Time will tell if Guangdong's new boss can put his money where his slogans are To say Guangdong epitomises the 'great economic reform and opening-up story' is perhaps the biggest cliche about China's economic boom. But the tale of the southern province's lost mojo, amid savage competition from coastal rivals like Shanghai and less-glamorous inland cousins, is also getting rather tiring. Wang Yang , the province's new party secretary, says nothing short of a new 'thought-liberation movement' can restore the province's 'prestigious' status as an icon of China's reforms. In his first major public speech since becoming party chief last month - delivered to a plenary session of the provincial party committee on Christmas Day - the 52-year-old former Chongqing party secretary sounded very much like the true reformers Guangdong has always been known for producing. In his two-hour speech to a less-than-full house, Mr Wang, open-minded by reputation, bemoaned the loss of the entrepreneurial soul that had propelled the province into the 'vanguard' of the country's reform process for most of the past three decades. 'You simply get a little complacent if you stay on top for some while,' he told the top-tier meeting, with the poor attendance seeming to validate his conclusion. 'Guangdong has reaped the greatest rewards since China started to reform and open up in 1978. We have to get back to what made this place great and 'special'.' It was an adroit reference to the special economic zones (SEZs) established by the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping as catalysts for development. Three of the first four were in Guangdong. 'That is to unfetter and innovate, to have the commitment and the guts to blaze a bloody new trail. Making new ground is the soul Guangdong cannot afford to lose.' Mr Wang urged senior party officials to 'liberate thoughts' 22 times in the course of his speech. The highly symbolic political phrase is not unfamiliar to Guangdong people. Both of post-Cultural Revolution China's most far-reaching ideological shake-ups took off in the deep south. In December 1978, Deng's epochal 'liberate the mind, seek truth from facts' speech launched Guangdong - and then the rest of the mainland - on the road away from communism. In January 1992, during his famed Southern Tour that buried the ghosts of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, an ageing Deng put an end to the Mr She vs Mr Zi (socialism vs capitalism) debate by declaring that the only way to survive was to embrace pro-market reforms. Guangdong's anything-goes atmosphere, its proximity to Hong Kong and its distance from Beijing makes it a perfect laboratory to test reforms and their political limits. On his tour of Guangdong in February 2000, then president Jiang Zemin proposed what was later known as the 'Three Represents'. The current national motto - the scientific concept of development - was first floated by incumbent party chief Hu Jintao when he was inspecting a Sars-stricken Guangdong in April 2003. In its heyday in the early 1990s, Guangdong was producing two-thirds of China's exports. Deng held up the province as an economic model for the rest of China to emulate. Guangdong, he predicted, would become the 'fifth little dragon of Asia', alongside Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. Last month, Governor Huang Huahua declared that the province's gross domestic product outstripped Taiwan's last year, making it three down and one - South Korea - to go. However, not much of a fanfare was generated by the supposedly cheerful news. The truth is, the province's get-rich growth model, once anointed by Deng as the winning formula for the entire country, now looks terribly dated. Although it is still the biggest economy in the country and grows faster than China as a whole - averaging an annual 14.4 per cent growth rate between 1991 and 2006 - its share of the country's exports dropped by a third, and its per capita gross domestic product has fallen behind those of Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu . At the same time, its labour shortage - a major headache for a manufacturing hub - is expected to worsen as migrant workers continue to flee the province due to its low wages and poor working conditions. Ding Li , a senior researcher at the Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences, said that in some ways, Guangdong was going through the same growing pains as any region that struggled up the economic ladder. 'It is trying to shake off its old image as the world's capital of cheap goods. It's trying to attract more capital and research-intensive industries like finance and IT. It is also trying to hold on to the higher-end parts of its traditional manufacturing industries,' he said. So far, it has not fared too well. 'Top 500 companies tend to view the Yangtze River Delta as the best gateway to China's home market,' Dr Ding said. 'Investors in the Yangtze River area have a longer-term strategy and look for long-term returns.' Domestic sales account for more than two-thirds of the Yangtze River Delta's economic output, but only a quarter of Guangdong's. That is why more than once Mr Wang has stressed the importance of 'overcoming narrow-sightedness, establishing a world-oriented view'. Guangdong is more susceptible to global cyclical risk and more likely to be hit hard if there is a revival in protectionist sentiment worldwide, sparked by concerns over the value of the yuan or product safety. With the US economy on the edge of a recession, the province's economic prospects do not look entirely optimistic. Mr Wang's position is also a deliberate departure from his predecessor Zhang Dejiang's regionalist take on development, best illustrated by his ill-fated Pan-Pearl River Delta project, which sought to regroup nine neighbouring regions to create a hinterland for Guangdong's growth. 'It was a grand plan but with near-zero feasibility,' Dr Ding said. Mr Wang, whose political star has been rising under the auspices of President Hu, also wasted no time in displaying his populist touch - a key element of policy for the current leadership. His first field trip as the province's top leader, to a mountain village in the north of the province that lacked public transport, was widely reported in the provincial media, and villagers said Mr Wang was the most senior official they had ever seen. '[Seeking] GDP alone is a gross negligence of people's lives,' he said, adding that meaningful development must encompass improvements in almost all social aspects: more equitable income distribution, poverty elimination, environmental protection, the provision of public goods - particularly in education, health care and housing - and a wide range of physical and human infrastructure development. Obviously, the big question is whether he will put his money where his slogans are because the challenge can only be met by real action rather than liberated mental activity. In recent years, it seems that much of the revenue generated in Guangdong has not been reinvested in society or used to augment social development. Instead, economic prosperity has strengthened an old-fashioned alliance of money and power, which has fought to defend the status quo. 'Wang promises further reforms, but faces entrenched interests,' said a recent editorial in the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily. Maybe that is where some mental emancipation is truly needed.