Guang'an, a city near the hometown of the late Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, as well as the indigenous habitat of giant panda, used to be a little-known mountain village tucked away in east Sichuan Province. In just three years, it has been turned into a strikingly modern city.
"Changes can be seen everywhere in Guang'an these past few years. Roads have been expanded and extend to the most secluded parts. People are living a better life," said a young taxi driver in the birthplace of the nation's chief architect of economic reform.
"Although Deng hadn't given Guang'an any preferential policies for economic development before his death in 1997, the economic achievement Guang'an has attained should be attributed to him," he said with gratitude.
Statistics show that approximately 2,500 families in Guang'an still lived in caves when Deng passed away in 1997. At the end of 2000, when China's national per-capita GDP reached US$800, that of Guang'an was only about US$300, with 85 percent of the county's population living in rural areas.
The lingering poverty of Guang'an, in the country's southwest, frustrated many locals and prompted others to argue that China's economic development had excluded some, particularly the nation's interior. Critics point out the irony of market-oriented economic reform, designed and promoted by Deng, not reaching his birthplace. On the other hand, some commend Deng, the "son of the Chinese people," for putting national policy and macroeconomics ahead of his home region.
The rapid development of Guang'an in recent years has indeed deflated to some extent naysayers' argue. The city's GDP for the first half of this year reached approximately 9 billion yuan (US$1.1 billion), a 14.8 percent growth over the same period last year. In terms of growth, Guang'an leaped from next to last in 2000 to first among Sichuan's 18 cities of comparable size. Its industrial profits and taxes paid over the past two years equaled those yielded in the previous seven years (1995-2001).
The city is quite densely populated. With a total area of 6,344 square km, which is two and a half times the size of Luxembourg, Guang'an has a population of 4.5 million, over 10 times the number of Luxembourgers.
Guang'an is making strides toward integration into the regional economy. It is only 167 km away from Chongqing, the fourth municipality directly under the Central Government and an economic hub in the southwest. The highway linking the two, which was opened to traffic only on July 12, cuts an automobile ride that used to take about four hours down to two. Shuttle buses are available every half hour to and from either city.
A Modern Facelift
Colored with greenbelt medians, six-lane blacktop thoroughfares and four-lane roads run through the city. Shiny, ultra-modern buildings rise up on both sides, including luxurious hotels and financial buildings.
Tourism was the spark that ignited the industrial boom in Deng's hometown. Statistics provided by the Guang'an Government reveal the city hosted about 2.5 million tourists last year, generating 1 billion yuan (US$120.8 million) in revenue. Tourism constituted one 10th of GDP for the year, a rate quadrupling that of 2000. The tourism industry has grown exponentially, becoming one of the three mainstays of the local economy.
The burgeoning tourism industry has spurred the hotel and restaurant business as well as provided taxi drivers with more patrons.
"Business used to be slack, but now it is much easier for me," Wang Xiaoping, a cab driver of four years, said. His net monthly income is over 3,000 yuan (US$362), which enables him to live quite well in Guang'an.
These years, Wang estimates that about 30 percent of his passengers have been not local. He has also noticed more migrant workers in town.
"As there were few street lamps in urban areas, we didn't work after 9 p.m. Now it is no longer a problem, the majority of taxies are on the road the whole night," said Wang, who has two daughters. "I'm not going to worry about my business as more and more people get to know about Guang'an."
When night falls, the lights of the new urban area splash up into the sky. Outdoor pools are crowded with people of all ages and public squares flow with pedestrians enjoying an evening stroll or dancing. Peddlers thread the crowd, hawking their goods.
"There used to be no place to hang out the whole night in the old days, when the city offered few entertainment facilities, but now we have much more choices than just watching TV," Wang Yanping, a woman who has recently picked up dancing, said with excitement. "I never fancied that I would dance when I'm almost 50."
