Zhongshan: Cultural icon goes hi-tech

The birthplace of Sun Yat-sen is probably the Greater Bay’s most livable city, a magnet for Hong Kong and Macau retirees. But it has modern ambitions, too.

Zhongshan, the birthplace of modern China’s founding father, Sun Yat-sen, is known for being low-key. In the early stages of Reform and Opening, it contrasted to helter-skelter Shenzhen and Dongguan, content with being on the western side of the Pearl River Delta. Situated between the Guangzhou-Foshan megalopolis to the north, and the sleepy seaside/countryside cities of Zhuhai and Jiangmen to the south and west, Zhongshan is a historical city with a rich cultural heritage. It didn’t need the bright lights and flashy styles of the nouveau riche on the eastern side of the bay.

Map: Zhongshan in the Greater Bay Area (source: Google)

That is not to say that Zhongshan is a sleepy place. Throughout the past four decades of economic reform, the city has been playing an essential role on the western side of the Bay through its bonded logistics center. Zhongshan is the base for many large-scale industrial projects initiated by central government-level state owned enterprises, including the State Shipbuilding Corporation, China Railway Group, and China National Offshore Oil Corporation. The city has also developed a strong manufacturing and service industry. And although it ranks seventh in GDP among the 11 GBA cities, its small population of only 3.31 million generates per-capita GDP ahead of Dongguan’s and nearly on par with Foshan’s.

Last year, Zhongshan was among the Bay’s hardest-hit economies as the effects of a financial belt-tightening campaign was exacerbated by a deteriorating trade environment. GDP grew only 5.9%, well below the provincial average of 6.8%. The biggest drag on the economy was exports, which fell by double digits. Unsurprisingly, the local government has rolled out a stack of measures in 2019 to make up for the loss, most of which are focused on Zhongshan’s role within the Greater Bay Area plan. Together with the release of the GBA masterplan in February, these sparked a short-lived boom in the residential real-estate market, which at one stage raised eyebrows in Beijing. The market has cooled since Q1, yet Zhongshan is still on the radar of many Hong Kong and Macau property hunters due to its relatively inexpensive and well-regarded living environment.

Zhongshan in Numbers (2018)

  • RMB363.27 billion in GDP, +5.9%
  • Per capita GDP RMB 110585, + 4.6%
  • Industrial output
    • Agriculture and mining: RMB 6.16 billion, + 2.2%
    • Manufacturing: RMB 178.02 billion, + 4.5%
    • Services: RMB 179.09 billion, + 7.6%
  • Fixed-asset investment: RMB 111.643 billion, +5.5%
  • Exports: RMB 180.19 billion, -12.3%
  • Imports: RMB 53.99 billion, 2.6%
  • Utilized foreign investment: US$527 million, +3.5%
  • Population: 3.31 million in 2018

Unlike neighboring cities, Zhongshan is not covered by many rivers, so it did not experience the same agricultural boom in the early years of Reform and Opening. Neither does it have a long shoreline like Zhuhai’s which might have opened it to closer contact with Hong Kong. The flip side of these restraints is that it allowed Zhongshan to follow a more sustainable approach to development. Not being closely connected to much larger urban centers in the Greater Bay Area has been something of a blessing, it could be said.

That is changing.

The GBA masterplan envisages Zhongshan as a regional transportation hub on the west side of the Bay. Zhongshan will soon be super-connected to the rest of the region’s 11 cities, mainly through a railway network, as well as serving as a hub for the region’s connections to places further south and west in the province. Moreover, it has ambitions as one of the region’s four Science Cities.

Map: Zhongshan’s counties

Did you know?

Zhongshan (central mountain) is the colloquial name for Sun Yat-sen, who was the first President of the Republic of China, which preceded the People’s Republic of China. The city has various tourism attractions devoted to his memory, including his former residence in Cuiheng county. Documentaries and literary works dedicated to his life abound here. The GBA masterplan specifically emphasizes the importance of “exploring the Sun Yat-Sun cultural resources in Zhongshan”.

