GBA Brief

How to stand out from the city crowd: can Jiangmen plot a path to glory?

Smaller cities in the GBA have a challenge. Many outsiders won’t know where they are on the map, let alone what they contribute. Another problem is the cities themselves may not have a clear idea about their positioning either. 

Shenzhen is a tech hub, Guangzhou is known for its strengths in industrial sectors like cars, Hong Kong is a financial centre, and Macau is host to most of the world’s largest casino firms. But what about some of the lesser-known cities in the Greater Bay Area? recently interviewed Chen Xiaoman, deputy director general of the development and reform bureau of Jiangmen’s municipal government, for more on how it plans to transform itself into an important hub.

Chen was broad-brush in her replies. The first step is to improve Jiangmen’s transport infrastructure, she says. Several rail projects are either under construction or being planned. The city is going to be integrated into the high-speed rail network and its first airport is on the drawing board too (the Brief wonders if that is wise – the GBA already has plenty of airport capacity in the in the pipeline). More ports will be built and there will be more highways, she adds.  

Jiangmen is in the southwestern reaches of the GBA, so it should also benefit from improved connections to the more prosperous eastern shore of the Pearl River, like the new Hong Kong-Zhuhai Macao Bridge. 

Another bridge a few miles further north between Shenzhen and Zhongshan is being built, and the Shenzhen to Maoming railway will also pass through Jiangmen.

Maoming, another large city much further west in Guangdong, didn’t make the membership cut for the GBA group.

Additionally, Jiangmen is talking about boosting its high-end industries and R&D expertise. To do that it wants to set up more technical colleges and provide more support to SMEs, including policies targeted at attracting young talent from Hong Kong and Macau.

None of this sounds radically different to the proposals coming out of most of the cities in the region and the challenge for places like Jiangmen is how they stand out from the crowd. 

Here Chen cites Jiangmen’s rich coastal and marine resources as a key area of difference and she also highlights how the city benefits from its bigger landmass. 

As the third largest of the 11 GBA cities, Jiangmen is bigger in area than Guangzhou, and almost five times the size of Shenzhen. 

Presumably that means lower land prices, which feeds through into lower costs for businesses and workers. But the long-term plan, Chen says, is to build Jiangmen into a new growth centre on the west bank of Pearl River and a gateway to its nearby coastal belt. 

Nonetheless, there is little detail on what Jiangmen will look like in either role, or how the municipal authorities plan to achieve it.

In the meantime Chen is talking up Jiangmen’s strong bonds with overseas Chinese, claiming that there are at least 4 million Jiangmenese living outside China, roughly the same size as its local population. She says this puts the city in first place nationally in the abundance of its “resources” of this type.

Again, it’s unclear how Jiangmen plans to tap these links, beyond fostering closer ties through more cultural exchange programmes. 

The main takeaway from the interview is that Jiangmen sees great opportunities in the Greater Bay Area but that it will need to do more to outline the specifics of how it is going to seize the “once-in-a-thousand-years” chance that Chen is so excited about.

The positive point of view is that the master plan for the GBA is nebulous itself, which means that almost anything is possible under its broad banner. But getting the full benefits is going to mean deciding on a strategy and sticking to it. Another approach might be to look for the areas where the region isn’t delivering on the top-level goals that Beijing has identified as priorities, the Brief reckons. All the better if some of them were to overlap with Jiangmen’s local strengths.

“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” was the challenge from US president John F. Kennedy at his inaugural address in 1961. Leaders like Chen might want to focus on how to apply the same kind of thinking to get ahead in the GBA.