SHENZHEN, China — The South China dream machine runs in high gear in this bustling, money-chasing, noisy and often tawdry boom town that lures the ambitious with visions of once-forbidden riches.
For the past decade they have come pouring in--everyone from simple farm youths to guileful offspring of high Beijing officials. Their raw energy, plus hefty doses of domestic and foreign capital, have transformed what was a drowsy village of 20,000 peasants into a city of skyscrapers, factories, construction sites, beauty parlors, discotheques, karaoke singing bars and 1 million mostly impatient people.
Set up in 1980 as a special zone to draw foreign capital by cutting bureaucracy and permitting capitalist techniques, Shenzhen is the place where things get done faster than anywhere else in China. Bordering Hong Kong, the city is the heart of China's quasi-capitalist Guangdong province, which has averaged 12.4% real annual growth the past five years--a rate unmatched by any country in the world. Many experts view the province as crucial to China's overall development.
Officials here smoke Marlboros and drink coffee from "Sands Hotel Las Vegas" mugs while predicting a high-technology boom based on foreign capital and China's best brains. Local and Hong Kong businessmen walk around town talking on mobile telephones. McDonald's put its first Chinese outlet here, and Kentucky Fried Chicken has its only South China shop here. Pizza Hut and 7-Eleven are on the way.
Shenzhen's philosophy is: "If it can move the economy forward, do it," said Peng Jinzhang, head of the Tokyo office of the China Development Institute (CDI), a private local think tank with strong government connections.
Although the special economic zone is only 126 square miles, it had attracted $5.3 billion worth of foreign investment commitments--an eye-popping 14.4% of China's total--by the end of 1990. With the foreign help, Shenzhen exported $2.2 billion worth of goods last year.
It also has attracted attention from all of the Chinese hinterland. Most of China's provinces and many cities and government corporations have set up offices in Shenzhen.
"If I want to buy anything in China, I can do it with a local phone call," said Li Yuanyang, vice director of CDI's headquarters here.
"In Beijing, many complain about corruption and distribution of wealth," said Peng, who served in Shenzhen in 1988 and 1989. "Such debates occur in Shenzhen and Guangdong too, but everyone is focused on growth, and society is stabilized. . . . Although the education level in Shenzhen is high, there have been few cries for political reform."
"The lesson of Shenzhen is that as reform and openness progress, you can have stability," he added.
Shenzhen increasingly resembles its model--the very capitalist British colony of Hong Kong. After 1997, when Hong Kong reverts to Chinese sovereignty, there may not be much difference between the two.
"Shenzhen will be a part of Hong Kong," declared Vincent H. C. Cheng, senior manager of group research for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. "There will be a border controlling people, but in the movement of goods and investment, and even in regulations, they will become part of Hong Kong."
Such integration, Cheng said, can "relieve our bottlenecks" and "give us more resources to grow."
For now, the special economic zone is furiously playing catch-up. It retains something of a frontier atmosphere, both physically and spiritually, that contrasts with the genteel veneer that softens Hong Kong's rough edges. Shenzhen construction sites spread huge quantities of dust on the streets. Taxi drivers jump queues. Prostitutes lounge in hotel lobbies.
"Shenzhen is full of a bunch of cowboys"--unsophisticated adventurers from all over China, complained a foreign resident of Canton, the provincial capital, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"In Shenzhen, as soon as a person gains a technological ability, he leaves to set up his own factory," said Hiromori Nemoto, sales manager in Hong Kong for Bandai Toys, a Japanese firm that contracts manufacturing in the zone.
The relative wealth and freedom of Shenzhen is a powerful drawing card for well-educated intellectuals and scientists. Policy makers believe that they can build on Shenzhen's strengths and China's size to transform this adolescent city into a high-tech center by the 21st Century.
Shenzhen's phenomenal 47% average real annual growth rate during the 1980s came partly because "such a big country concentrated its strength on a small place," commented CDI's Li. Shenzhen can use the same strategy to leap into high technology during the coming decade, despite China's overall backwardness in industrial techniques, he said.