The only predictable thing about the economic development of the People's Republic of China over its first 52 years has been its unpredictability. Great leaps forward have been suddenly arrested by great leaps backward. But somehow in times of crisis, such as in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen Square, Deng Xiaoping, Zhu Rongji and other leaders of remarkable vision were consistently able to get the country's economic development out of trouble and back on track. For the last 22 years in particular, China's economy has been on a roll of historically unprecedented proportions. More than any other province on the mainland, Guangdong has come to epitomise both the mainland economy's remarkable resilience in the face of adversity and its vast, still unrealised potential. Although hard to imagine today, Guangdong - including even the prosperous and thriving Pearl River Delta - was for 30 years one of China's more backward regions. Today, after just two decades of economic experimentation and development, Guangdong boasts an economy that - were the province a country in its own right - would make it one of the most powerful in the region. There were two fundamental reasons for Guangdong's stagnation relative to other parts of China between 1949 and 1979. With longstanding historical ties to the unashamedly capitalist Chinese Diaspora in Southeast Asia and the then British colony of Hong Kong, the Cantonese were never fully embraced by the northern peasants who waged and won Mao Zedong's revolution. The second reason was more pragmatic. Exhausted by more than a century of almost continuous civil strife and foreign invasions, in 1949 the communists were resolved not to develop coastal areas vulnerable to foreign attack. Their so-called 'third front' strategy favoured industrial development in inland and northern areas of China, to the detriment of coastal provinces such as Guangdong in the south and east. After 30 years of communism, Guangdong accounted for only 5 per cent of China's GDP and 14 per cent of the country's total exports. These twin handicaps only made Guangdong's economic surge after Deng implemented his policy of reform and opening in 1979 all the more remarkable. Today Guangdong accounts for 10 per cent of national GDP, about 40 per cent of China's total exports, and absorbs about one-third of the country's foreign direct investment. Without Guangdong's contribution, the mainland's recent economic achievements would be considerably less impressive. With 75 million people Guangdong is China's fifth largest province. Its GDP ranks first, dwarfing most of its domestic rivals by a factor of two or more; only Jiangsu and Shandong come close to matching its economic weight. Stacking Guangdong up against its provincial peers on the mainland offers one perspective on the province's economic success. An arguably more impressive - but rarely considered - perspective comes from pitting Guangdong against other countries in Southeast Asia. Imagine for a moment what a theoretical People's Republic of Guangdong (not including Hong Kong) would look like, and how it would stack up against other countries in the region. When measured against the Association of Southeast Asian Nation's (Asean) larger members, and also the newly industrialised countries (NICs) of Greater China and North Asia (Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea), in most categories Guangdong falls in the middle of the pack. That is impressive enough for a mere province. For example, although comparable in population with both the Philippines and Vietnam, Guangdong's economy is, respectively, 270 per cent and 50 per cent larger. Moreover, the fact that Guangdong has the fastest growing economy in the region - and one of the lowest per capita GDPs - suggests it will not be long before it leapfrogs Thailand and Indonesia as well. Over recent years, Asean member nations have become increasingly alarmed at China's continued success - and their own failure - in capturing the imagination and capital of international investors, and also an ever larger share of key export markets in North America and Europe. Worse for Asean, the gap is only likely to widen after China finally joins the World Trade Organisation. But in a sense, Asean's envy is misdirected. The economies of its member nations are in fact being outclassed by Guangdong, and in particular by the Pearl River Delta, which accounts for two-thirds of provincial GDP and about 90 per cent of both exports and foreign direct investment.