China’s Pan-Pearl River Delta: Regional Cooperation and Development

China’s Pan-Pearl River Delta

Author(s): Anthony G.O. Geh and Jiang Xu (eds)

ISBN:          978-988-8028-50-4

Publisher: Hongkong University Press

Year:          2011

Price:         $35.00

Reviewed by Joseph Tse-Hei Lee, Professor of History, Pace University in New York City, USA

This collection of essays is derived from a conference on regional cooperation and infrastructure construction in China’s Pan-Pearl River Delta at the University of Hong Kong in June 2008. All the thirteen chapters are thematically grouped into four sections and address the following questions. How does regional cooperation and development present opportunities and challenges for China’s fast-growing economy in the early twenty-first century? What is the significance of the regionalization of economy in the Pan-Pearl River Delta? How can the Chinese provincial, municipal and district authorities overcome bureaucratic hurdles and coordinate effective trans-regional development strategies? The editors and contributors answer these questions by exploring the policy implications of the Pan-Pearl River Delta cooperation, the conflicting visions of economic regionalization, the political problems of regional governance, and the structural changes of the Pearl River Delta and its hinterlands.

In the introductory chapter, Anthony G. O Yeh and Jiang Xu set the analytical framework for studying the endogenous and exogenous forces that have transformed the Pearl River Delta and its hinterlands into the workshop of the world. The concept of Pan-Pearl River Delta was first proposed in July 2003 by Zhang Dejiang, the Communist Party Secretary of Guangdong Province and a member of the Politburo, to refer to a new developmental framework that promoted economic cooperation among nine coastal and inland provinces (i.e., Guangdong, Guangxi, Fujian, Jiangxi, Hunan, Hainan, Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan) and the Special Administrative Zones of Hong Kong and Macao. As the largest regional bloc in China, the Pan-Pearl River Delta has one-third of the country’s population, one fifth of its territory, at least 40% of its GDP, and close to 60% of its foreign direct investment (p.4). Effective strategic planning is essential for the continued growth of this economic heartland. But given the diverse ecological and human landscapes, the uneven levels of development, and the complex political and jurisdictional settings, the process of trans-regional integration has been fraught with obstacles, hurdles and barriers. Worse still, all the regional authorities have yet to start a dialogue and work with each other to formulate and implement effective development policies.

Part one discusses China’s transformation against the economic integration in Europe and America. Louis Albrechts highlights a paradigmatic shift in the European approach toward urban planning from relying on the government as the sole planner to embracing different interest groups and professional bodies. Since the 1990s, the development planners and local governments across Europe have recognized the need to integrate strategic visions with transformative actions in order to resolve the complicated urban and regional problems. This new awareness coincided with a growing public concern for the design of shared futures, the protection of common assets, and the creation of pluralistic spaces. These expectations have given rise to an open, transparent and participatory process that engages diverse groups of people in urban planning. Robert D. Yaro refers to America in his policy analysis and calls on the Obama administration to formulate a national investment plan to upgrade the nationwide transportation, water, and energy systems. This ambitious plan will address the immediate problems of climate change and energy supplies, and sustain the fast-growing population in major metropolitan cities. Junde Liu critiques the current model of “administrative regional economy” in China and argues that the inter-provincial rivalries for outside capital severely undermine the progress toward trans-regional cooperation. The only solution is for Beijing to transfer the authority of economic planning from the central and provincial leadership to a new trans-regional governing body.

Part two focuses on the sub-regional issues of development coordination across the Pearl River Delta. Disagreements over strategic interests, differences in governance practices, and frictions in economic relations have complicated the regionalization process. The longstanding economic, social and cultural links across the Pearl River Delta highlight the need to regulate all areas of official and unofficial interactions. According to Baojun Yang and Dongxiao Jin, it is through the leadership of the Guangdong Provincial Government and the Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development that the city clusters of Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macao have become a laboratory for intercity cooperation at the heart of the Pearl River Delta. If everything goes smoothly, this intercity cooperation will be a model of mega-city governance for China. Jiang Xu and Anthony G. O. Yeh investigate the evolution of the Pan-Pearl River Delta regionalization. Since the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping’s reform has led to intense competition for overseas capital and government resources among rival provinces and regions. The current rhetoric of regionalization should be taken with a grain of salt because any regional development project is still subject to the political agendas of particular national leaders. So far Beijing has been reluctant to institutionalize the Pan-Pearl River Delta cooperation framework lest it loses control of this huge economic bloc in southern China. This problem hinders the further integration of the Pearl River Delta and its hinterlands. Along the same line of reasoning, Guanghan Chen draws attention to several structural problems of the Pan-Pearl River Delta proposal. As ambitious as it sounds, this policy proposal has not generated any clear objectives among the nine provincial authorities and the two special administrative zones. The regional leaders have no consensus about their shared interests and needs. Even though they have overcome these hurdles, there is no legal mechanism to endorse their decisions and resolve any potential conflicts. Unless the Pan-Pearl River Delta cooperation framework can transform itself from a chattering club into a formal governing body, it will never accomplish the ultimate goal of economic integration.

