also said, “Through the Innovation 48 event, we wanted to promote English as a bridge to bring talents from different countries to Songshan Lake. We would like everyone to see our competitive edge and this is also an important part of Dongguan’s startup and innovation culture.”
Glikman has witnessed rapid change in Dongguan’s appeal to foreigners during his time here. “The number has not changed so much, remaining around 20,000. But the demographics have,” said Glikman. “At the beginning it was the older generation of manufacturing executives hanging out at the local bars. Now the foreigners here are younger and mostly in the service industry.”
Eric Degler, who works for a Berlin-based sourcing company, moved to Dongguan three years ago from Shanghai. “I have a six-month girl now and I really don’t want to take two hours to commute to work each day. Dongguan is perfect.” The German businessman joined the Innovation 48 weekend because he said he wanted to talk to as many people as possible and get an idea what the startup scene in Dongguan is like.
Dongguan is not only putting on events to lure talented people. The city government has been offering a series of incentives including housing allowances, tax rebates, and startup funding to overseas recruits. It helps that Songshan Lake is an easy sell – once these talented individuals make the effort to get here.
Moreover, the city government has a big assistant in this endeavor. Huawei Technologies has built an incredible new collection of buildings in the Songshan Lake district, designed specifically to recruit high-end talent for R&D work. The Ox Horn Campus (video) has its own internal train service, which carries visitors and staff from one compound to another, each of which looks like a village from a European country. The campus is expected to recruit more than 40,000 staff in the next few years, and could be built out to accommodate as many as 100,000.
At the same weekend as Innovation 48 was taking place at We Valley, Huawei was hosting its biggest-ever developer conference, attended by 1,500 Huawei partners and 5,000 global developers, at the sprawling Hyatt Regency Songshan Lake.
“The government is definitely trying very hard,” Glikman said. But, despite Dongguan’s effort to rebrand itself with a touch of international flair, to convince outsiders to move here will take some time. It’s not easy to access, as hi-speed railway links have not yet been opened. (Read more in our overview of the city.)
The city is vast, both in size and population, but it is really more of a collection of towns, each with its own hotels and clusters of bars and restaurants. The rise of Songshan Lake is helping enormously, with its westernized designs, and the main CBD area has a critical mass of entertainment offerings. But it isn’t anything like the big-city buzz of Shenzhen or Guangzhou.
To many, that is part of Dongguan’s appeal, however. That, and the abundance of greenery. In contrast to its industrial image, Dongguan has been recognized by the United Nations Environment Program as an “international garden city” with 10 forest parks, five natural reserves, 13 wetland parks, 1,071 parks and squares and 923.5 km of greenways.
It’s fast developing as a city of sports, arts and culture too. Country Garden, China’s third largest developer, has taken over a 150,000 sqm site of abandoned factories and plans to turn it into a new cultural and entertainment landmark, 33 Town, similar to Shanghai’s Xintiandi.
Glikman, who has been organizing an annual pool party for the past 14 years, expected this year’s turnout to reach 3,000, with a mix of locals and foreigners. “We hope this party will become one of Dongguan’s destination events,” he said.
Glikman’s business has evolved in the past decade from a pure magazine publishing house to a diversified marketing consulting company. He helps to improve local business’ services and branding to international standards. Half of Country Garden’s 33 Town is now branded HERE! Square simply because it is such a well-recognized foreign brand for locals. He has been tasked with attracting foreign operators and patrons to the area.
“With foreigners will come the Chinese,” he said. “I started the magazine for foreigners in Dongguan and now it has become a bridge to reach the domestic market. Shouldn’t it be called progress?”