Part Two blog about her recent China trip findings by our Founder and CEO Ting Zhang, focusing on the Greater Bay Area and featuring four cities.
- Shenzhen: the Tech Capital of China
- Guangzhou: Home to China’s Oldest Trading Port
- Zhuhai & Hengqin: A New Model for Diversification
- HongKong: Where East Meets West
Shenzhen: the Tech Capital of China
A severe storm in Southern China over the weekend disrupted air travel so my flight from Shanghai to Shenzhen was delayed by three hours. To me, this familiar city is like a young man with endless energy and ambition. So, despite I only arrived in early evening on a Sunday, our Chinese language solution partner still managed to host me in their spacious new office in the Nanhai Hi-Tech Zone and the team did an impressive demo on how their AI powered multimedia language solutions could help enterprises and universities to better share knowledge in over 40 translated languages efficiently.
Powerful AI apps like ChatGPT are causing much concern to the prospects of many service sectors, and while the firm’s entrepreneurial founders remain optimistic that AI will not be able to completely replace human translation efforts they are already making plans for their workforce in those roles that will be made redundant by AI.
The highlight of my Sunday evening was having dinner at a Chinese liquor museum restaurant, where antique artefacts, ancient drinkware and themed paintings were on display, all in traditional Chinese settings. There was even a poem dedicated to drinking and how it can make a smart person smarter and a fool even more foolish!
I got to hear a bit about one of the main social problems this young city faces but also across China. One full-time working mum told me that only half of the secondary school children in Shenzhen can get into the city’s state high schools due to a limited capacity, which means the only options for the rest of the students are to go to private schools or study abroad – and both options cost a fortune. Despite the Government’s well-intended policy to abolish after-school tutoring, the competition for Chinese children all the way through to K12 education has not decreased. This may largely explain why many Chinese couples are not keen to have (more) children.
After a short meeting with a local innovation incubator in the morning, I hit the road to travel to the second city on my GBA tour.
Guangzhou: Home to China’s Oldest Trading Port
Also referred to as “Canton”, Guangzhou was the first port city open for foreign trade in China, dating all the way back to the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century and, for a long time, remained the only Chinese port accessible to most foreign traders. It was also one of the starting points of the old Silk Road, a trading route that stretched across Asia. Nowadays, this provincial capital city is at the heart of the Guangdong–Hong Kong–Macau Greater Bay Area and has expanded its municipality in recent years, after absorbing several small cities and towns into its urban area and counties.
In half a day I managed to visit the British Consulate-General, Municipal Commerce Bureau (Invest Guangzhou), and the Guangzhou Development District, thanks to the very helpful arrangements made by our highly efficient local service partner team. I was encouraged to hear from the British trade officers that many more initiatives are being made to boost collaboration between the UK and China in digital industries, as well as the digitalisation of traditional industries.
At city level, the investment promotion officials are aware of the strengths and weaknesses of Guangzhou’s positioning in attracting foreign investments, and they talked about the willingness to nurture small and early-stage foreign companies and help them to grow in Guangzhou. This is a refreshing standpoint, as many other Chinese cities are still trying hard to ‘woo’ the big companies. Later when I met with Guangzhou Development District representatives, I heard that 330 of the Fortune 500 companies have already invested in Guangzhou, and the district focus is on advanced manufacturing industries with pillar industries such as automobiles, electronics, and petrochemicals. Guangzhou has a higher GDP than Shenzhen, however the city has to pay a lot more tax than the latter which enjoys special economic zone status.
One of my early career highlights in the beginning of the 1990s was attending the Canton Fair (formally known as “China Import & Export Fair”) on behalf of my employer to meet and negotiate with our foreign customers and suppliers. I have always found that Guangzhou is a very liveable city in terms of overall quality of living and geographic convenience for all modes of travel. But particularly when I visited this time and stayed overnight in a well-equipped hotel apartment, I was highly amused by the robot I saw, busy delivering takeaway food to rooms, and impressed that all the signs were in perfect English.
A few days later, Emmanuel Macron also visited Guangzhou in his short state visit to China, the only city outside Beijing of his visit.
Zhuhai & Hengqin: A New Model for Diversification
I took the high-speed train to my third GBA tour stop, Zhuhai, which took only an hour. This used to take more than twice the time by road when I worked in Zhuhai in the 1990s. The train leaves every 15 minutes or so, but the one I took was nearly full. China has the best high speed train network in the world; it has brought the cities and people closer in terms of work/life balance and has also enabled many more intercity economic cooperations.
With the busiest passenger border crossing in the world (Gongbei), Zhuhai is connected with Macao via land, and is one of the four dedicated “Special Economic Zones” first opened to the West back in the 1980s. Compared to Shenzhen, the city has a few famous Chinese business champions but largely enjoys a reputation for seaside holidays.