It is actually in the area of infrastructure development that the Pan-Pearl River Delta project has made modest progress, a topic discussed in part three. Xiaohong Chen, Tanfeng Li, and Ye Li draw on detailed statistical data to reveal the urgent need for building a well-developed water and highway transportation network because the existing transport system is outdated and fails to serve the region’s fast-growing population. Yue-Man Yeung and Gordon Kee regard infrastructure development as a key to accelerating economic growth and reducing regional disparity. Even though infrastructure construction is at the top of the central government’s agenda, it is still necessary to create a trans-regional governing body to overcome bureaucratic barriers and advance cross-regional cooperation. De Hu and Hailong Ma comment on the emergence of “local economic dukedoms” within the delta, and blame these dukedoms for fighting against each other for external resources.

Given the fast pace of urbanization, the regional real estate market in the Pearl River Delta reveals the excessive use of agricultural land for industrial projects, a problem addressed in part four. Changchun Feng and Jiajie Zhu critically analyze the Guangdong provincial government’s statistics on different types of land use, and show that many cities on the delta have completely failed to pursue a policy of sustainable urban development. Therefore, optimizing the relationship between land use and urbanization is the first step toward effective regional economic integration in the future. Yousong Wang, Pin Hong, Yihong Lin, and Yan Zhang conduct a sub-regional study of the construction industry’s competitiveness in the delta, and argue that each sub-region should upgrade its own construction industry rather than undercutting the whole industry and putting one another out of business. Despite all the bureaucratic obstacles, Anthony G. O. Yeh and Jiang Xu conclude with an optimistic note that the Pan-Pearl River Delta developmental framework still has the potential to become a new model of economic regionalization for China and the developing world.

Thematically, the editors and contributors have captured the latest development of economic integration in the Pearl River Delta and its hinterlands. A major strength of this book is the comparative approach that the contributors use to conceptualize the changing relations between economic development and political governance in southern China. All the chapters reveal a regionally differentiated picture of such interactions. The core areas of the Pan-Pearl River Delta are eager to pursue a policy of regionalization in order to remain competitive nationally and globally, but the peripheries are still at the early stage of development and they have yet to appreciate the benefits of further economic integration.

Another issue has to do with the widespread recognition of China’s developmental model. The Euro-American model of free-market privatization has lost its appeal after the global financial crisis of 2008 and the U.S. economic downgrade in August 2011. The Chinese approach to development has become an irresistible attraction for many developing countries. Even major powers like Japan and Brazil have adopted the Chinese tactics of preventing their own currencies from appreciating in order to stay competitive in global economy. The Chinese economic growth has been made possible by the effective use of government resources to promote research and development and by the deliberate policy of protecting national currency and government property. Such strategic use of state resources has allowed China to sustain its economy and win support from neighboring countries. This model of state-controlled development is built on the premise that political independence is a prerequisite for modernization. Any modernizing state has a rightful duty to safeguard territorial sovereignty, maintain national unity, and pursue economic autonomy. But China’s developmental model may run its course if Beijing cannot resolve regional imbalances by restructuring all industrial activities under a coherent economic plan. This issue concerns the ability of Chinese national leaders to establish a new trans-regional body to maximize their freedom of action and to mediate their diverse economic interests. Only by creating this united front with adequate power leverages can Beijing bring all regional interests to the negotiating table and formulate long-term policies of cooperation.

As with many conference proceedings, the overall interpretative framework of this book is slightly problematic. Most contributors look at the Pan-Pearl River Delta cooperation from the perspectives of government officials and policy advisors. As insightful as they are, they only investigate the regional development of China from top-down analyses. They should draw on Louis Albrechts’ insightful findings on Europe to critique the reluctance of the Chinese authoritarian rulers to engage ordinary citizens and community organizations in the regional and urban planning process. In addition, how the scale of regional economic cooperation has affected the local communities and how it has been absorbed into people’s everyday life remains unclear. Explaining how ordinary Chinese adapt and transform the state’s vision of regionalization to empower themselves requires a closer look at specific temporal and spatial settings.

In short, this collection of essays explores the new dynamics of the Pan-Pearl River Delta cooperation and reveals a strong sense of opportunism and pragmatism among the Chinese policymakers. The editors and contributors have presented up-to-date quantitative data, and the book is a useful reference for urban planners, political economists and geographers.

Suggested citation:

Joseph Tse-Hei Lee (2012). Review of “China’s Pan-Pearl River Delta: Regional Cooperation and Development” edited by Anthony G.O. Geh and Jiang Xu, East Asian Integration Studies,

book is a useful reference for urban planners, political economists and geographers.