WHERE IS THE BEST PLACE to view the economic marvel that is the Pearl River Delta? There is the space shuttle, but failing that, check the earth-at-night satellite photos posted on the Nasa Web site for the real picture. The images offer a glimpse of the delta's economic dynamism, but the site also provides the closest thing to a thermal map of the global economy. Cities and regions appear like star clusters, glowing with an intensity relative to their level of development. In a study of contrasts, most of South Korea is lit up like a Christmas tree while its hermit neighbour to the north is as dark as a black hole. In the electric night galaxy of East Asia, the brightest stars are Tokyo, Seoul, western Taiwan and the Pearl River Delta. But it is the delta that radiates the largest amount of energy in the smallest amount of space. It glows with the white-hot intensity of a supernova. For the past decade, the eight mainland cities at the core of the Pearl River Delta - Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dongguan, Zhuhai, Huizhou, Foshan, Jiangmen and Zhongshan - have consistently accounted for about one-third of China's foreign direct investment (FDI) and exports. This was at a time when China's exports tripled from US$85 billion in 1992 to US$266 billion last year. The combined GDP of these eight cities, with a total population of about 40 million, including migrant workers, is about the same as Malaysia's and bigger than that of the Philippines and Vietnam. Their exports exceed those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand, while their rate of growth and FDI stock dwarf those of any Southeast Asian nation. With an Asean-sized economy concentrated in eight cities with a total land area of only 9,000 square kilometres, is it any wonder the delta glows so brightly at night? At the same time, it is a wonder that satellites can capture the delta's nocturnal glow through the thick haze - much of it generated by Hong Kong-funded factories - that hangs over the region. The area's development has come at great environmental cost. What was once a lush agricultural landscape has been transformed into an industrial wasteland littered by a seemingly endless sprawl of concrete-and-tile factories, each township indistinguishable from the last. Rice paddies - once some of the most highly productive agricultural land on the planet - have been filled in for construction. Thousands of small river tributaries and irrigation channels that laced the landscape have been paved over. Much of the landfill has been scraped from the scarred, barren hills and the delta's beautiful, gently undulating terrain has been lost forever, as has the land's crucial ability to absorb water. The economic processes underlying the delta's development have not been much prettier. Foreign capital - principally from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan - exploits an endless stream of poor rural migrants to manufacture products for rich Western consumers. Admittedly, this facile summation does a disservice to entrepreneurs, especially those from Hong Kong and Taiwan. They have mastered a flexible regulatory climate and possess a market savvy that allows them to dominate the global supply chains of everything from blue jeans to motherboards. It also conjures up images of sweatshops when, in fact, most foreign-funded factories in the delta are anything but. Yet the delta's incredibly successful economic model still depends on the continued influx of cheap labour. This - unfortunately for China, if not for Western consumers and the Hong Kong and Taiwanese entrepreneurs who cater to them - will be readily available for years to come on the mainland. But it is not the type of foundation most people imagine of brave new 21st-century economies. The delta's development is also hindered by nonsensical barriers that continue to impede the flow of people and goods between the region's two special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau) and two special economic zones (Shenzhen and Zhuhai). Shenzhen and Zhuhai even have their own northern barriers in a futile attempt to isolate themselves from the rest of the mainland. Most offensive of all, the heavy traffic at the border crossing at Lowu is a disgrace. On a recent weekend afternoon, the queue on the Shenzhen side was so long that two Hong Kong journalists found it faster to drive 30 minutes west to Shekou and take an hour-long ferry ride to Central than wait to cross. A correspondent for Germany's leading business magazine, spoiled by the ease of border controls in the European Union, recently said that Lowu reminded him of Checkpoint Charlie, the Cold War barrier that separated West and East Berlin. But if the delta's development has been ugly in many ways and remains flawed, it has also generated the wealth that allows local governments to address long-standing problems. What is already the world's most remarkable manufacturing centre could become an amazing place to live and work, with four potentially great cities - Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Macau-Zhuhai - within easy reach of each other. Guangzhou and Shenzhen already have well-advanced infrastructure development programmes. Once their ambitious subway networks are completed in about 10 years, getting around them should be as easy as in Hong Kong today. Guangzhou is pioneering China's first inter-city light-rail network, which will initially connect it with Foshan and Dongguan. Then there is Guangzhou's 10- to 15-year plan which will gradually shift the city's centre of gravity southwards to Nansha, which lies at the heart of the Pearl River Delta and where the city hopes to build a deepwater port and a heavy industrial zone. Guangzhou's Nansha plan marks the beginning of a new chapter in the development of the Pearl River Delta. For the past 20 years, the delta's economic development extended along an arc stretching from Hong Kong through Shenzhen and Dongguan to Guangzhou, while its centre remained hollow. It was a region whose sprawl appeared not so much ill-planned as entirely unplanned. With more foresight and better regional co-operation over the next two decades, the delta's star should burn even brighter than it does today.