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40 years of changes in China’s special economic zones

THIS year is unique to our neighbor China, as it marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the special economic zones.

Though forty years seems like a short period in history, China has changed beyond recognition during this time. To refill the “10-year gap” of domestic economic development during the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party proposed reform and opening-up in 1978, and successively established special economic zones in Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Shantou, and Xiamen.

During the 40 years of development, these then “backward” special economic zones played the role of “experimental fields”, which served as significant windows for the rest of the world to view China.

Throughout the history of the world, it is almost impossible for us to find another country like China developing so fast in such a short time, with its cities like Shenzhen, Zhuhai, and Shantou rising from the poverty-stricken counties in the 1980s to today’s economic powerhouses. Among them, Shenzhen is most in the spotlight.

It is located closest to Hong Kong, and thereby benefits from Hong Kong’s economic growth. Since the announcement of the Plan for Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area and the establishment of a socialist pilot demonstration zone with Chinese characteristics, the future is likely to witness further development in Shenzhen. Nevertheless, despite Shenzhen’s role as a distinct representative, other special zones also display their characteristics.

Forty years of development has allowed the special economic zones to have a firm basis on the economy, and the economic scale is expanding. In 1980, the GRP (Gross Regional Product) of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone was 270 million yuan.

Since then, the total economic volume has continued to expand. It exceeded 100 billion yuan in 1996 and went beyond one trillion yuan in 2010, reaching two trillion yuan in 2016. Until 2019, it achieved the GRP of 2692.709 billion yuan, which is 1519 times that of 1980 at comparable prices, with an average annual growth rate of 20.7%.

The gross production value of the Zhuhai Special Economic Zone in 1980 was 261 million yuan. It exceeded 100 billion yuan in 2008. In 2015, it exceeded 200 billion yuan, and in 2018, it went beyond 300 billion yuan. By 2019, the GRP reached 343.589 billion yuan.

Calculated at comparable prices, it is 537 times that of 1980, with an average annual growth rate of 17.4%. In 1980, Shantou’s GRP was only 1.079 billion yuan.

In 1992, its economic aggregate exceeded 10 billion yuan.

In 2009, it went beyond 100 billion yuan, and in 2016 it exceeded 200 billion yuan. While the economic scale continues to expand, Shantou’s economy maintains medium-high growth. In 2019, Shantou’s GRP was 269.408 billion yuan, 97 times that of 1980 at comparable prices, with an average annual growth rate of 12.4%. Xiamen and Hainan Special Economic Zones have also made great leaps in their economy, and their development speed is among the top cities in China.

The achievements in economic construction are impressive, while the demeanor of the special economic zones in the process of reform and opening-up also impressed the international community.

The special economic zone has demonstrated great courage.

In the 1980s, China not only needed to open its market, but it also needed to try new systems and mechanisms to explore a path that could smoothly integrate into the world market.

The special economic zone, as an experimental field for China’s reform and opening-up, is in the vanguard of institutional innovation.

In the early period of reform and opening-up, the Chinese Communist Party took the lead in choosing small coastal areas with overseas resources far away from Beijing for experimentation where risks are relatively controllable.

Once it succeeds, cities in the Chinese interior can follow the pattern, and if it fails, it will not make large impacts. Nevertheless, a lack of experience in the opening up to the outside world and the fear of developing a market economy have restrained locals in many areas from rolling up their sleeves, because they held the belief that developing the market economy was equivalent to developing capitalism.

Amid these hot disputes, Deng Xiaoping made a southern tour and delivered a speech, which removed scruples about developing the market economy.

The special economic zones were allowed to get started, and it achieved successful results. In this process, some cadres shouldered their responsibilities, faced the doubts and criticisms from all walks of life, explored many new methods, and made due contributions to the development of the special zones.

The special economic zone has demonstrated the cultural genes of tolerance and harmony.

“As long as you come here, you belong to Shenzhen.”

This slogan makes every foreigner who comes to Shenzhen fall in love with this city. Since the reform and opening-up, the special economic zone represented by Shenzhen has provided a lot of assistance to communities where foreigners gather, such as translation, legal consultation, and entrepreneurial support.

As a result, foreigners in the special economic zone will not be troubled by language problems, suggesting that you can settle down in Shenzhen wherever you come, as long as you are capable enough.

It is conducive to cultural exchanges between China and other countries, the integration of different cultures, and the solidarity between people from different backgrounds.

It allows the gene of tolerance to take root in everyone’s heart, and to let foreigners feel at home, with people to trust and home to live. Besides, with the passage of time and the advancement of technology, China’s special economic zones have a more efficient government and legal system, better social security, and a more convenient public transportation system than that in the past. In China, whether it is a special economic zone or other cities, it is less likely to encounter unwarranted harassment when walking late at night, which may be a piece of news in the United States, Britain, and other countries.

The special economic zone has demonstrated an innovative and enterprising spirit. Every progress in China’s special economic zones is impressive. Take Shenzhen as an example. In the 1980s, Shenzhen vigorously introduced “‘three-plus-one’ trading-mix” enterprisesand the inflow of foreign capital to boost local development and foster many labor-intensive industries. After 40 years of development, large factories with roaring machines in the past have given way to skyscrapers. Such high-tech fields as financial services, artificial intelligence, and new energy have gradually moved to the forefront of China. Shenzhen has been among the leaders in the areas of AR and VR development. Shenzhen has, veritably, turned itself into a high-tech city. Shenzhen and other special economic zones have no longer been regarded as cities with cheap labor. They are, instead, seen as open cities full of innovative and ambitious people, which is the epitome of the achievement of China’s reform and opening-up.

The special economic zone has shown meticulous care for people’s lives. Forty years of development has transformed the special economic zones from a small border town into a comfortable and agreeable modern city. It has attracted attention in terms of convenient facilities, medical care, government policies, and public transportation. Shenzhen’s urban planning, for instance, is reasonably planned. Commercial, entertainment, and health facilities are readily available. The expansion in green areas has improved air quality, while urban subway, high-speed rail, and bus networks are relatively advanced. The bicycle greenway network has given people new choices for enjoying a green life. Although medical resources in people’s lives are not rich enough, they can meet the basic needs of people. Due to a relatively complete social security system, it is not so expensive for residents to assess medical resources in community hospitals. The livability of Zhuhai, Shantou, Xiamen, and other special zones are also among the top in the country. Their meticulous care for people’s lives allows every domestic and foreign resident to feel the fruitful results of reform and opening-up.