The Shenzhen story, from fishing village to thriving metropolis

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 January, 2016, 10:43am

Modern Shenzhen took shape within a generation, but the community dates back more than 2,000 years. What began as a fishing settlement evolved over the centuries into a maritime hub, with an economy based mostly around salt, tea, spices and rice.

The area changed names through the dynasties, but its political centre, once it was established, remained Nantou. Stand on the coast at Deep Bay in Yuen Long in Hong Kong and look west to see the heart of the Shenzhen of the Qing era.

When the Opium war ended in 1860, the county was split in two, with about two-thirds of it becoming Hong Kong. Japanese troops would later occupy Nantou, and so the administrative seat was moved to Dongguan county. In 1953, the seat was again moved to Shenzhen township, 10km from Nantou, as the area flourished.

Shenzhen, which is derived from zhen or chong, the words local people used for the deep drains that once criss-crossed the paddy fields, was 'willed' into existence by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

He selected the area as one of four social laboratories, where the nation would grow a new, hybrid form of capitalism - socialism with Chinese characteristics. In August 1980, the National People's Congress Standing Committee approved Shenzhen as a special economic zone.

Shenzhen attracted manufacturers, many of them from Hong Kong, with tax breaks on raw materials, machinery and industrial products for exporters.

Early settlers said the only monetary assistance from the central government and Guangdong was the 90 million yuan spent on building an 85km frontier defence to keep out unauthorised people and prevent smuggling.

Those defences have been loosened since early 2000 when the city started to transform from a tax-free manufacturing hub to a modern metropolis. Three pillar industries began to take hold - hi-tech, logistics and financial services, attracting workers from across the mainland, taking its population from 30,000 to 14 million within 30 years.

The focus now lies on tying Shenzhen closer to Hong Kong. Eight years ago, the disparity in the size of the two economies enabled Hong Kong to look disparagingly at a merger proposal. Shenzhen's GDP, at 166.5 billion yuan, was then about 13 per cent of Hong Kong's HK$1.29 trillion. Shenzhen's GDP is now about a third of Hong Kong's.

But concerns remain that the city must overcome three major obstacles: upgrading its electronics industry, attracting talent, and keeping its industrial advantage despite rising costs.