Jiangmen: Mission to restore faded glory

The municipality of Jiangmen has a fascinating history, and to say it has “been through the wars” would be an understatement. Like most of the Greater Bay Area, it has had its ups and downs. Yet its history is unique as a once-proud node on the Maritime Silk Road, a home to many overseas Chinese who traded throughout Southeast Asia in the days before Hong Kong and Canton became the powerhouses they are today. Once one of the region’s richest areas, today the GBA’s westernmost city is, like the easternmost city of Huizhou, finding itself playing catch-up to the rest in economic development.

Lots of room to expand … Jiangmen in the western side of the GBA. Source: Google Maps

Jiangmen’s key asset, also like Huizhou, is a large land mass that includes a long coastline. With high-speed railways coming online soon that will put Jiangmen within easy reach of the GBA’s bigger, land-constrained growth engines, it is well-positioned to play a vital supporting role in the GBA masterplan.

Surrounded by Zhaoqing, Zhongshan and Zhuhai, Jiangmen is where the Xijiang (West River) runs into the South China Sea. Historically this coastline served it well, as a base for traders – and sometimes pirates – in the surrounding region. It was one of the country’s first ports to open in the waning years of the Qing dynasty, in 1904. Liang Qichao, a politician and reformist who advocated for democracy before China became a republic, was from Jiangmen. Today, perhaps its most famous son is gambling tycoon Lui Che-woo, head of the Galaxy Entertainment Goup in neighboring Macau.   

Kaiping’s diaolous (watchtowers).

Jiangmen’s faded glory is best seen in its fascinating historical relics. The diaolou, or watchtowers, of Kaiping hark back to a time when bandits roamed the area. It was soon after the fall of the Qing dynasty, in the 1920s, when the newly established Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen was weak and the country was in the grip of warlords. Jiangmen’s rich families were prime targets. Rather than run off to San Francisco, where many others had gone in search of gold in the previous century, these families turned their homes into ornate fortresses. They are well worth a sightseeing tour.

It was, alas for them, mostly in vain. Once-prosperous Jiangmen continued a long decline. The bandit wars came after the province’s center of gravity had already been shifting from Macau across the bay to Hong Kong under the British. Though the Japanese left Macau intact in the Sino-Japanese war, they took their toll in Jiangmen. The end of the war was followed by China’s Civil War. Only once the Communist Party established rule in the region could Jiangmen start to make use of its deep links to overseas Chinese communities again. Slowly, it came back to life as investment tiptoed in.

The Cultural Revolution took a hard toll on Jiangmen, however, as many of its well-educated families became targets of the Red Guards. The Reform and Opening era was, therefore, greeted with great relief in 1979. And at first, Jiangmen outperformed. In 1983, records show Jiangmen generated a GDP of RMB2.86 billion, second behind only Guangzhou.

However, the rise of the eastern side of the bay in the 1980s and 1990s, as is by now well-documented, left Jiangmen behind. It was too far away.

Could it be time for Jiangmen to catch up again? That is clearly on the minds of local officials. And with the launch of the GBA masterplan, they seem to have gotten off to a good start.

Last year, Jiangmen had the second-fastest growth of the 11 GBA cities, at 7.8%, behind  only neighboring Zhuhai (8%). Being the laggard for so long has made Jiangmen attractive again, and foreign investment has been pouring back in, rising nearly 50% in 2017/2018, taking advantage of cheap land.

Jiangmen in Numbers (2018)
GDP: RMB 290 billion +7.8%
Per capita GDP: RMB 63,328 +7.2%
Industrial output  
Agriculture and mining: RMB 20.2 billion +4.1%
Manufacturing: RMB 140.8 billion +8.4%
Services: RMB 129.1 billion +7.7%
Fixed-asset investment: RMB 171.62 -3.3%
Exports: RMB 112.3 billion, +4.4% +4.4%
Imports: RMB 35 billion, +13.1% +13.1%
Foreign investment: US$734 million +43.7%
Population: 4.60 million in 2018 4.6m

Download our table comparing the 11 GBA cities here.

