The most rural of the GBA’s nine cities inside Guangdong, Zhaoqing is now well-connected by high-speed railway and has high ambitions of catching up to the rest in economic development.
Zhaoqing was where Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci drew up the first Chinese world map in 1584, with China at the center of the world. He chose Zhaoqing not for its sheer natural beauty, but for its political stature. Before Guangzhou eclipsed it, by being closer to the mouth of the Pearl River and hence a better strategically positioned trading center, Zhaoqing was known as the cradle of Lingnan (Cantonese) culture. It was also a rich commercial center for many years, due to its gold deposits. Ricci was there because Zhaoqing was where a Jesuit priest would go to make a cultural statement in China during the late Ming dynasty.
Those glory days are long gone. Today, this prefecture-level municipality, the most rural of the Greater Bay Area’s nine cities inside Guangdong, is better-known as a weekend tourist spot and a college town. However, like Jiangmen and Huizhou, cities on the outskirts of the Pearl River Delta, Zhaoqing has ambitions to regain its stature under the GBA integration plan.
Location is starting to matter again for this place, as high-speed railways tie it closer to the rest of the GBA and it serves as a gateway to the western provinces of Guizhou and Guangxi. And it has plenty of pace to expand into for the land-starved core cities of the GBA. Its main commercial district of Duanzhou – Zhaoqing’s name back in the glory days – exercises jurisdiction over three districts, four counties, and one county-level city in an area that stretches across almost 15,000 sqkm.
Hopes are riding high here among a population of just 4.15 million. This is partly because the city has recently attracted some high-profile investments from well-known technology companies, and tourism is becoming a powerful driver of growth throughout the country for places like Zhaoqing, due to its history and its stunningly beautiful natural scenery.
The services sector has already eclipsed manufacturing., as Zhaoqing has been offering some strong incentives to move here. These include:
- Starting bonus payments of up to RMB 20 million for enterprises with revenues above RMB10 billion
- Special subsidies for enterprises headquartered outside the GBA who choose to settle here
- Bonuses of up to RMB 10 million for “innovative platforms”
But that is not the only reason for optimism here. It is also because of Zhaoqing’s name, which means “inception of good luck.”
Zhaoqing in Numbers (2018):
RMB220.18 billion in GDP, +6.6%
Per capita GDP RMB 53,267, +3.5%
Agriculture and mining: RMB 34.79 billion, +4.8%
Manufacturing: RMB 77.47 billion, +7.0%
Services: RMB 107.93 billion, +6.9%
Fixed-asset investment: RMB 134.30 billion, +10.0%
Exports: RMB 23.77 billion, +6.9%
Imports: RMB 15.22 billion, +12.2%
Population: 4.15 million in 2018
Industrial upgrading under way
Known for its rice, sugar cane, bamboo, camphor, and cassia (a spice similar to cinnamon), Zhaoqing has an abundance of natural resources. Chief of these are its mineral deposits. It is known colloquially as the “home of gold”, as its deposits produce 80% of Guangdong’s total. Limestones, granite, marble, and gypsum are also mined here. Zhaoqing is famous for its duan inkstones that rank first among the four famous Chinese inkstones. Duan inkstones are usually a purple-red color and made of tuff, a type of rock produced from volcanic ash, but during the Song Dynasty, a green variety of duan inkstones was mined.
Zhaoqing’s primary industries are textiles and garments, food and beverages, building materials, home appliances, electronics, chemicals, furniture, and metal products. Five industries are currently being prioritized for development:
- Advanced equipment manufacturing
- New materials
- High-end electronic information (there is an innovalley here)
- Eco-friendly industries.
Zhaoqing sees a high-tech future for itself – a clean, green one. But it’s not just idle talk. Three industrial clusters valued at more than RMB 100 billion are currently being developed around new energy vehicles, advanced equipment manufacturing, and energy conservation.
In the process of technological upgrading, Zhaoqing is also seeking to promote cloud computing, big data, and industrial robotics to boost the manufacturing sector. And it has great hopes for using online connectivity to boost agricultural management and improve yields. Yes, it wants to be an “agricultural demonstration zone”.
Transportation links in place
Zhaoqing occupies a good position as a gateway to the southwestern side of the province. It already has two high-speed railway lines running through it: one going to Nanning (Guangxi), and one going to Guiyang (Guizhou). Trains from Hong Kong arrive here in under 90 minutes.
However, these high-speed railway lines pass through Zhaoqing’s newer development areas in the eastern side of the municipality: the Zhaoqing East Station is the municipality’s new railway hub. The older Zhaoqing Train Station, in the Duanzhou CBD, takes another 30 minutes to reach via the Intercity Railway from Guangzhou. This requires passengers getting off the HSR at Zhaoqing East, walking 10 minutes (via tunnel) to the Dinghu East Station, where they can hop on the Intercity Railway line going to Zhaoqing Station (which is where the major sightseeing spots are).
City planners are keen on tourism, but they are obviously envisaging the eastern side of Zhaoqing to be their future for high-tech development. The Zhaoqing High-Tech Industry Development Zone is here, and other investments are going into this area, as it is closer to Foshan and Guangzhou. Moreover, the construction of the new PRD Airport, between Zhaoqing and Foshan, will be a major economic driver in this region.
