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Special Economic Zones Keep Importance
China's special economic zones will still be "special" after the country's entry to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and can continue to boom because they are better prepared for its rules, officials and economists said yesterday.

While thousands of Chinese businesses have yet to familiarize themselves with the WTO principles and practices, China's technological and economic areas are already ahead of the game, said Pi Qiansheng, chief official who oversees the Tianjin Economic Development Area (TEDA).

China's chief special economic zones are Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Shantou, Xiamen cities and Hainan Province.

But they encompass more than 100 national economic and technological development zones, 15 national bonded areas and 14 border trade and co-operation regions in the broadest sense, said Hu Ping, former director of the Special Economic Zone Office under the State Council.

Years before China joined the global trade club, the special economic areas had begun operating in line with international practices, said Pi, director of the administrative commission of TEDA, the largest development zone in North China.

"By implementing international practices - like simplified approval procedures and transparency - TEDA has actually been operating according to WTO rules," he said.

Both Pi and Hu denied allegations that the national treatment and non-discrimination principles of the WTO will undermine the development of the special economic and technological areas, which used to receive - and give - preferential policies.

"The special zones in various sizes and forms in China have grown from their initial state when they needed policy support before they were able to rely on themselves for expansion," Hu said.

"I don't see much of a negative impact of WTO entry on their recruitment of experts and the overall investment environment."

The special zones can instead maintain their "special" status by maximizing their accumulated expertise and their advantages in geographic locations and export-orientated industrial structures.

They can gain a head start in absorbing foreign funds, technology and developing modern logistic systems, Hu said.

The bonded zones, export product processing quarters and high-tech parks in those special areas will open still wider, Pi said.

"It is my understanding that the WTO rules obligate the government to shift its functions to serving businesses in a more efficient fashion," Pi said.

"In TEDA, for example, the authorities have already modified or removed all the regulations and operations that go against the WTO rules."

Within the framework of national treatment requirements of the WTO, TEDA will give more favourable policies to overseas investment to attract more transnationals, he said.

(China Daily March 21, 2002)

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