Race to the future

Going forward, Jiangmen is to play a strategic role in the development of the GBA as a transportation hub in the western side of the region. But that is not all. The city has bold plans for industrial upgrading and is building clusters in logistics and marine manufacturing, not to mention its ambitions for New Energy Vehicles. Jiangmen has a national hi-tech development zone with more than 1,200 hi-tech companies, and it kicked off a RMB30 billion “Talent Island” project last year at Chaolian Island to attract and cultivate high-end talents and boost hi-tech innovation. Key industries include information technology, healthcare and new materials.

The city is fortunate in that its geography allows it to face both inward and outward: inward, to connect with the rest of the GBA via road and rail networks – especially now that the HZMB connects its directly to Hong Kong – and outward, in that its harbor is being upgraded as a large-scale logistics center for southeast Asian-focused trade.

For all of this to work, however, Jiangmen needs to be better connected to the rest of the GBA. That is under way.

International Transportation Hub

According to a strategic plan released by the Jiangmen government, the city will develop its eastern area into a logistics center and an integrated transportation hub, through which several high-speed railways will pass. Basic construction of the transportation hub is due by 2022 but the connecting lines might only be fully ready by 2024.

Jiangmen’s Heshan station is a key node on the Nansha Bay Railway, which has been built primarily for moving cargo from the Nansha Port. This railway goes through Foshan, Zhongshan and Guangzhou, which are all key manufacturing cities in the Greater Bay Area.

The Nansha Railway connects Jiangmen to the GBA’s major port, mostly for cargo.

High-speed railways connecting Jiangmen to the eastern side of the Bay and the western side of the province are also being built. Currently Jiangmen serves a vital role in connecting the GBA to the western side of the province via the high-speed railway to Maoming, which faces Hainan Island. It is also connected to Guangzhou South. But more important are the two new high-speed railways being built north-south between Zhaoqing and Zhuhai, and east-west across the Bay to Shenzhen.

The new Jiangmen Station, due to be opened by February next year, is expected to become Guangdong’s fourth largest railway station after Guangzhou South, Shenzhen North and Foshan West.

Apart from the railway network, the highway network is getting a major upgrade, with RMB5.5 billion this year going into eight major projects. These will connect the city better to neighboring Shunde (Foshan) and Nansha (Guangzhou).

Perhaps the most important land connection for Jiangmen opened a year ago – the HZMB. Previously, drivers had to go all the way to the Humen Bridge in Dongguan to get across the Bay. The Zhongshan-Kaiping highway will soon change this, connecting Jiangmen directly to the HZMB. It will open next year.

Greater Guanghai Bay Economy Zone

Although Jiangmen has the longest shoreline in the GBA, its harbor transportation is not well developed. In fact, most of its port facilities are built along the inland rivers, which can only serve ships under 3,000 tons. It has the Taishan fishing harbor, but there are no large harbors with scheduled international shipping lines.

That will soon change. Jiangmen is building a 50,000-ton level harbor area, called the Greater Guanghai Bay Economic Zone. The city aims to make use of the harbor resources of the Xijiang River to connect with Guangzhou, Shenzhen and the two SARs.

Located in the southeast area of Jiangmen, the economic zone focuses on the marine industry, such as marine mechanics manufacturing, pulp and paper, modern fishing and harbor logistics industry.

The basic industrial functions of the economy zone are expected to be primarily built by next year and fully established by 2030. It will be supported by other logistics centers in the area, such as the western GBA logistics center, or “dry harbor”, in Heshan.

The economic zone is building a bonded logistics center at Xinhui Harbor, which is only 98 km from Hong Kong and 47 km from Macau. It will be the first bonded logistics center in Jiangmen.

Here are some links for further reading:

Jiangmen’s plans to build an international logistics hub.

Jiangmen’s advantages in the GBA.

Jiangmen government work report 2018.

Jiangmen’s plans for expressways.

Talent Island in Chaolian.

Getting to Jiangmen:

From Hong Kong and Shenzhen, take the High-Speed Railway to Guangzhou South and then switch to a train to Jiangmen. It takes under an hour from GZS to Jiangmen East.

Or you can catch a ferry.

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