Having not returned to this beautiful coastal city for only a few years, I still find many places familiar and was happy that my hotel is an old favourite on the seafront. My agenda was to visit and learn about the development of the Guangdong-Macao In-Depth Cooperation Zone at Hengqin – the largest of 146 islands in Zhuhai.
I was taken directly to the island and, when I was standing on the boardwalk waiting for our hosts to arrive, I saw the very narrow bay (roughly 150 metres) that separated the island from Macau. There was no fence and the building across the bay looked very accessible. I later asked the hosts how the local police monitor people trying to swim across the bay to Macau and the answer was: “it is the other way around: we are the ones who are worried about people swimming towards us!”
During a guided tour and introduction from the provincial officials, I learned that this 106-sq-km (41-sq-mile) cooperation zone covers a customs-supervised area and that the zone is “a new space for Macau residents to live and work, a new model to enrich the practice of ‘one country, two systems’, and a new ground for building up GBA”. It is planned that by 2035, the zone’s economic strength and technological competence will be greatly enhanced by an efficient public service and social security system and better collaboration mechanisms between Hengqin and Macao. The overall goal is to promote Macao’s economic diversification. I took that as the central Government wanting Macau to rely less on gambling and instead develop other (new/tech) industries in this new zone.
The conversation continued over a delicious dinner at a village restaurant on the island where I ate the biggest fresh oysters I have ever had. Then we had a nice stroll in the Portuguese style shopping mall, which leads to the new border with Macao, and is becoming a popular tourist spot.
Hong Kong: Where East Meets West
The final day of my trip began with a bus journey across the 55-kilometre Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge. This is both the longest sea crossing and the longest open-sea fixed link in the world, which took more than 30 years of planning, nearly 10 years to build, cost ¥127 billion (US$18.8 billion), and was designed to last for 120 years. The 40-minute bus ride passed quickly, but so did the scenery as I was too busy finalising my Hong Kong meetings!
I always love visiting Hong Kong; it is one of my favourite cities that I used to live and work in in the mid 1990s before coming to the UK.
The local people are very friendly to visitors and there is a very diverse range of ethnicities living there, as well as a range of foods and cuisines. When I arrived, I first dropped my luggage off at the airport so that I could travel light downtown. In no time at all I reached Wanchai for the first of my four meetings scheduled for the afternoon. It was a very productive first meeting, held over a quick lunch with patent and trademark attorneys discussing how we could help raise awareness of the need to file China patents in early-stage life science firms. We also discussed how to address some issues a particular consumer brand client of ours had faced when selling via eCommerce platforms in China.
After a short ride into central, I was glad to receive interest from a PE fund in investing in UK cleantech scaleups and agreed to follow up upon my return to the UK. Hong Kong’s MTR is extremely convenient: in less than 10 minutes I had crossed the sea to Kowloon for a visit to a service delivery partner of ours (a CPA firm) in Tsim Sha Tsui. We have been working closely with them to set up a few of our clients’ presences in the Greater China region and, with China’s further opening up in 2023, we anticipate more UK and European companies will take the opportunity to expand into the Chinese market.
Finally, I met with an old friend to catch up over dinner as fortunately my flight wasn’t until late in the evening. We were spoiled for choice of cuisines, but I eventually decided to have traditional Cantonese food for my last meal of the trip – and I was not disappointed. Waving goodbye to my friend at the Hong Kong Airport Express Terminal, I let out a big sigh of relief: I had successfully completed all the things I wanted to do on the trip and was looking forward to my flight home.
Seven cities, ten days and over twenty meetings. This whirlwind tour of China left me with many thoughts, but my main takeaway was the never-ending resilience, hard work, and high ambition of Chinese people. Their spirit is unbreakable. I returned to England with more optimism than when I landed in Chengdu.
I feel China is like a huge horse-drawn carriage travelling at speed, despite carrying a large amount of luggage. Some people jump off when the road gets bumpy, but the people who remain on the carriage are optimistic that they will reach their destination. The horses are made to run non-stop, sometimes with their eyes shut, and there is such a sense of urgency that it seems like there is no tomorrow. This is the image “China Speed” conjures up to me, an expression that we are all familiar with and something that the Chinese people are immensely proud of.
One of the buzzwords I became familiar with on this trip is “JUAN” (卷), which essentially describes the effort to compete unnecessarily and at the expense of oneself and those around you, in order to come top at work, school, and in one’s social life. Somehow, I cannot help wondering whether Chinese society could slow down, so that people will not worry so much about losing to the competition around them. It would be like the people on the horse-drawn carriage finally figuring out how to enjoy the ride, while taking stock of their surroundings and continuing onwards with their journey to realise a “Chinese dream” of their own.