Sun Yat-sen is not the only star attraction for tourists: they also flock here to see fields of chrysanthemum flowers display their colors every autumn. It has some of the region’s finest golf courses – the first in China was built at the Zhongshan Hot Springs Resort – and its countryside is beautiful. The city’s tourism attractions pulled in 14.12 million visitors in 2018, spending RMB29.4 billion, up 2.33% over 2017.

Like many other Guangdong cities, Zhongshan is famous for its Cantonese food culture. The city’s fishing industry has a long history, and Nanlang is a famous place to go for fresh fish, shrimp and crab, both seawater and freshwater. Meat lovers should definitely try the roasted “Shiqi Pigeon”, famed for its tender flesh. For dim-sum lovers, Zhongshan has the traditional “Cha Guo”, which is a kind of steamed dumpling in a translucent wrap made of rice flour.

As a cultural and historical city, Zhongshan has a long track record of trading with Hong Kong, and many Hong Kong celebrities originate here, including Louis Koo, Kenix Kuok Ho-Ying, Charmaine Sheh Sze Man and Ron Ng.

The ‘back garden’

Zhongshan is not going to be off the beaten track for much longer. Already, the recent opening of the Nansha Bridge across the Pearl River Delta has reduced travel time from the eastern to the western side of the Bay, and this has boosted Zhongshan’s attractiveness as a destination for investment. There are much bigger, time-saving projects in the pipeline, however.

Chief of these are two ambitious cross-delta bridge-tunnel connections. The first is the Shenzhen-Zhongshan Bridge, which will connect the city’s Ma’an Island to Shenzhen’s Hengmen, next to the Bao’an International Airport. It will consist of a series of bridges and tunnels and is scheduled to be completed in 2024. This is under way, written into stone by the GBA masterplan. It will be a major vehicular transport passageway, with four lanes running in each direction.

Were it not for the political sensitivity surrounding construction of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge to the south, the Zhongshan-Shenzhen connection would likely have been already opened by now, as it was first mooted back in 2008. Analysts had speculated that the project might draw as much as 40% of the potential traffic away from the HZMB and reduce the regional dominance of Hong Kong’s airport and harbour. Once open, the new link will cut travel time from Shenzhen to Zhongshan to less than 30 minutes.

The second major project is still on the drawing board, but its ambitions are even higher. The Shenzhen-Zhuhai bridge has been proposed to run from Shenzhen’s Shekou area, which is the city’s commercial hub, across to northern Zhuhai, which is actually southern Zhongshan. No date has yet been given for its completion.

Real-estate investors have not been waiting around for these projects to get out of the ground. Housing prices in Zhongshan have surged more than 30% on average since the plan for the first bridge was released in 2017. However, Zhongshan is still half the average price in Zhuhai and a quarter of the price in Shenzhen. In June, the average per square foot was RMB12,347.

Sanxiang county has been the center of the frenzy. It landed in the spotlight in 2017 when Country Garden, one of the country’s leading developers, spent nearly RMB1 billion on two land parcels in the area. Today it is a magnet for investors from Hong Kong and Macau. Sanxiang is also famous for the hot springs and natural environment. This is where the old and venerable Zhongshan Hot Springs Resort and Golf Club is located.

A short drive away is a more modern and classier golf course, Agile. This is where one of the region’s best-known developers got its start. It is easy to get here from Macau and Zhuhai and, as a result, it has attracted 57,000 Hong Kong and Macau citizens to live here. Indeed, a one-hour “life circle” has been constructed in Sanxiang to serve residents of the two SARs, including a hospital that operates with the same procedure and criteria as Hong Kong. More schools, kindergartens, parks and commercial centers are also on the way.

Map: The two major railways connecting Shenzhen to northern and southern Zhongshan

Connecting with Guangzhou

The newly released 2018-2035 Masterplan of Guangzhou Territorial Space envisages further integration between Zhongshan and the provincial capital. The two cities recently signed agreements on the province’s Intercity Railway system which includes the extension of Guangzhou Metro Line 18 to Zhongshan, and the Guangzhou-Zhongshan-Zhuhai-Macau high-speed railway.

