In January 1992, Deng Xiaoping famously set out on his Southern Tour with the aim of kick-starting economic reforms, which had languished over the previous 3 years. His trip included a visit to the electronics maker Xianke, whose manager was the son of one of Deng's fighting comrades in the 1930's in Jiangxi province. A decade later, despite the best of connections, Xianke went down in flames. Neither Deng nor any of the other top leaders who paid homage to Xianke could force Chinese consumers to buy Xianke's stereos or DVD players.
My trips to Guangdong have never been so consequential. The first visit was in early 1988, when I arrived by overnight boat. I started in Guilin on a rickity bus that went up and down over horribly scary roads (I occasionally read about them going over cliffs with 20 passengers on board), and then took at boat from Wuzhou down the Pearl River to Guangzhou. I had a small open birth with many people on both sides of me. There were photos near a door showing the results of what happens when you smoke or light a fire on board. Grusome! When I arrived the following morning, I found Guangzhou difficult to navigate compared to Beijing because its roads were not straight and no one spoke Mandarin. I stayed at a nondescript hostel not far from the US consulate and the Swan Hotel. I had three-cat soup and some snake at a restaurant written up in the Lonely Planet guide. When I visited the restroom, I walked by cages stacked to the ceiling of meowing meals.
24 years after my first trip and two decades after Deng's trip to Guangdong, I decided to make my own treck south in late May to see how things were going. Deng and Xianke are now both long gone, and I didn't bother to look for the snake restaurant. My main goal was to take stock of economic reforms and how well Guangdong's leader, Wang Yang, is making out.
My efforts were helped tremendously by Sun Yat-sen University's Edward Wang, who introduced me to many of his friends (including some folks who visited IU before) and helped arrange some excellent interviews.
Sun Yat-sen University has a gorgeous campus. Its northern border sits along the Pearl River. The buildings are not overly large (like some on the campus of Renmin University in Beijing), and there are trees and quiet paths everywhere.
What did I find out about Guangdong and Wang Yang? In short, I was pretty impressed by both. Guangdong's economy grew rapidly in the 1990's and 2000's as the core of China's export machine, but as production costs there have risen and global markets have shrunk, everyone knows Guangdong needs to move up the value-added chain and focus more on serving domestic demand. Wang Yang has been forcefully pushing this transition. He's run into some serious opposition from manufacturers who just want to squeeze more and more out of their workforce, but he's also managed to induce some companies to move to northern Guangdong or other provinces and push firms that remain in the Pearl River Delta to upgrade. I'm currently searching for confirming stats, but this is my general impression.
Guangdong has also been relatively proactive on the political front as well, encouraging governance that gives a greater voice to the grassroots, such as through NGO's and village elections. Guangdong is also experimenting with open budgeting so that citizens can have a better (though not perfect) understanding of where their taxes go. On all scores, Guangdong looks very different from the recent approach of Chongqing. And we know what happened there.
One of the highlights of my time in Guangzhou was a visit to a provincial advisory body known as the Canshishi (参事室). This official advisory body is composed of scholars and experts who serve at the pleasure of the Party Secretary and governor, giving their frank opinions about all sorts of policies. I was only marginally aware of these advisory bodies before, which serve the leadership of every province and the central government's State Council. I think they deserve much more attention.
Outside the Guangdong Provincial Canshishi, Guangzhou
During the visit I was able to meet the office director, Mr. Zhou, and received a briefing about the office's history and the evolution of their responsibilties.
From left to right: Mo Xianchun (advisory group's staffer), Wang Xinsheng (Deputy Dean, SYSU School of Asia-Pacific Studies), Zhou Yi (director of the advisory group office), and Edward Wang (SYSU professor and a great guy)
After having my most productive visit ever to Guangzhou, I made the short trip by train to Hong Kong and tried to measure the temperature from the other end of the Pearl River. My first visit to Hong Kong (in 1991) was worse than my first to Guangzhou. It involved a very heated argument with a sales clerk on Nathan Road; I ended up with a bloody lip soothed only by some ice from a nearby McDonald's and then a few hours of rest on the beaches near Stanley. Don't ask my what I said to provoke the clerk's ire!
Nothing like that happened on this visit. I had a good time bunking in with a buddy who just moved down from Beijing, and over the course of a few days meeting with analysts of all sorts and shapes. Your average person on the street may not be paying much attention to Beijing, but Hong Kong's newspapers and analyst class are going gangbusters trying to determine which direction China and its leadership are headed in. Needless to say, there's a wide array of views about Guangdong and the future of China's economy and politics. I visited a bookstore and was overwhelmed by the number of books and sensationalistic titles and covers. Digesting that stuff could take months, and it'd leave you with serious stomach pains.
Having finished my interviews, I went over and took the Star Ferry from Central to Kowloon and enjoyed the views. There's nothing like quietly drifting across the harbour while at the same time gazing at Hong Kong island's towering buildings on one side, the bustling streets of Kowloon on the other, and tug boats and steamers passing through the middle.
View of Central in Hong Kong from the Star Ferry