Guangzhou bids to play a truly international role

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 November, 2010, 12:00am

Guangzhou officials hope this month's Asian Games, the biggest international event ever hosted by the city, will add impetus to their drive to see it become a fully fledged international metropolis by 2020.

Scholars and officials have mountains of data to measure the city's international credentials, including per capita gross domestic product, the number of multinational enterprises setting up headquarters in the city, urban infrastructure comparisons and the international influence - the soft power - of the city.

But for locals and foreigners living in Guangzhou, internationalisation can be as simple as being able to find more foreign food and drink options along with a convenient living environment and an open culture.

Sitting in a Starbucks cafe, 56-year-old Wang Jiequn said that reading a novel and enjoying a slice of blueberry cheese cake and a mug of latte made it feel as though Guangzhou was already well on the way to internationalisation.

A Guangzhou native, Wang said her friends, in their 50s or 60s, still preferred Cantonese dim sum to Western-style coffee and desserts.

'But we are changing, especially the youth.' she said, while adding that compared with Beijing and Shanghai, Guangzhou still had a long way to go.

Guangzhou, however, has long been a part of China more open to international influences, even at times when the rest of the country was sealed off.

From the mid-1700s to the first opium war in 1840, Guangzhou was the only Chinese city opened to foreign traders. When Beijing stopped most business connections with the West during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, the Canton Fair trade show continued, on the direct orders of then premier Zhou Enlai.

Guangzhou's biggest advantage used to be its coastal location, less than 200 kilometres from Hong Kong, which allowed people to travel overseas easily, bringing back all kinds of new habits, ideas and sometimes their foreign business partners.

However, after the mainland embarked on reform and opening up in the late 1970s, Beijing and Shanghai attracted large state subsidies for construction projects, international attention and the regional headquarters of major global companies.

Guangzhou and the surrounding Pearl River Delta region were left with the overseas giants' factories, labour-intensive operations that required fewer foreigners to be present.

Meeting friends at coffee shops was a habit for white-collar workers in Beijing and Shanghai in 2000, but Guangzhou only had a few coffee shops in mid-2003, when its first Starbucks outlet opened.

'Guangzhou is a big market and we did want to come, but firstly you had to wait until it had enough market demand and find qualified suppliers who could offer Western cakes,' a Starbucks manager said.

Anthony Gonzalez, an American percussion professor at the Xinghai Conservatory of Music, says that when he arrived in the city in 2001, foreigners living there would flee to Hong Kong each weekend because of the dearth of entertainment, food and leisure options in Guangzhou.

After seven years of expansion, the US-based coffee giant now has 28 shops in Guangzhou and young locals, between the ages of 18 and 35, are among its target customers, no longer just foreigners, Hongkongers and Taiwanese.

Some Starbucks operators say the number of students visiting their outlets has doubled in the past few years, a clear indication of increasing openness to international tastes.

Gonzalez and Karen Liang, senior marketing executive with That's PRD, a Guangzhou-based English magazine for foreigners living in Guangzhou, agree that the place is changing. They say the city now has more options for foreign food, more world-brand hotels and more nightlife events that appeal to foreigners.

Over the past two decades, local officials have repeatedly vowed to boost research and development and the number of regional headquarters in the city with a view to attracting more foreign experts.

According to Guangdong's Human Resources and Social Security Department, there were at least 35,000 foreigners registered with the authorities working in the province by the end of June, up by more than a third in five years.

Among them, foreign experts - managers and professional in enterprises or professors and teachers in schools - have increased from 3,000 to 9,000, which the department attributes to greater demand and better opportunities.

However, one aspect of the growing internationalisation of Guangzhou, its status as the mainland city with the most African residents, has not been so welcomed by the authorities. Officials claimed two years ago that there were only 20,000 Africans in Guangzhou, while local media speculated that the real number was at least 100,000 and could even be as high as 200,000.

Professor Adams Bodomo, African Studies programme director at the University of Hong Kong, said the Africans in Guangzhou provided business opportunities for Chinese suppliers.

'Their presence in Guangzhou also serves as a cross-cultural catalyst on a grass-roots level,' Bodomo said. 'I like Guangzhou very much, it has all the right ingredients, but it's not cooking its soup well.

'You are not a global city unless you have a very clear immigration policy, a clear path for foreigners to get residency, visas and work permits,' he added.

Bodomo said no mainland cities were truly internationalised in that regard, when compared with New York, London and Hong Kong.

From his extensive research in Guangzhou, Bodomo said he had come across many stories about Africans being treated unfairly when getting visas or residency permits.

'Guangzhou can consider encouraging the development of ethnic cuisine in the city while upgrading itself to a global city,' he said. 'There is Little Senegal in New York; why can't there be a Little Nigeria in Guangzhou too?'

One Nigerian trader who has lived in Guangzhou for three years, shipping medical equipment back to his home country, says foreigners are now more welcome in the city.

'In the past, if you said hi to a local person, you would mostly be ignored,' he said.

'But now, even if people can't respond in fluent English, you will often get a smile in return.

'Guangzhou is also looking better in recent years with more development taking place in terms of large-scale infrastructure.'

Although visa applications were easier nowadays, they still remained a challenge, especially for Nigerians.

'There was a time in 2008 where you couldn't even extend your visa beyond five to seven days,' the trader said. 'But now, you can get longer visas and there are more means for you to get them too.'

However, he said he was not pleased to see clients from Europe and other African countries such as South Africa and Tanzania getting six-month visa extensions in just two to three days when Nigerians were normally restricted to 30-day extensions unless they had travelled to the mainland frequently.

Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of the department of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, said the African dimension should not be regarded as a handicap in Guangzhou.

'On the contrary, it offers Guangzhou a diversity and a wealth, including in terms of cultural activities, that the city can and should capitalise more on,' he said.

The main obstacle for the city to overcome while upgrading itself into a truly attractive international city was pollution, he said.

A profusion of choice

The city is opening up to international tastes with many foreign brands

After seven years in Guangzhou, Starbucks now has a large spread of outlets numbering: 28