A tale of two cities trying to integrate

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 April, 2012, 12:00am


A young Guangzhou couple trying to buy a flat in Foshan's Wanke Wonderland housing complex soon found out that integration between the two cities goes only so far.

'If you don't have tax proof or social insurance registered in Foshan, forget about buying houses here,' a real estate agent told the couple as he turned them away.

The ban on non-locals buying property in Foshan was introduced last March, a year after the Co-operation Agreement on GuangzhouFoshan Integration was signed by the two city governments.

Most of the non-locals who want to buy houses in Foshan are from neighbouring Guangzhou.

More than 100,000 people live on or near Jinshazhou Island, on the border between the two cities. People endure traffic jams on the Jinsha Bridge every rush hour while looking forward to a new metro connection promised by the end of the year.

People who travel regularly between the two cities or live near the border between them are benefiting a lot from the closer relationship, with more job options and more convenience. But the inconveniences that remain are more tangible than official talk of 'urban integration'.

They expect things will improve with more interaction between officials from the two cities, but remain alert to the challenges ahead.

Signed in 2010, the integration agreement has a solid foundation, with the two cities sharing a 200-kilometre border. But it came from the central government rather than the city authorities - starting under the framework of a plan for the reform and development of the Pearl River Delta area from the National Development and Reform Commission.

Yuan Juan, who lives in Guangzhou and works in Foshan, said she was glad her journey to work could now be completed in an hour thanks to the opening of the Guangfo Metro, which connects the two cities, in October 2010.

Every workday morning, Yuan, 27, walks for 10 minutes to the metro station near her home, travels to Foshan's Financial Hi-tech Zone, transferring once from the Guangzhou metro to the Guangfo line, then rides a rented bicycle 10 minutes to work.

More than 10,000 orange bicycles are parked at almost 300 locations near metro stops and on key roads in Foshan. People can ride them for free if they are returned within an hour. Yuan described her days before the Guangfo line opened as 'miserable'.

Traffic infrastructure is one of four fields covered by special inter-city collaboration agreements and widely regarded as the easiest to implement. The other fields are industry co-operation, urban planning and environmental protection.

Guangzhou's Transportation Commission said last year that more than 600 buses covering more than 20 routes run between the two cities every day. And the Guangfo line will extend further into Foshan and connect with other lines. Mutual recognition of annual vehicle toll tickets also makes it easier for private cars to shuttle between the two cities.

Yuan also benefits from another field of collaboration - industry. She works for a big state-owned insurance company that was one of the first businesses to move into the hi-tech zone. Fifty-two of the world's top 500 enterprises have now invested in nearly 100 projects in Foshan.

However, urban planning considerations were foremost in the Jiangxi native's mind when she decided to settle in Guangzhou and shuttle between the two cities. She does not think the infrastructure in Foshan is as good as in Guangzhou.

As for environmental protection, Tan Guangcong, who lives in Foshan and works in Guangzhou, has been less than impressed. 'Besides transport, I can see that housing prices and pollution are also more integrated,' he said.

However, Yu Yongchang, the head of the Foshan environmental protection bureau's planning section and Foshan's liaison man on the Guangzhou-Foshan environment protection project, said the co-operation has been fruitful. He said the two cities' environmental protection bureaus have regularly engaged in joint law enforcement, drills and water quality monitoring. They also exchange staff for months at a time.

'One of the greatest benefits is that in the past, each city was taking care of its own business and tended to push the problems to the outskirts,' he said. 'Now the border area has become the focal point, and we often work there together.'

Yu said the interaction had been active, and Foshan could learn a lot from Guangzhou, which had more skills, more money and was closer to the provincial authorities. 'We have reached a consensus that we will not blame each other for pollution but concentrate on what each side can do to do the job better,' he said.

Guangzhou and Foshan have many rivers, but Yu said the two bureaus do not yet have specific targets for pollutant levels. Instead, he said, they just want to ensure that the rivers are not black and do not stink.

It is even hard to determine responsibility for air pollution. 'Sometimes it depends on the wind direction. If the east wind blows, Foshan is down wind,' he said.

Yu said the two bureaus have been co-operating well together but admitted that as it progresses into more detailed affairs, the authorities might have different work styles, and the sharing of statistics and other information would not be easy.

Zhao Qichao, head of the Foshan economic development institute at the city's Party School, said that free movement of social insurance between the two cities would be the most important contribution to improving livelihoods.

'Only free movement of social insurance can guarantee the free flow of professionals and the real integration of the two cities,' he said.

Yuan can only go to see a doctor in Foshan because her work unit pays her social insurance there and she has no insurance in Guangzhou.

She says she is less affected by the grand narratives about urban integration that she sees on television and in the newspapers than the small inconveniences that nag away at her on a daily basis.

Ding Li, director of the Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences' regional competition centre, said these small problems are a reflection of the difficulties involved in integrating public services.

'Local governments have different interests, and they provide different public services,' he said. 'The integration cannot go far in a short time as long as the governments won't change.'


Number of the world's top 500 companies that have invested in a total of almost 100 projects in Foshan