Thank you, from the Pearl River Delta

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 January, 2005, 12:00am

The left hand of the mainland's censorship system clearly did not know what the right was doing on Monday morning as I awoke in Guangzhou . The plug was pulled on CNN just as its presenter had said: 'Xinhua reports that Zhao Ziyang has died...' Later, gazing out from the China Hotel at a billboard of Deng Xiaoping , I was saddened by the irony of the situation. This is the city where the late paramount leader's former protege cut his teeth in politics and, if truth be told, its people should have a bigger space for him in their hearts.

Indeed, the economic reforms launched in Guangzhou more than a quarter of a century ago, for which Deng is universally glorified, were equally the achievement of his former protege. Zhao was an economic reformer long before a would-be political one, and no province benefited more from his time in high office than the test bed of capitalism with Chinese characteristics.

In 1965, Zhao, at 46, became the youngest provincial party secretary when he took the helm of Guangdong. He had spent the past decade implementing agricultural reforms in the province that were later to form the cornerstone of the country's economic reawakening. His fall from grace during the Cultural Revolution two years later was quick and savage, as he was paraded through the streets with a dunce cap. Nevertheless, on his recovery in the early 1970s, it was to Guangzhou that he returned as provincial party secretary and military chief. And when Deng made him premier in 1980, it was in Guangzhou that he first set about implementing the patriarch's 'open-door' policies of economic reform.

It was Zhao, above anyone, who ensured the triumph of the fledgling special economic zones in the early 1980s. A famous anecdote dates to 1981, on a visit to Shenzhen, when the local party secretary pleaded for central government funding from the premier: pulling out his pockets to show they were empty, Zhao exhorted the cadre to rely on his people's ingenuity and creativity to get the bold experiment going. Today, Shenzhen has the mainland's highest per-capita gross domestic product. It is well known that Guangdong paid a price for its patron's purge following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. The installation of Jiang Zemin as party secretary and, subsequently, Zhu Rongji as premier swung the focus of China's development for the next decade heavily towards Shanghai and the eastern seaboard. One might say that it has little to do with Mr Jiang's retirement two years ago, yet there has, nevertheless, been a growing sense that the sun is shining southwards again. Despite concerns about a runaway mainland economy, it is hard to find anyone in Guangdong who talks about tighter credit and slowing approval for major projects. The creation of the pan-Pearl River Delta, meanwhile, is the most ambitious regional economic development plan on any drawing board. And when Premier Wen Jiabao - Zhao's former chief aide - made a quick southern tour recently, it was Shenzhen that he told to 'set an example' for the country's development.

It might be speculative to suggest that now is a good time for Guangdong to reassert itself in national policy-making. Yet neither would it be crass to say that this traditionally pioneering province could best honour the memory of the late reformer by once again blazing some socio-economic trails. It need not involve democratic political change. Far more practical would be to focus on finding new ways to generate more sustainable economic development. The province desperately needs cleaner water and air, better educational and health-care institutions, and higher value-added industries. Ingenuity and creativity is all that Zhao would have expected of cadres facing such challenges.

Anthony Lawrance is the Post's special projects editor