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The Greater Bay Area: Integration, Differentiation and Regenerative Ecologies
2021-01-13 19:07:36

Written by Thomas Chung

June 21, 2020

The relevance of the Greater Bay Area within international geo-political assets is steadily increasing. Relying on projections and observations by Li Shiqiao, Rem Koolhaas and Manuel Castells as main bases for his interpretation of this process, Thomas Chung investigates the future layout that president Xi Jinxing’s project will delineate, involving nine urban areas of the Pearl River Delta and the two Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macao. In order to construct a range of possible futures, the author critically traces the various political turns that affected the Pearl River Delta since the 80s Open Door Policy up to affirming its contemporary role on a global scale.

For the 2019 Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB), titled "Urban Interactions," (21 December 2019-8 March 2020) ArchDaily is working with the curators of the "Eyes of the City" section to stimulate a discussion on how new technologies might impact architecture and urban life. The contribution below is part of a series of scientific essays selected through the “Eyes of the City” call for papers, launched in preparation of the exhibitions: international scholars were asked to send their reflection in reaction to the statement by the curators Carlo Ratti Associati, Politecnico di Torino and SCUT, which you can read here.

The Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, whose development blueprint was finally released in February 2019 following the Framework Agreement signed in Hong Kong during the SAR’s 20th anniversary in 2017, is nothing less than a political megaproject directed from China’s highest level. After four decades of reform and opening up, the driving force behind this explicit rebranding of the Pearl River Delta (PRD) is twofold, to reaffirm the region’s leading role in national economic development and to address both Chinese geopolitics as well as the country’s global ambitions. The Greater Bay Area (GBA), comprising the nine PRD cities plus the two SARs of Hong Kong and Macao, is presented as an extension of “PRD miracle” in a new phase. Began in 1979, the PRD’s market-oriented reform process has transformed the region from an economic backwater to a regional powerhouse of global significance. From gaining notoriety as the “world’s factory” with cheap land and labour churning out low-end consumer products in the 1980s-90s, the PRD has been successively restructured, albeit somewhat unevenly, to be more identified with innovation-driven high-tech manufacturing aspiring to “smart city” developments. With emerging realities such as improved connectivity, rising affluence and mobility and the arrival of “new retail” with a technology-dependent digital economy, the national GBA directive calls for further commitment to regional cooperation while promising ample opportunities for growth.

In terms of China’s internal geopolitics, the GBA framework is designed to expedite further reintegration of Hong Kong and Macao with respect to the "one country, two systems" implementation, with an eye on the ultimate resolution of the Taiwan issue. In domestic strategic terms, the GBA also forms the southern tip of five major city-clusters in the shape of a diamond that include the Yangtze River Delta (YRD) on the east coast, the Jingjinji (Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei) or Greater Beijing capital cluster in the north, as well as two clusters in western and central China, the Cheng-yu cluster based around Chengdu and Chongqing and the Middle Yangtze River Valley Megalopolis centred around Wuhan respectively. The GBA is also targeted to rival or become “greater” than other world-class “bay areas”, and comparisons have often been made with those of San Francisco, New York and Tokyo. The GBA’s competitive advantage lies in its economic momentum and the mega-conurbation having four GaWC classified cities, although its complicated subnational dynamics and various place-based discrepancies are real challenges to be overcome. Externally, the GBA is also expected to playing a key part in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s cross-continent “infrastructure and trade as foreign policy” programme aimed at augmenting its international influence.

As a top-down strategy tied to national and global political economy, the “Greater Bay Area”’s more abstract appellation suggests images of bays, port cities and near-shore islands with a maritime propensity, subconsciously emphasising a more unifying intention and international outlook. Whereas “Pearl River Delta”, whose post-war coining in 1947 was based on empirical geographical research, resonates more with its estuarine roots and geo-cultural legacies, evoking the region’s rich and diverse local histories. Interestingly, the meticulous Chinese scholars responsible for the PRD naming remarked that the technical term “Bay-head delta” also correctly described the region’s geography. In 1985, the PRD was officially delimited to attract foreign investment, after which industrial relocation from coastal Hong Kong accelerated the growth of labour-intensive light industries inland. This inaugurated the early success of the “front shop, back factory” cooperation model whereby colonial Hong Kong fronted the overseas exports that was backed up by cheap PRD production.

By the mid-1990s, as the PRD developed into a more formalised 9-city economic region subjected to strategic planning, there was a shift towards heavier industries such as high-tech electronic equipment and machinery for export. The PRD’s post-reform urban evolution also came into view of the Western gaze. Rem Koolhaas, maverick architect-cum-theorist, was one of the first to call attention to the PRD’s “unbelievable quantities of new urban substance”, describing what he saw as an “important” city-prototype whose importance rested on attributes alien to Western measurements of culture and history. Assisted by his students at Harvard, Koolhaas documented pertinent aspects of this so-called COED (City of Exacerbated Difference) in Great Leap Forward. He predicted that these disparate urban parts would eventually become a formidable entity operating within a market economy under communist state control, a new urban condition that might irrevocably alter the notion of “city” per se. In 1996, eminent sociologist Manuel Castells, who had already worked on the PRD, wrote in The Rise of the Network City that this vaguely perceived southern China metropolis would become “the most representative urban face of the 21st century” . Whereas Koolhaas’ eastward gaze of revelatory wonderment was partly predicated on an iconoclastic refutation of the abstract ordering of the Western city, Castells identified the PRD’s emergent spatial logic as evidencing the emergence of a “network society” that is based on a globalized economy and information society. With his prescient research, Castell’s theorizing of the now-familiar “space of flows” prefigured the mega-urban futures, and even foreseeing problems such as large scale epidemics and probable disintegration of social control in these mega-city configurations that we are seeing today.

