Shenzhen’s success as innovation hub seen by some as model for all of China

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 9:57pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 11:03pm

Last year Steve Guo, an engineer in his 40s living in Shenzhen, China’s hub for technology innovation, sold two small units and bought a four-bedroom apartment through mortgage loans.

The two old properties sold for a total of about 7 million yuan while the new one cost almost 12 million yuan. But Guo and his wife, each earning a salary of about 15,000 yuan per month, are not worried about the gap because they believe home prices in Shenzhen will keep soaring for years to come as the city continues to be the country’s fastest growing metropolis – even eventually overtaking China’s other first-tier cities.

They are not alone in their thinking. Shenzhen has become the centre of attention in China as authorities hold it up as a role model of economic transformation and wealth accumulation that defies the economic headwinds that have slowed growth in most other parts of the mainland.

Aspirations are growing among the city government’s think tanks and its citizens, fuelling debate over whether Shenzhen’s recent reinvention should be a model for China’s future.

As Beijing and Shanghai made do with 6.7 per cent GDP expansion in the first six months this year, Shenzhen managed 8.6 per cent, driven by the fastest growth in residential property prices worldwide.

The city, which is only a third the size of Shanghai, and one eighth that of Beijing, is banking on research and development to expand its economy to 2.6 trillion yuan by 2020, or roughly 1½ times its 1.75 trillion yuan in GDP last year. In comparison, Shanghai’s GDP stood at about 2.5 trillion yuan in 2015 and Hong Kong’s was at about 1.79 trillion yuan equivalent, based on exchange rates at the time.

Wei Dazhi, a member of a Guangdong provincial government think tank for Shenzhen and a councillor for the Guangdong Provincial Government, believes that as a global economic superpower, China needs a new global financial hub on the same level as London and New York, and Shenzhen could take on the mission.

Besides being the nation’s innovation hub, Wei said Shenzhen could very possibly overtake Shanghai as China’s global financial centre in the next decade if it cooperated with Hong Kong.

Shenzhen should also lead the country to develop an innovation-driven economic transformation and fight against Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which aim to curb the rising power of China, he added.

According to Wei, Shenzhen has overtaken Beijing and is running neck and neck with Shanghai in the latest ranking of the Global Financial Centres Index. The index, released by British think-tank and consultancy Z/Yen and published bi-annually since 2007, is based on a range of assessments completed by thousands of financial services professionals across the world.

While the Shanghai market is dominated by large state-owned enterprises, Shenzhen is more representative of smaller, younger, privately owned companies, and is headquarters for a number of property developers, according to Wei. The city is a hotbed for private economic growth, spawning more than 1 million private companies, including some of China’s biggest and hottest companies, such as internet giant Tencent Holdings, telecommunications giants Huawei and ZTE, the nation’s largest real estate company China Vanke, carmaker BYD, as well as financial giants Ping An Insurance and China Merchants Bank.

“New York and London are so much the source of what makes America and UK great. Shenzhen, too, will take the mission to be the major source of what makes China great,” he said. Wei’s articles and views have been widely circulated online and have stoked debate among Chinese internet users.

Shenzhen has been outperforming China’s first-tier cities in economic growth over the past couple of years, developing a reputation for innovation and economic transformation. The city has come a long way from a small village to a special economic zone in the 1980s, and now its transformation into a hub for innovation-driven industries – including biotechnology, the internet, new energy, new materials, information technology and cultural and creative industries, which together grew 20 per cent last year and accounted for 40 per cent of Shenzhen’s gross domestic product.

Beginning in 2013, Shenzhen funnelled more than 4 per cent of its annual GDP into research and development, putting it on par with South Korea and Israel. The city now accounts for almost half of the mainland’s international patent filings – about 13,300 last year, even outpacing the UK or France.

In the first six months of this year, Shenzhen filed 9,002 patent applications under the international patent system, 50 per cent up year on year, according to the municipal government.

Encouraged by the economic boom, Shenzhen’s young graduates rushed to start up their own companies and the middle-class speculated on bigger-size apartments financed through bridging loans and underground banking.

In Guo’s case, he was able to purchase the new 12 million yuan property after the developer offered a three-month interest-free loan of 1.5 million yuan and helped him sell the old properties. Guo only needed to pay the remaining down payment of 1.5 million yuan – and come up with a fake verification showing 80,000 yuan in monthly family income to satisfy the bank. “Shenzhen will be the fastest growing city in the world. I believe it will overtake Hong Kong and Singapore,” he said.

But not everybody is convinced the immediate future will be so bright.

The top priority for Shenzhen in the next five years is to become the world’s tech industry innovation centre, according to Guo Wanda, vice-president of the Shenzhen-based China Development Institute, a municipal think tank. “Overtaking Shanghai or Hong Kong to be a global financing centre is an unrealistic goal for Shenzhen,” he said. “In China, only Hong Kong could be called a global financial centre. Without free trade and a freely convertible currency, Shenzhen is a long way from its target of being an international financial centre.”

Although Shenzhen’s financing industry is growing rapidly, it is focusing on servicing the city’s tech and manufacturing industries, as well as being a test bed for China’s yuan liberalisation and financial reforms in cooperation with Hong Kong, according to Guo Wanda.

“Even in tech innovation, we need to keep crisis awareness and a sense of urgency,” he said.

The cost of running businesses in Shenzhen has been soaring, driven by steep increases in land and housing prices in the past few years, he added.

“If Shenzhen wants to be the world’s innovation hub, it needs more investments and world-class talent,” Guo said. “If Shenzhen cannot find ways to solve these problems, it will soon enter a bottleneck period in its development.”