Nansha: From sand to fintech

Of all the places in the Greater Bay Area, Nansha probably has the grandest ambitions. Once little more than a site of large deposits of alluvial sand, at the mouth of the Pearl River, today Nansha is being spoken of as the one true “core” of the Greater Bay’s development plan. Finance, technology, scientific research, and shipping are all being clustered here with a view to building a New Area that can propel the next stage of the region’s – and the country’s – growth.

To say it has come a long way from humble beginnings would be an understatement. Nansha only became a district of the provincial capital, Guangzhou, in 2005, when it was separated from the larger Panyu District. Back then, it was known for not much more than being the source of the sand that laid the foundations – literally – of Hong Kong’s real-estate boom in the post-war period. But already, its potential was being measured due to its location on the southernmost tip of Guangzhou. The country was embarking on a wave of experimentation after joining the WTO a few years before, and it was designating national-level New Areas around the country to launch experiments in economic reform. Nansha was the sixth of these, tapped for future stardom in 2012. (read our explainer of what a New Area is.) 

Nansha today covers an area of 527.65 sq km. This will be expanded to 803 sq km. However, it will not be given over to high-rise, densely packed development. At least 300 sq km will be reserved and the population, currently 750,000, will be capped at 2.4 million.

Nansha districts

Geography is Nansha’s greatest asset. Of all the plans being laid for the district, the most obvious is that it is to become the primary maritime gateway for southern China with the world. This is not only because it feeds directly up the Pearl River into Guangzhou, which connects overland to countries along the “Road” part of the Belt and Road Initiative, but also because it is at the geographic center of the Greater Bay Area and connects most easily to all of its shipping lanes going out to the “Belt” part of the BRI, too. Moreover, its central position makes it an ideal hub for high-speed railways connecting the eastern and western sides of the GBA.

Nansha in GBA 1 copy

The next stage of Nansha’s development, however, is likely to be driven more by the talent that is attracted to it than the location or the physical resources it offers.

Humble beginnings 

Nansha was originally an ancient bay with scattered islands and hills. Over the centuries, layers of silt washed own the Pearl River, combining with changes in the ocean tides, turned the area into a rich alluvial plain, suitable for farming. However, the sand deposits were to become far more valuable in China’s modern era, thanks to the ingenuity of Nansha’s most famous son, the late billionaire Henry Fok Yin-tung, whose ancestral village, like many Hongkongers, was in Panyu. 

In the wake of the Sino-Japanese war, Fok was far-sighted enough to see that Hong Kong’s real-estate market was going to boom. This was partly thanks to its insulation from the mainland under British rule, and that the numbers of refugees pouring in from the mainland were going to need to be housed. Over the years, he became a major player in the market, especially in the 1970s when Hong Kong began needing to import sand. That was when Fok separated himself into a league of his own, by going back to his hometown and digging it up, by the ton, and barging it across the Bay.

By 1989, Fok was, by many accounts, China’s richest man, even though he was unlike the average Hong Kong tycoon in keeping his companies mostly private. That was a turbulent year in modern Chinese history, as international capital was fleeing and sentiment was in the doldrums. Fok saw gold, however, in his hometown, yet again. And so he began to place his bets. This time, ironically, he ended up importing sand back into Nansha to kick-start its modern construction in collaboration with the local government.

Within the next decade, Fok spent around RMB 3 billion to purchase a total of 22 sq km of land in Nansha. This resulted in the construction of the Nansha Information Technology Park, Nansha Grand Hotel, Nansha Logistics Center, New Passenger Port Terminal, and other significant buildings in the area. 

It was a canny bet. After Nansha was announced as the country’s sixth New Area, land prices began soaring, and residential developments took off. Since 2015, average home prices have doubled, from RMB15,000 per sqm to over RMB30,000 this year. Sadly, Fok was no longer around to witness it, as he had passed away in October, 2006. His Fok Yin-tung Foundation has reaped the rewards. 

There is still a long way to go for Nansha, however. According to the district’s development plan, Hong Kong is the benchmark toward which it is striving. Now the fastest-growing district in Guangzhou, Nansha is having enormous investments poured into it, with the ambition no less than reaching the development level of Hong Kong by mid-century.

Like most places in China with grand ambitions, the Nansha New Area’s official goals are set out in lofty prose. It is to become:

• An important maritime gateway connecting the outside world

• A comprehensive zone for cooperation of the Greater Bay Area

• A leading demonstration area for scientific development in Guangzhou

• A livable place in the Pearl River Delta

Getting down to brass tacks only began in 2017, as the Nansha government announced 15 preferential policies in the fields of economy, technology and the service industry. We won’t list them all here, as the jargon is mostly unintelligible to international minds, and we will be producing a series of reports in due course that look more carefully at key industries. Suffice to say, for now, that enormous subsidies and other incentives are being rolled out in Nansha to attract companies and people in order to grow the district’s future. Some examples include:

  • For commodity trading platforms with an annual transaction volume of more than US$1 billion, rental subsides of up to RMB 3 million per year will be provided; 
  • For select commercial enterprises involved in cross-border e-commerce, rebates on volumes worth between RMB 2 million and RMB 5 million will be provided;
  • For newly established scientific research institutions, investments of up to RMB 100 million into operations will be awarded in proportion to their perceived contribution to the economy;
  • Smaller enterprises that show potential in their innovative applications can qualify for development funding of up to RMB 2 million for threee consecutive years.

