A day after a media report said Guangzhou might soon be the first mainland city to reach 'developed economy' status, the city has denied it is the tall poppy. In a country where officials have a long tradition of bragging about their spectacular economic growth, the public demonstration of modesty is interesting.
To be sure, the report by China Business News was misleading, and a correction was due. But it is significant to note that Guangzhou officials not only pointed out the errors, but went out of their way to highlight the city's deficiencies.
Based on its own calculations, China Business News reported on Thursday that the per capita gross domestic product of Guangzhou was likely to have reached US$10,000 last year. That would put the city in the league of 'developed' cities. It would be the first mainland metropolis to reach that status.
The trouble with the report is that last year's official economic statistics have not been released. The paper used Guangzhou's 2005 GDP figure, multiplied that by its estimated growth last year and then divided it by the city's registered population to derive a per capita GDP figure. The margins of error were therefore huge. Moreover, the paper wrongly used registered population as the base. It should have based its calculation on the city's total population, including migrant workers. That would give a per capita GDP figure of about US$7,500.
What should warrant attention is that the Nanfang Daily, mouthpiece of the Guangdong provincial authorities, has not just refuted the China Business News report. It has gone one step further by focusing on the uneven development of Guangzhou, by quoting from a study on competitiveness. The study notes that 90 per cent of the city's economic activity is concentrated in the city proper, and that two counties which make up 50 per cent of its land area account for only 10 per cent of the economy. It also notes Guangzhou's dependence on larger state-owned enterprises and heavy industry.
Guangzhou's attempt to set the record straight about a misleading report of its achievements is an eye opener. It was as if Guangzhou officials felt it necessary to declare the city was in fact ill, after it had been singled out as the healthiest. Perhaps they feel it politically wise to play down the city's wealth, when state leaders have been exhorting the regions not to focus blindly on economic growth.
Certainly, it would be unwise for Guangzhou - or other major mainland cities - to invite the envious attention of the nation to its perceived levels of affluence, when the rich-poor divide is emerging as a serious social issue. The Nanfang Daily report even went to the trouble of noting that the average annual salary of the city's workforce was 29,230 yuan, or less than 3,000 yuan a month.
Further, the report listed 10 targets that Guangdong has set for itself as yardsticks of modernisation. They cover not just per capita GDP, but also environmental conservation, the proportion of the economy accounted for by the services sector, the technology content of the economy, rate of urbanisation, use of information technology, average life expectancy, the proportion of the population going to university and the proportion enjoying social security. While Guangzhou has met most of the targets, it has yet to meet the desired standards in social security and environmental conservation.
It is good to see Guangzhou adopting a broad view of development, instead of just focusing on economic growth. From Hong Kong's perspective, the city's admission of its shortfalls in environmental conservation is of critical importance. Hopefully, Guangzhou - and Guangdong as a whole - will speed up its efforts to clean up the serious pollution that has given the region, including Hong Kong, a bad name. Guangzhou officials have shown that they are aware of the need to conceal their glories - an essential skill in mainland politics - and manage public expectations. Having said the right things, it is now important that they follow that up with concrete action.