Laying Down Their Sickles
Paifang Village, where Deng Xiaoping was born, lies 7 km north of Guang'an city proper. It has a population of 3,200. Deng grew up in the village, leaving at age 16 to pursue study in France. He never returned.
In order to build a 56-hectare memorial for Deng Xiaoping surrounding his former residence, the local government decided to put a housing complex named Paifang New Village across the street from the old village in late 2001. A total of 357 village families moved into the new residency in April 2003.
Set up as a community of villas, Paifang New Village features two-story white buildings with red roofs. Colorful lamps wink along some of the roofs, outlining the structures at night.
According to Liang Siming, the new village's designer, the buildings range in size from 80 to 220 square meters. About 49 million yuan (US$5.9 million) was poured into the project, mostly invested by the government. The houses have gas pipes, closed circuit TV and broadband, comforts the villagers have never experienced.
Liang told Beijing Review that Paifang New Village has spawned remarkable growth in the number of tourists. In the first half of this year, it hosted 700,000 tourists, raking in 1.12 million yuan (US$135,266) in revenue. Before the new village was built, there were only on average 100,000 tourists, generating a mere 100,000 yuan (US$12,077) in revenue a year.
Many villagers lost their arable land to make room for the Deng memorial. The local government thus encouraged villagers to start their own business.
"Afraid of having no customers, many villagers were reluctant [to start a business] and only five opened inns initially," recalled He Yan, Director of Paifang New Village's tourism society.
However, all the five businesses were soon very successful. This encouraged a considerable number of villagers to start hotels of their own, followed by restaurants. Liang's statistics say three restaurants and 15 inns opened in the latter half of 2003, while an astounding 33 more restaurants and 73 inns have opened since. About one third of the families in the new housing complex now run a lodge or an eatery.
Several of the villagers founded a tourism society in March to monitor and manage the burgeoning industry, particularly service quality. Similar non-governmental organizations have sprung up, which, explained Liang Siming, "is a product of a market economy."
Dan Wenquan, 68, is a cousin of the late Deng Xiaoping and the only close relative now living in Guang'an. When asked for an interview around noon on July 16, a Friday, his first reaction was to change suits to fit the occasion.
Dan, whose father was one year older than Deng Xiaoping, said he saw his cousin off when he was a kid, but doesn't remember much. Dan never saw Deng after he left the village. Dan told Beijing Review that his father had financed Deng's study in France, where he first read Marx. Feeling indebted to him, Deng had sent 10 yuan a month to Dan's father since 1958, 15 yuan since 1977 and 20 yuan since 1980.
When asked why Deng never returned to his hometown, Dan offered an explanation: "My cousin gave priority to the whole country's welfare, the return of Hong Kong to the motherland and the development of coastal economic zones. The development of his hometown was not among the issues he considered."
Two of Dan's daughters opened a restaurant in January. Dan, who lives with his daughters, sometimes helps them in business affairs. He said they earn more than 1,000 yuan (US$120.77) a day when business is good on the weekend. Other days they could earn under 100 yuan (US$12.1).
"The villagers all moved into two-story buildings and we now live a better life compared with the old days," Dan said with relief.
Zhou Hongmei, 30, opened a restaurant in April, which can accommodate more than 100 customers. At the first sight of this reporter, she nimbly picked a business card and modestly asked for advice.
Zhou said that she earns 7,000 to 8,000 yuan (US$845-966) a month at most, and around 2,000 yuan (US$241.55) a month during the off-season. "My business is just so-so. Big money-makers can earn over 10,000 yuan (US$1,208) a month," she said. Zhou pays her three employees a monthly salary of 3,000 yuan (US$362) as well as their accommodations.
Zhou admitted her worries. "Competition is tough and Paifang Village is still not very recognized. I always get fidgety when there are few customers."
Zhou, who stopped school after junior high, farmed before she started the restaurant which offers homely meals. The furthest place she has ever been is Guang'an. "I hope to travel to other places and know more about the world outside Guang'an when I earn enough money," Zhou said with anticipation.
