The then-and-now of Deng's historic visit

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 January, 2012, 12:00am


For 27-year-old Shenzhen fashion editor Xu Fei, Hong Kong seems closer than ever after the region expanded its automated immigration programme this month to allow about 560,000 mainland visitors to bypass counters and interviews by border officers.

The move came ahead of today's 20th anniversary of a historic five-day visit to Shenzhen by then-leader Deng Xiaoping - a tour that brought wide attention to the once-sleepy fishing village and helped it become an economic powerhouse with a population of 15 million and a gross domestic product of 1 trillion yuan (HK$1.23 trillion).

Having grown up in Shenzhen, Xu is entitled to unlimited travel permits to Hong Kong. She crosses the border almost every week, visiting boutiques and luxury malls to seek out the latest trends and fashion inspirations.

Such a routine would have been unimaginable two decades ago when, on January 18, 1992, Deng set off from Wuhan, Hubei, as part of his historic 'southern tour'.

His first stop after stepping off the train in Shenzhen was the Huanggang checkpoint in Futian district that links with Hong Kong's Lok Ma Chau Station. At the time, few mainlanders had the privilege of visiting the then-British colony. Just 10,000 travellers a day had passed through the Huanggang checkpoint since it opened the previous August.

Xiong Changgen, then the director of Huanggang checkpoint, still remembers the image of Deng at the border, quietly gazing at Hong Kong's New Territories for nearly nine minutes.

'Deng's expression when looking at the Hong Kong side is unforgettable,' Xiong told The Southern Metropolis News.

Today, the Huanggang and the nearby Futian checkpoints handle about 200,000 people and 30,000 vehicles a day, thanks in part to the Individual Visit Scheme, which has since 2003 encouraged tens of millions of mainland tourists to visit Hong Kong.

However, not every community Deng visited during his historic tour had the same fortune Shenzhen and its checkpoints. Many have decayed and faded from memory as Shenzhen boomed.

The 53-storey Shenzhen International Trade Centre that Deng visited on the second day of his stay in Shenzhen - then the tallest building on the mainland - now looks like a dwarf among giants, the once-stunning view from its revolving restaurant partially blocked by neighbouring skyscrapers.

Few remember that the building had been built in the 1980s at the symbolic 'Shenzhen speed' of three days per storey.

'The centre became extremely popular domestically and internationally after Deng's visit,' Cha Shengming, the centre's former administrative director told The Southern Metropolis News. 'Those who wanted to dine at the nation's highest revolving restaurant had to make reservations at least one week in advance.'

The restaurant once made an annual profit of 10 million yuan and attracted notable guests, including former US presidents Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush.

But Xu, for one, has not been to the restaurant or the trade centre for more than a decade, although she lives just a 20-minute drive away.

Deng next visited Shenzhen SAST, making the state-owned electronics firm, which then made video compact disc players, a household name.

But as VCDs were replaced by other media, the company amassed 1.3 billion yuan in debt and had banks seizing its assets. It was eventually restructured by Shenzhen authorities.

In 1992, Deng departed from by ferry from Shenzhen's Shekou terminal to reach neighbouring Zhuhai city. But today, an expressway links the two special economic zones. The Shekou ferry - once a major link between Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Macau and their neighbours, has lost its appeal to Shenzhen residents who have more convenient transportation options.

'I can't even remember the last time I took a ferry in Shekou,' Xu said.

Professor Ma Jingren, who teaches public administration at Shenzhen University, said it does not undermine the significance of Deng's trip that, 20 years later, some places he visited have not become an ideal 'sample' of reform.

The Shenzhen International Trade Centre has lost its prominence because of the city's continual upgrades and increased competition, Ma said. On the other hand, Ma said, competition requires Shenzhen to step up efforts on both political and economic reform, while keeping in mind what Deng stressed years ago: 'Only development counts'.

Writer Zhu Jianguo, 60, who lived in the city for more than 18 years, said economic development in the absence of political reform is no longer enough for Shenzhen.

'Shenzhen's political reform has been at a standstill over the past 20 years, while economic development has been facing challenges from many other major cities such as Shanghai, Suzhou and Tianjin ,' Zhu said.

'Without true political reform to respond to the public's demands, authorities won't be able to solve problems, such as increasing social unrest, corruption and environmental pollution, when the economic miracle gradually fades away.'