The Pearl River Delta Megacity


The Pearl River Delta is slowly growing into a single colossal megapolis (view our PRD map here). And as controversy reigns over the continued urban development into the HKSAR’s northeastern territories, we dissect the future of the extravagant sprawling metropolis and see how its emergence will affect – and perhaps eventually kill – Hong Kong. By Samuel Lai.

Two hundred years ago, only three percent of the world’s population lived in cities. Today, more than half of all the people on the planet are urban dwellers, leading some to claim that this is the ‘century of cities’. As developing metropolises expand magnificently in both size and population, their perimeters blur, merging into one another, giving rise to endlessly interconnected chains of urban zones which have simply been dubbed ‘megacities’. It is a phenomenon of our time – and one, perhaps, which is most incredibly exhibited right here on our doorstep, right across the border in the Pearl River Delta.

Pearl River Delta Megacity - Street in Shenzhen in 1979

Scenes from across the border in November 1979 prior to becoming a SEZ in May 1980

It wasn’t that long ago that the PRD was a humble, rural place. Back in 1978, it was mainly agricultural, with villages dotting the marshy lands, occupying only 0.45 percent of the area of China. However, since then, it has seen some of the most rapid urban expansion in human history. In a little more than 30 years, it has becoming the heart of the thriving Chinese economy, embodying – for better or worse – the Mainland’s emergence as a global power – the factories, the incredible pace and scale of development, the sheer number of people – and accounting for nearly one-tenth of the entire country’s economy. During that time, its urbanisation rate increased drastically from 28 percent to 83 percent, making it one of the most densely urbanised regions in China. And in coming years, these already extravagant figures are only going to rise… sharply. 

The rise of the PRD
Since the Open Door Policy was implemented in 1978, the centres of the Pearl River Delta have seen astonishing rises in population, from mere rural villages to sprawling, urban centres. Here’s how dramatic the upswing has been...

Pearl River Delta Megacity - Chart showing population growth over the last 60 years, and project growth over the next 10 for major Delta cities

In 2008, the Chinese government unleashed a plan to merge the Pearl River Delta’s nine cities – consisting of Shenzhen, Dongguan and Huizhou in the east, Zhuhai, Zhongshan and Jiangmen in the west, and Guangzhou, Foshan and Zhaoqing in the centre – into a single megalopolis. Essentially, the blueprint proposes a spending of near to RMB2 trillion on more than 150 major infrastructure improvements to forge a colossal network of transportation, water, energy supply and telecommunication. And, indeed, the plan projects some quite mind-blowing statistics for the Pearl River Delta by 2030: one megacity, 66 million people, 54,733sq km, a GDP of RMB 15 trillion, a per capita GDP exceeding RMB 220,000 and an urbanisation level in excess of 90 percent. 

“The idea is to create a ‘one-hour-living zone’ encompassing all the nine cities in the Pearl River Delta,” says Zuo Zheng, an economics professor at the Jinan University in Guangzhou. With labyrinths of roads, tunnels, bridges across the delta, as well as intra- and inter-city railways totalling more than 4,000km, the residents of the Pearl River Delta will be able to easily speed from any one of the nine cities to another in an hour or less. This is no small feat, considering that the entire region has a geographical size larger than Denmark or Switzerland and a wide, muddy river to traverse in the middle. 

However, the plan involves more than just infrastructure. For now, due to China’s household registration system, a person’s entitlement to public services such as healthcare, education and pensions is tied to his or her place of birth. But in the next few years, all these barricades will be abolished in the Pearl River Delta, enabling a so-called ‘barrier-free circulation’ of public services. Inhabitants of the megalopolis will be able to attend school or stay at hospitals with a government subsidy at any of the nine cities.

“Such inter-connectedness among the nine cities is beyond the conventional urban agglomeration,” says Zuo. “Instead of considering them to be nine individual, separate cities, it makes more sense to see them as a unified, organic whole with a continuous urban area. It’s fitting to call it a megalopolis.”

“This integration and development of Pearl River Delta is of a national strategic level,” says Ma Xiangming, chief planner at the Guangdong Urban and Rural Planning and Design Institute. “The vision is to enhance overall regional competitiveness with this new approach to strengthen collaboration, upgrade industrial structure and make use of each city’s competitive advantages.”

Officially, the plan involves only the nine cities of the Pearl River Delta. But reading between the lines, there are a few more urban centres involved in this grand regional vision. Indeed, one of them is Hong Kong – and our involvement has already begun.

South of the border

Over the last decade, the ties between Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta have developed drastically, perhaps best demonstrated by the tremendous growth in cross-border traffic. 