It’s not just about attracting organizations and institutions. Nansha also recognizes that it needs to bring in talent. This means internationally trained professionals, especially from Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Just to move here – never mind whether they have a job lined up – the Nansha government will put RMB 100,000 into their pockets and grant up to RMB 5 million to the companies that prove adept at hiring them to create modern, professional service firms.

Starting from 2014, the economic growth rate of Nansha has been the highest in Guangzhou for four consecutive years. Manufacturing has played a strong role, but the biggest surge has been in services, and this is where the government is focused as it looks to build a new economy founded on the pillars of finance, technology, scientific research, and tourism. 

Nansha in Numbers (2018)
GDP: RMB 146 billion +6.5%
Population: 0.75 million +3.7%
Industrial output
Agriculture and mining: RMB 5 billion  +3.2%
Manufacturing: RMB 86 billion +5.9%
Services: RMB 55 billion +8.2%
Exports: RMB109 billion -4.7%
Imports: RMB 97 billion +20.9%

Center of the GBA transport network

Nansha already has some good connections to the rest of the GBA. The Guangzhou Metro Line 4 runs down from the provincial capital’s main business districts, stopping at the Nansha Port Station, and the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong high-speed railway runs through here, stopping at the Qingsheng Station. This is nothing compared to what is on the drawing board for the Nansha Station, however.

The Nansha Station will be a new hub for the entire Greater Bay Area. Whereas the Guangzhou South Station, slightly to the north of Nansha, is the primary hub for trains running through the GBA from elsewhere, Nansha will be the primary hub for trains running within the GBA. 

The new station will open in phases over the next five years. By its completion in 2024, it will have 14 platforms serving 30 routes. Guangzhou South, by comparison, has 15 platforms and 28 routes running through it. 

Construction of this mammoth station will cost around RMB 21 billion, starting next year. According to the initial plan, the extended section of the Shenzhen-Maoming railway passing through Nansha will run via underground tunnels. The section running eastward from Nansha, through Dongguan’s Binhai Bay to Shenzhen’s Xili Station, will go at 200 km/h, while the section running westward, through Foshan to Jiangmen, will go at 250 km/h. 


That is just for the east-west railway. North-south connections will include the Guangzhou-Zhongshan-Macau High-Speed Railway, running down the coast to Zhuhai and connecting to the Macau LRT at Hengqin. There is also an Intercity Railway being built from Zhaoqing, through Shunde and Nansha. And then there are the connections to other nearby Metro lines, including the Guangzhou Metro Line 18 and 22. These two are crucial and will be the first to open, late next year. Line 18 passes through the capital’s Haizhu District and ends in the Tianhe District, while Line 22 ends in the Liwan District. 


The key clusters: Tech, Finance and Ports

Nansha has had a major port on its southern tip for years, but it is only recently that the entire area has been subject to a masterplan, which makes clearer that Nansha has maritime ambitions for both commerce and tourism. 

Commercially, it seems a forgone conclusion that Nansha will become the Greater Bay’s dominant cargo port. In 2016, nearly 100 domestic and international sea routes were launched here. Since then, dozens more have been added every year. The port is a key node for China on the Belt and Road Initiative.

On the tourism side, Nansha Cruise Terminal will be opened later this year. This gigantic port, with an immigration area of more than 3,000-sqm, is five times bigger than the current Nansha cruise port. It will have four berths for 205,000 GT super cruise ships and is expected to become a major node in regional cruise itineraries. The focus, it seems, will be on low-impact tourism, however, as the low population density and abundant ecological resources make it ideal for nature lovers. The Nansha government also wants to highlight the so-called “Lingnan culture” of regions based on extensive waterways, instead of copying the brash modern style of Hong Kong or Macau. 

Technology is clustered in the original area founded by Henry Fok, where the Nansha Information and Technology Park is located. This probably the one area of the Greater Bay that Shenzhen’s tech titans are watching with mixed feelings. It is under Guangzhou’s control, and the provincial capital is determined to not be left behind in China’s cut-throat tech-upgrade races. However, Shenzhen’s biggest companies are national and international players that need to feed off all the innovation they can get, and Nansha is proving to be a magnet for talented startups. We will write more on this in the near future. 

Finance is still largely being built. But as we profiled recently in a feature on Hengli Island, the district has major ambitions to become a “World Financial Island”.

Stay tuned. There will be a lot more to hear of from Nansha in the near future.

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