Nine cities to be linked in Delta megalopolis
Mimi Lau in Guangdong
An ambitious urbanisation project aims to turn the Pearl River Delta, the factory of the world, into a super-size metropolis similar to Tokyo's sprawl.
In just a few years' time, it will no longer be just a concept, as the Guangdong government is planning the project at a cost of nearly 2 trillion yuan (HK$2.36 trillion) to merge nine cities and the rural area inbetween.
The Pearl River Delta Reform and Development planning framework is a priority of the province's 12th five-year plan.
The merged megalopolis will encompass about 40,000 sq km with a population of 42 million.
About 150 major infrastructural projects will integrate transport, energy, water works, information and telecommunications in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Foshan , Dongguan , Zhongshan, Zhuhai, Jiangmen, Huizhou and Zhaoqing .
Together, they now comprise about 10 per cent of the national gross domestic product.
The plan, endorsed by the State Council in 2009, essentially turns the delta into an experiment in the mainland's attempt to deepen economic reform.
Although the State Council chose the area to be the forefront of the reform and opening-up campaign, which has made the delta prosperous for the past 30 years, it has lost its competitive advantage to city groupings in the Yangtze River Delta (Shanghai, southern Jiangsu and northern Zhejiang ) and the Bohai Economic Rim (surrounding Beijing, Tianjin and Shijiazhuang ).
Officials say they hope the Pearl River Delta region will be forged into a 'globally competitive' and 'vigorous area in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020'.
Under the framework, an efficient intercity rail network comparable to that of greater London or Tokyo will connect the Delta cities.
Twenty-nine rail or light rail lines totalling 5,000 kilometres will be constructed, and the result will cut travel times to a maximum of one hour.
In addition, residents anywhere in the province will get to pay transport fares using a single smart card.
Phone bills could also be 85 per cent lower in a few years as long-distance charges within the merged area will be slashed. Public services such as education, health and social welfare will be unified.
Pollution - the price the Pearl River Delta has paid for being the former vanguard of China's economic reform - will also be addressed together. By 2020, the promise is that people will be closer, the water will be cleaner and the air will be fresher.
The plan has also outlined comprehensive development for the delta including industrial upgrades, technology innovation, environmental protection and social welfare until 2020. The prices of petrol, electricity, telecommunication services and other public necessities in those cities would also become unified.
The blueprint also identifies 30 key industries that are intellectual property and technology-intensive.
Authorities expect hi-tech manufacturing to make up 30 per cent of the province's industrial growth in the next decade, with service industries, including financial, 60 per cent.
By the end of next year, people with low incomes will be free to move around the delta, as their qualification for subsidised housing will be recognised no matter where they go.
Hong Kong and Macau are not included in the blueprint but could benefit from the integration if they become more actively involved in the region's infrastructure and industrial development, analysts say.
A light railway in Macau, to be completed by the end of 2014, will help connect public transport users throughout the city as well as with the Guangzhou-Zhuhai Railway. Passengers could then travel from Macau to Guangzhou in one hour.
When the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link is finished by the end of 2016, it will whisk passengers from West Kowloon to Futian station in central Shenzhen in just 14 minutes, with the ride to Guangzhou lasting 36 minutes, compared to about two hours currently.
But Professor Lin Jiang, of the Centre for Hong Kong, Macau and Pearl River Delta Studies at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, said both Hong Kong and Macau would find it difficult to integrate with the region.
Michael Tien Puk-sun, a member of Guangdong People's Political Consultative Conference and former chairman of the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation, said the essence of the Pearl River Delta integration would be about connecting people.
But he said Hong Kong was not doing too well in this department.
'If people are not able to move around freely, all talk of integration is simply meaningless. Just look at how much red tape one has to go through to cross the border. The Kowloon-Guangzhou through train runs only once an hour.
'If we are merging Hong Kong with the Pearl River Delta, the train service should really be once every several minutes.' He added: 'The current transportation mode from Hong Kong to the rest of the Pearl River Delta is very inconvenient. Constant traffic jams on the roads directly reduce our productivity.'
The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge - a series of bridges connecting the three cities - is due to be completed around 2015, but Tien it was a shame the project had neglected the railway element.
He said if the bridges could have been equipped with rail lines, the entire Pearl River Delta would form a nice, closely-connected circle.
'For railway construction, the key is linking,' Tien said. 'It's a real shame to see the bridge stop at Macau with no further link to the mainland.
'There is no turning back now, as things have already been planned. We can only rely on road transport for the time being.