In 2013, the 11 control points along the Hong Kong-Mainland border see a daily average of 562,400 cross in both directions – a mammoth increase from 333,200 in 2001. Cross-border commuting has become a relatively common phenomenon, with government statistics showing that a total of more than 50,000 Hong Kong and Pearl River Delta residents cross the border at least four times a week for work. And the ease and convenience of travel has naturally followed (perhaps, it has also been a driver), with measures such as the Octopus-Lingnan Pass – a card similar to the HK-specific Octopus card, but allowing Hong Kong travellers to conveniently ‘beep’ all the way from the SAR to 16 cities around the Pearl River Delta region.

Pearl River Delta Megacity - Tourists with large bundles of goods and boxes near Sheung Shui Station

Excess baggage Just some of the hundreds of thousands of people crosing the Lo Wu border daily

In addition, there are several significant pieces of infrastructure being built in Hong Kong, further increasing the connectivity of the city to the North and West, bringing us into the Pearl River Delta’s ‘one-hour living zone’. Most notably, the controversial 140km-long Express Rail Link, with its terminus in West Kowloon, will reduce the travel time between Hong Kong and Guangzhou to a mere 48 minutes when it is operational in 2015. And then there’s the 35.6km-long Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge-tunnel, scheduled for completion in 2016, which will cut the driving time from Hong Kong to Macau or Zhuhai down to about 30 minutes. 

However, perhaps the development which has attracted the most concern from Hongkongers has been the Chief Executive CY Leung’s stance on the Frontier Closed Area. Last year, in an interview with Oriental Daily, Leung suggested that some 28sq km of the restricted border area adjacent to Shenzhen (an area roughly the size of Macau) may become a special zone where Mainlanders could enter without a visa or permit. The former buffer zone between Hong Kong and Shenzhen would be able to, according to his vision, take advantage of the Pearl River Delta’s development and become a thriving commercial district. 

Recently, the issue has been rekindled with the controversies surrounding the northeast territories development – a plan to create three new towns in the far reaches of the HKSAR very close to the Frontier Closed Region. The government has repeatedly stated that the development plan is not designed to merge Hong Kong with Shenzhen and only aims to resolve our city’s housing problem. However, the geographical proximity of the towns to the restricted border area has led to concerns that the Chief Executive’s proposed visa-free zone may quickly spread to the entire northeastern region.

Pearl River Delta Megacity - Rural Northeast Territories, plants in the foreground, highrise apartments in the background

The rural northeast territories Areas like these will soon make way for new towns, just a stone's throw away from the border

“Consider, for instance, the Liantang Boundary Control Point, which connects the new towns with an expressway that links up the eastern part of the Pearl River Delta,” says Chan kim-ching, an urban planner and a member of the Anti-forced Integration Group. He points out that, according to the government’s official documents, the trans-border traffic forecast figures are based on the assumption that Shenzhen residents can travel to Hong Kong without a visa permit. “If Mainlanders can come and go freely in Hong Kong, this in effect cancels the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.”

Tang Wing-shing, professor of geography and urban planning at Baptist University, shares similar concerns to Chan. “If we allow the border area and nearby regions to integrate with Shenzhen in such a way, we are actually destroying One Country, Two Systems, at least geographically,” he says. “Such an integration in space and economics will eventually ascend to the integration of administrative and political systems.”

This is, without doubt, quite a divisive issue. And while voices such as Chan and Tang hold deep concerns about a de facto border-free arrangement, others see the integration of Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta as an inexorable development. 

“We are right next to the world’s second largest economy and are disproportionately outsized. Realistically, it is simply not possible to stop the flow of people and capital from the Mainland into Hong Kong,” says Yep kin-man, a professor of public policy in City University. “Our economy cannot survive if we break off from China either. For instance, consider our financial market. Right now half of the market value of our Hang Seng Index is related to Chinese capital. Imagine what will happen to our stock market if all this capital was to vanish. We do not have a choice to refuse integration with the Pearl River Delta. The key issue here is how to handle and regulate the integration process so we can maximise benefits and reduce negative impacts.”

Indeed, despite anti-Mainland protestations and calls for an unlikely return to our colonial rulers, there is an air of inevitability about Hong Kong slowly integrating with the Pearl River Delta – and that’s without even considering the elephant in the room: what happens in 2047? Realistically, perhaps the more important question, as Yep suggests, is how integration impacts on Hong Kong – both beneficially and negatively.

Is it a matter of life or death?

In a city as money-centric as Hong Kong, the PRD megacity’s influence on our economy seems a natural place to start. Even with the rapid emergence of the Mainland over the last 30 years, Hong Kong remains the financial stronghold of China. However, it isn’t, according to some, a foregone conclusion that Hong Kong will remain as the power centre of a future PRD megacity. 