Guangzhou Metro Line 18, positioned as a North/South express line, travels from Guangzhou East Station to Guangzhou’s southern tip Wan Qing Sha (万顷沙)in Nansha. From there, it will be extended into Zhongshan. Upon completion, it will take only 30 minutes to travel on the 160 kilometer per hour metro from Zhongshan to central Guangzhou’s Zhujiang New Town and 10 minutes from Zhongshan to Nansha.

Map: the Guangzhou-Zhongshan-Zhuhai-Macao Railway

The masterplan also mentioned a new Guangzhou-Zhongshan-Zhuhai-Macau high-speed railway, with the main line going through Guangzhou East to Zhuhai’s Hengqin and the supplementary line extended to the Sino Singapore Guangzhou Knowledge City in north east Guangzhou and then connected with Pazhou. The new high-speed line will bring Zhuhai, Macau and Zhongshan into the vicinity of Guangzhou East, Guangzhou Station and Pazhou Station.

The masterplan also pushes forward the city’s connectivity with the national railway, intercity railway and the urban railway while speeding up the construction of Shenzhen/Maoming Railway and Nansha Port railway.

The Shenzhen-Jiangmen section of the Shenzhen/Maoming Railway starts from the Shenzhen transportation hub Xili, passing Dongguan’s Humen and traveling westward cross the mouth of Pearl River through a tunnel. It will then go through Guangzhou’s Nansha before passing through Zhongshan. The section is 116 kilometers long and expected to be completed by 2024.

Map: The Nansha Port Railway, which passes through Zhongshan

The Nansha Port Railway is the first railway line in the Nansha Free Trade Zone for both passengers and cargo. The RMB15.2 billion investment travels through Jiangmen, Foshan, Zhongshan and Guangzhou. The main line currently under construction is 80.783 kilometer long, expected to be completed by 2020.

The Guangzhou-Zhongshan-Jiangmen highway began construction in December 2010. The high way, built in three phases and expected to be open for traffic by the end of the year, will pass through Guangzhou, Foshan, Zhongshan and Jiangmen, to ease the traffic flow on the existing Zhonghsan/Jiangmen high way.

With multiple forest parks, some beautiful temples and three towns/villages with natural hot springs, Zhongshan has abundant tourism resources. Within the city, the local government has launched a transportation masterplan to further develop its tourism potential.

The masterplan focuses on three major aspects to strengthen the mobility: a transportation network that facilitates easy connection with the other cities, inside the city transportation network and tourism auxiliary facilities.

According to the masterplan, there are six “aqua bus” routes to connect the city’s most popular tourism destinations. An addition of five tourism bus routes will be linked with the aqua buses, to facilitate seamless transfer between land and waterway.

Exports: targeting the Belt and Road

Although Zhongshan is not the typical export port as many will know, this small city of three million people exported RMB180 billion of goods last year, about one-fourth of exporting powerhouse Dongguan’s tally for 2018, while the Belt and Road countries stood out, specifically Vietnam and Cambodia. Official data shows that from January to May, Zhongshan’s foreign trade volume with these two shot up: Vietnam by 14.65% and Cambodia by 113.75%. This has been largely the result of recent investment projects worth US$66.88 million in industries ranging from furniture and lighting to electrical equipment.

Companies in Zhongshan have shown great interest to invest in Southeast Asian countries, as the city is upgrading its traditional labor-intensive manufacturing industry to a hi-tech focus.

The central government has issued policies to support foreign trade. In recent years, China Export and Credit Insurance Corporation has been doubling down on helping Zhongshan’s enterprises expand overseas. The corporation has provided services including overseas land acquisition, construction of new production plants, equipment purchasing as well as providing guarantees to overseas account receivables. The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China has also set up more than 130 overseas branches in the 21 Belt and Road Initiative countries, offering cross-border financial services.

Cuiheng New Town: The tech center

Zhongshan is also getting on the bandwagon of hi-tech development. The government has been investing in a “new town” in Cuiheng, which serves as Zhongshan’s innovation center. Cuiheng is located on the eastern side of Zhongshan, including the coastal area of the Zhongshan Torch Hi-tech Industrial Development Zone, which has been a national-level hi-tech industrial development zone since 1990. The new town is well positioned geographically, roughly in the center circle of the GBA.

Keep an eye on Greater Bay Insight for more news to come on Zhongshan’s development plans.

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