Guangdong has set an economic growth target of 8.5 per cent for 2014 and said it would press ahead with economic co-operation with neighbouring provinces and other governments outside the Pearl River Delta. Governor Zhu Xiaodan also pledged to explore a bid for a regional free-trade zone yesterday while delivering the 2013 government work report during the opening of the Guangdong Provincial People’s Congress’ annual plenum. A year ago, Zhu projected economic growth of 8 per cent, but the actual rate was 8.5 per cent at 6.23 trillion yuan (HK$7.93 trillion). Per capita gross domestic product stood at 58,500 yuan. Zhu was confidant that 8.5 per cent economic growth could be repeated this year. In his report, Zhu also pledged to strengthen co-operation with neighbouring provinces, the so-called Pan-Pearl River Delta. Zhu noted that Guangdong’s success in its economic transformation, with tertiary industry now playing a larger role than secondary industry. Over the last few years, more than 10,000 corporations have closed while 320,000 enterprises with more advanced manufacturing lines have registered in the Pearl River Delta. This year, Guangdong will continue to build more infrastructure, including high-speed rail links from Guangzhou to Nanning, Guangxi, and Guiyang, Guizhou. Guangdong would also lobby the central government to set up a second pilot free-trade zone, after Shanghai, that would have simplified market access rules and feature offshore Renminbi clearing services. Meanwhile, Guangdong would continue to improve environmental safeguards, including stricter controls of dangerous PM2.5 particulates. Professor Chen Guanghan, director of Sun Yat-sen University’s Centre for Studies of Hong Kong, Macau and the Pearl River Delta, said that Guangdong was paying more attention to regional co-operation this year. “This will extend the Pearl River Delta’s economic power to the rest of the mainland,” Chen said. The Pan-Pearl River Delta co-operation concept was strongly advocated by the province’s then party secretary Zhang Dejiang, but appeared to take a back seat in recent years. Its revival coincides with Zhang’s promotion to the party’s supreme Politburo Standing Committee in late 2012. Dr Peng Peng, a researcher with Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences, believed that Guangdong’s continued strong economic performance would help advance the career of provincial party secretary Hu Chunhua. “The gross domestic product of Guangdong province is only about US$100 billion behind South Korea,” Peng said. “To lead the province that continues to beat Jiangsu … what more can one ask of a potential central government leader?” Peng added that the Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau free-trade zone would need to wait until at least the second half of this year before it could get the green light from the central government. “Hong Kong’s current volatile political scene means its leaders could be too distracted to pay much attention to Guangdong’s proposal,” Peng said. Guangdong would also need to iron out the details of such a complicated project involving Nansha in Guangzhou, Qianhai in Shenzhen and Hengqin in Zhuhai, which all operated on a different set of rules. "This will take a very long time for Guangdong to sort out before it can convince Beijing,” Peng said. "I don’t see the proposal being approved at least for another six months."