Stay tuned for another 'Shenzhen moment'

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 September, 2010, 12:00am

Shenzhen is so identified with modern China's economic miracle that it does not seem possible it is now half as old as the People's Republic itself. Its foundation as the first special economic zone led to the Pearl River Delta becoming an economic powerhouse. The model has proved so successful that it has spread nationwide. As a result, Shenzhen and other economic zones are now barely distinguishable from the rest of the economy.

But they spearheaded the transformation of the nation. The tributes to Shenzhen paid by state leaders, amid the fanfare of its nationally televised 30th anniversary celebrations, were therefore a fitting reminder of what this extraordinary exercise in opening up to the world has meant to China - and Hong Kong.

Those reforms have now been largely overtaken. In that sense, the economic zones have probably outlived their usefulness. As the country moves on, Shenzhen's achievements may fade into history - unless it becomes a testing ground for more reforms.

From the beginning one question has remained: at what point will economic development lead to substantive political change? This has led to speculation that Shenzhen is ripe for use as a special zone for introducing political reforms.

President Hu Jintao has promised Shenzhen more reforms. But his references to political change were more ambiguous than earlier remarks by Premier Wen Jiabao that political reform was needed to safeguard economic reform and build a fair and just society. It is clearly the subject of internal debate that is far from reaching consensus.

The mixed messages, however, do not diminish the historic significance of Shenzhen's 30th anniversary.

At the time, the special economic zones were revolutionary. Shenzhen was the earliest symbol of China's determination to alleviate crushing poverty everywhere in the country by adopting free-market principles within a socialist political system. Indeed, more than a decade later, during Deng Xiaoping's historic tour of southern China in the spring of 1992, there was no question of new economic freedoms being reflected in political change. His landmark speech in Shenzhen was about accelerating radical economic reform within the system. This tour is credited with adding dynamic momentum to the growth of a fledgling socialist market economy.

The symbolism of the anniversary resonates in Hong Kong, economically and socially. The city may have lost its manufacturing industry to Shenzhen. But the opening up of China created new opportunities. It was instrumental in Hong Kong becoming the international finance centre it is today. That said, Shenzhen's remarkable journey in turn drew inspiration from the free-wheeling enterprise and hard-work ethic that characterised Hong Kong's ascent to the ranks of advanced, rich places.

The mainland authorities had long talked about China opening up, but it was the physical reality of Shenzhen and the other zones that gave the words meaning. To be sure, there has also been gradual political change - the country is far more open than it was. But constitutional references to democracy and the rule of law remain words, too, - perhaps until the country's leadership gauges the time has arrived for another 'Shenzhen moment' - and more bold, visionary steps. Then, far from fading into history, the city's future anniversaries could have twice the symbolic significance.