“If Hong Kong’s economy can be devised through a strong regional vision of collaboration with the Pearl River Delta, it can capitalise on its comparative strength and increase overall efficiency and prosperity by optimising resources of the entire region,” says Professor Chan Man-hung of the China Business Centre at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “After years of indulging in mostly speculative activities in the bubble economy, now is the chance for Hong Kong to invest in something more practical through economic integration with the Pearl River Delta. If not, Hong Kong will decline and be marginalised as Guangzhou and Shenzhen strive to overtake us.”

Dr Fang Zhou, assistant chief research officer at the One Country Two Systems Research Institute, is slightly more optimistic. “As the internationalisation of the RMB continues to move forward, Hong Kong still has a unique role to play as an offshore RMB centre,” says Zhou. He adds that Hong Kong still has a certain edge with institutional advantages, making it hard for any Mainland cities to replace it. “Moreover, Hong Kong would also act as a role model to the new major Experimental Zones in Guangdong, especially the Qianhai district [the so-called ‘Manhattan’ of the Pearl River Delta], which aims to develop modern service industries such as finance, logistics and information technology.”

Some experts also see Hong Kong’s integration into the PRD megacity as an opportunity to address issues that the city is not able to resolve unilaterally. “There are certain problems in Hong Kong that cannot be solved unless we integrate with the Pearl River Delta and formulate policies on a regional basis,” says City University’s Professor Yep. “For instance, emissions from the Mainland account for more than one third of our air pollution. No matter how much we do to clean up our part, we cannot hope to see a clear blue sky unless we devise a comprehensive clean air policy with the cities up north.” He gives another example of the quality control of our water supply, indicating that, with almost 80 percent of Hong Kong’s fresh water supply imported from Dongjiang, the Hong Kong government must participate in the monitoring process of the water quality together with the Guangdong government. 

Environmental and economic questions are one thing. But perhaps the bigger concern for Hongkongers, reflected in a poll last year where more than 51 percent of respondents suggested there should be a tapering to the number of Chinese tourists allowed into the city, is the impact an influx of Mainlanders may have on the city. In the face of these new arrivals, can Hong Kong retain its own identity?

‘Hong Kong will become another Tibet’

According to statistics from the Census and Statistics department, Hong Kong is already home to more than 760,000 Mainlanders, who have arrived since July 1, 1997, on the one-way permit scheme – about 10 percent of the city’s population. A record 35 million further Mainlanders visited our city last year as tourists. And with the prospect of integration with the Pearl River Delta and a slow relaxation of border controls, there are fears that, like the Central government has done in areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang, there would be moves to supplant a greater Mainland presence in our city. 

Pearl River Delta Megacity - Throngs of people at the Guangzhou train station

The mass migration People at Guangzhou train station... lots of them

“Many of these new immigrants are easily recruited by the pro-establishment camp, hence diluting the majority of Hongkongers who support democracy and universal suffrage,” says Yik Luk-fung, member of the Hong Kong Autonomy Movement. “In time, Hong Kong will become another Tibet, where the Chinese government is using mass migration of Han Chinese to reduce local Tibetans to a minority.” He emphasises that he is not discriminating against the new immigrants. Instead, he is calling for the Hong Kong government to take back the power to vet, approve and issue one-way permits. As of now, this authority belongs to the Chinese government.

While some see a certain fear that a significant Mainland population would alter the essence of Hong Kong, others see the city’s special and unique history as holding it in good stead. 

“We often forget that Hong Kong has always been an immigrant city,” says renowned author, Chan Koon-chung. “Many of us are descendants of Mainlanders who escaped to Hong Kong during China’s political turmoil during the Great Famine and Cultural Revolution. In fact, I am an immigrant from the Mainland myself.” 

City University’s Yep agrees, suggesting that diversity is one of Hong Kong’s greatest strengths – and something that would be bolstered by an increasingly diverse range of people. “A city always improves by absorbing talents from different places. Hong Kong’s free and open society has allowed many Mainland immigrants to thrive and flourish in our city,” he says.

And indeed, some, like renowned poet Liu Wai-tong, see the road of influence flowing the other way: rather than being influenced, he suggests that Hongkongers will be the ones influencing. 

“When Mainland tourists come to Hong Kong, they can observe the values and inner workings of a relatively more liberal society and bring these experiences back to Mainland,” says Liu. “If we are strong enough in our own cultural immunity, why can’t we digest what the Mainlanders bring us and make them a part of us? If we consider them to be ‘rude’ and ‘impolite’, why can’t we be confident enough that we can influence them?”

It’s a question which may become more and more pressing in the coming years, as the Pearl River Delta megacity slowly becomes reality. At least, on Liu’s conception of the issue, Hongkongers will have a say in the matter. The alternative, we imagine, may well be tantamount to death.

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