Tourism: easy for a ‘living museum’
With a history of over 2,200 years, there is no shortage of historical and scenic spots to attract visitors here, all year round. The Seven Star Crags, situated on the Star Lake, are a stunner. They are named for seven limestone crags arranged in the same formation as the seven stars of the Big Dipper constellation. (Legend has it that remnants of the seven stars fell into the lake.) Cliffside inscriptions from the Tang Dynasty decorate the crags, and there are also Buddhist temples surrounding the lake that contribute to the area’s religious significance.
Another primary attraction is Dinghu Mountain. Aside from being the first nature reserve in China, it is one of the top four mountains in Guangdong, the others being Danxia, Xiqiao, and Luofu. This green gem features tranquil gorges, lofty trees, and flying waterfalls. Included among its plethora of plants and animals are many state-protected endangered species. Besides its natural beauty, with multiple mini-habitats coexisting in one location, the area has become a magnet for ecological scientists.
Zhaoqing is also home to many historically significant sites such as the Mei Nunnery, Yuejiang Pavilion, Song Dynasty city wall, Dragon Mother Ancestral Temple, and Confucian Temple, which have been visited by famous figures such as Sun Yat-Sen, Bao Zheng, Hui Neng, Tang Xianzu, and Ye Ting. In 2018, tourism generated RMB 28.6 billion in revenues, up 19.1% over the previous year.
Like other cities in Guangdong, Zhaoqing has many signature local dishes that exemplify Cantonese cuisine. Visitors are encouraged to try the variation of steamed zongzi, smooth rice-flour noodles, crisp bamboo shoots, and sweet beancurd jelly made from the spring water in Dinghu Mountain.
With rapid urbanization, however, has come concern about Zhaoqing’s already fragile ecosystem. Construction has caused wetlands to harden, which in turn reduces the ability of ponds to prevent flooding. Species are disappearing as a result of changing habitats. Native plants are being destroyed in favor of landscape trees. Historical and cultural monuments have been left unprotected.
The city’s leadership is alert to the problem, and has established an “ecological security” framework for development, with the input of scientists. The Zhaoqing Urban Land Use Master Plan forecasts the city will cap its development at 598 sqkm of land under construction by 2035.
According to some visitors, the city has undergone some unwelcome changes as a result of modernization. Lakeside bars have been replaced by luxury flats and highways have become clogged with traffic. Daipaidongs in outdoor markets are gone since the government banned outdoor eating. Modernization is occurring at the cost of little things that gave the place its whimsical charm. However, with industrialization, this is inevitable and there is still much to see and appreciate here.
Zhaoqing – Hong Kong Relationship
Zhaoqing has close economic ties with Hong Kong, its major trading partner. In 2017, imports and exports between Zhaoqing and Hong Kong totaled US$1.4 billion, making up 19.7% of Zhaoqing’s overall trade. Hong Kong signed 118 new direct investment projects in Zhaoqing, amounting to US$2.8 billion. By the end of 2017, there were 4,132 Hong Kong-invested enterprises making up 81% of Zhaoqing’s overall investment, at US$25.18 billion (77.3% of the total). CE Carrie Lam visited recently (before the protests started).
The “Zhaoqing Hong Kong City” concept is being supported by the Guangdong Provincial Government and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. Under the “Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macao Special Cooperation Platform” project, eight square km of land in Zhaoqing will be used to build a “Hong Kong Community” that includes Hong Kong-style hospitals, hotels, malls, and schools.
Various industrial zones are being established, the largest of which is the Zhaoqing High-tech Industry Development Zone, which consists of two parks: Sanrong Industrial Park (9 sqkm) and Dawang Industrial Park (100 sqkm). Dawang is the seat of the zone and focuses on export processing and trade. Originally established for county-level economic management, it expanded to municipal-level economic management functions before becoming a national high-tech park in 2010.
The industrial zone is 40 minutes to Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport and is connected with roads such as the 321 National Highway and the Pearl River Delta Outer Ring Expressway. From Dawang Station, it takes only 20 minutes on the Guangzhou-Foshan intercity track to get to downtown Guangzhou. The south side of the park is linked to the high-speed railways. Its prime location connects Guangdong with the southwest, and it has a 2,000-ton container terminal due to its proximity to the specialized cargo port, Mafang Port.
Zhaoqing has introduced more than 300 industrial enterprises in recent years to this area. These include companies in metal materials, pharmaceuticals, electronic information, advanced equipment manufacturing, and biomedical foods. In the future, the high-tech zone hopes to focus on constructing a base for innovation with an emphasis on advanced equipment manufacturing and biomedicine.
Probably the biggest single project the municipality can look forward to is the Pearl River Delta Airport, which is being built in Foshan’s Gaoming District, right on the border of Zhaoqing. The airport will have three runways, built for a capacity of 50 million annual passengers, and cost around RMB 35 billion. It is scheduled to be completed in 2021. It will not have international flights, mainly serving the central and western parts of the region.
For further reading:
Trip.com for train tickets: Book through to Zhaoqing East (90 mins), switch there to the Intercity Line (Dinghu East to Zhaoqing, 20 mins).