Next to Zhou's eatery is an inn owned by Chen Changhua. The Chen's share a house with the Zhou's, lending a hand to each other when necessary.
Chen offers 11 beds in his inn. Chen waited at the entrance to the village for potential travelers to fill the four vacancies that night.
The Chen couple migrated between cities such as Beijing and Guangzhou seeking jobs for a decade. They hope to settle down and focus on their hotel business at Paifang New Village. Chen said many families in the village have a similar background. "I won't worry about life in the future as long as the tourism industry in Paifang Village keeps developing."
Tourism has raised the general standard of living, at least for some, in the village. "Residents in Paifang New Village are no longer in shortage of food or clothes, though a portion of them are far from being rich," said Liang Siming.
Long-term Development in Question
Achievements in Guang'an economic development in the past three year are undeniable, but growth has come from investment, which so far, has largely been from the local government.
Statistics reveal that, in the first half of 2004, investment contributed 4.8 percentage points to the growth of Guang'an and one third to its GDP. A majority of the investment was fund allocated by the government or loans granted by financial institutions.
With the 100th anniversary of the birth of national icon Deng Xiao-ping approaching, governments at various levels are paying more attention to the former leader's place of birth. They will likely pour much needed money into the town.
Whatever the motive, Guang'an is developing and related questions are being asked. Can Guang'an sustain the remarkable speed of growth after Deng's birthday is commemorated and people move on?
Tan Li, Secretary of the Guang'an Municipal Party Committee, affirmed, "We have laid a concrete foundation for future development. And we won't leave a mess for the future or develop at the expense of the future."
Tan was entrusted with the rejuvenation of Guang'an three years ago. Huge changes are evident in the town.
Tan said that, for the past three years, the Guang'an authorities have invested between 2-3 billion yuan (US$241.5-362 million) in urban construction, with debts running under 100 million yuan (US$12.1 million). Land value has increased as the city's infrastructure has improved. Tan cites as an example the area between the old and new city. After a large public square for entertainment and leisure was built there, the neighboring land shot up in value to 6.67 million yuan (US$805,555) per hectare despite the fact that "no one wanted it before, even as a gift."
At a meeting on July 19, the municipal government officials decided Guang'an would focus on developing industry. "The strength, volume and quality of Guang'an's industry will produce the healthy, sustained and rapid growth of the city's economy," claimed Wang Ping, Mayor of the city.
He Xingjiang, 37, was appointed seven months ago as the vice mayor for his rich experience in management. He is expected to bring about breakthroughs in the city's industrial development.
In an exclusive interview with Beijing Review, he impressed with his straightforwardness: "I'm under great pressure as Guang'an has a shaky foundation for industry."
Guang'an currently relies on its rich reserves of coal and water for industrial expansion.
"My major task at present is to update business technologies and forge several large market-oriented enterprises to sharpen their competitive edges," He said. There is only one enterprise whose controlling stake is owned by the state; the rest are all private enterprises. The state-owned enterprise is preparing for trading in the stock market, which would definitely constitute a "breakthrough" for He.
Guang'an also has at least 200 billion tons in underground salt reserves. "Our next move is to develop salt chemical enterprises, to produce glass, for example," said He.
An important aspect of Guang'an's development blueprint is to shoulder some industries (machinery manufacturing, in particular) that Chongqing is transferring to neighboring cities, thus becoming that municipality's "workshop."
"Some of Chongqing's heavy industries have been transferred to Guang'an and are making a contribution to the city's economy," said He.
He also stressed that Guang'an, with no history of industry, must rely on bank loans and government stipends to ensure not only "high investment," but also "high growth."
"Deng never invested a substantial amount of money in Guang'an. But as the architect of China's market economy, he gave his hometown fame, new ideas and a chance to absorb more investment, injecting a lasting impetus for Guang'an's development in the long run," He said.
(Beijing Review August 12, 2004)