Within the discourse on regional planning and mega-city positioning, the PRD’s spatial structure has been contoured and realigned according to changing administrative boundaries, economic productivity and infrastructural connectivity. In the early 2000s, Chinese scholars began using the term “Greater Pearl River Delta” (GPRD) the describe the 9 + 2 city agglomeration that encompassed posthandover Hong Kong and Macao. The GPRD was conceptualized as a series of lesser cities as industrial nodes with specialist functions clustering around two prominent cores - Guangzhou, the provincial capital and historical “big brother”, and Shenzhen, the young dynamic upstart next to Hong Kong created by direct order from central government. In 2003, Guangdong province advocated the idea of “Pan-PRD” as an even more extensive regional construct that comprised nine neighbouring provinces to promote economic co-operation

In contrast, Li Shiqiao’s erudite and intensive understanding of the Chinese city and its ancient agro-intellectual traditions describes how, by insisting on returning to its indigenous spatial conceptions, Chinese cities continue to adapt to the necessities of contemporary culture or international commerce. Perhaps taking the cue from Koolhaas’ observations, Li asserts that unlike the Western heritage of representational ordering via proportion, the Chinese city is produced via an alternative “quantity regulation” of things, information, politics and buildings, etc, whose meanings are conveyed through “distributed material orders”, giving rise to cities of immense complexity. For Li, such is the hidden continuity between vastly different examples such as the Forbidden City and Hong Kong. Given time, Li argues, archetypal specificities of the Chinese city have the capacity to reformulate themselves into “effective strategies under radically different geopolitical conditions”, bringing substance and detail to ongoing massive urbanisation processes such as the GBA.

Official visions imagine a better connected, functionally integrated GBA with a growing innovation-driven economy in emerging industries, R&D and high-end sectors. Inter-city collaboration and cross-border cooperation are increasingly encouraged via formal mechanisms for joint developments, while logistics sharing and infrastructure upgrades with high-level coordination have been implemented. From an essential three-hour travel outer ring to an inner “one-hour living zone” with improved liveability, all this will facilitate intra-bay mobility of people, goods and information. Incentives to attract investment, support enterprises and to enlarge workforce and talent pool all dovetail towards the state-driven desire for mega-urban integration. Even the notion of “Bay citizen” has been floated to speculate on a trans-urban collective identity and social consciousness founded on the common roots of Lingnan culture.

In reality, layers of administrative boundaries and political borders point to continuing institutional, economic and social differences. The first special economic zones (SEZs) established back in 1979, starting with Shenzhen next to Hong Kong and Zhuhai adjacent Macao, were pioneering experiments devised to exploit capability differentials in order to generate interaction and reciprocal flows [18]. These territories of exception designated for accelerated economic growth operated on controlled foreign imports, tax and financial concessions, and were matched with skilled labour and resources. In particular, Shenzhen’s impressive flourishing testifies to the value of such enclaves in stimulating development and progress. Before “Shenzhen speed” became the catchphrase for China’s rapid urbanization however, it was Shekou port at the western tip of Shenzhen that spearheaded the very first industrial and modernizing reforms.

More recently created free trade zones, Qianhai in Shenzhen west, Nansha in Guangzhou south and Hengqin in Zhuhai, are similar attempts intended to boost their respective mother cities. Qianhai, with a Field Operations masterplan design, is planned as Shenzhen’s new international centre for finance, cross-border e-commerce and professional services. Hengqin, facing Macao, is themed for leisure tourism, education and cultural services. Nansha, centrally located in PRD and already with its developed industrial and port facilities through Hong Kong investment, has many labels, among them shipping, high-tech industries, innovative development and quality living. The GBA outline encourages these strategically sited concessional zones to forge new development models and institutional mechanisms, demonstrate further open up to Hong Kong and Macao enterprises and target better integration with international practices, though their eventual contribution or success can only be properly assessed upon further maturation.

In fact, economic and politico-ideological differences between Hong Kong (and to a lesser extent Macao) and mainland China have been the fountainhead of the Open Door Policy that triggered the formalization of the PRD. To date, Hong Kong’s prized attributes remain as its unrivalled international orientation, pivotal regional role in global finance and robust economy, sophisticated judiciary and administrative systems, free flow of information, people and capital, transparent institutions and highly developed professional services. With the GBA initiative, Hong Kong is urged to build on its distinctive advantages and reinvent itself while expanding its horizons into the PRD hinterland. A local think tank recommended the city to create new niches, explore new industries and discover new geographies. Recommendations include acting as internationalization incubators or a neutral global data hub (a “data Switzerland”, providing advanced financial, professional and consumer services, fostering understanding by creating cross-jurisdictional institutions and intensifying interaction by setting up precincts with “Hong Kong style” live-work micro-environments and public services near transport nodes to entice Hong Kongers.

While Macao has mutated into a spectacularly lucrative gambling destination embellished with world heritage, Hong Kong has in recent years developed into a politically fraught global financial hub. Its systemic disparities, exacerbated by social inequities and internal polarizations, are proving to be intensely challenging, and especially manifest in the widespread and sustained social unrest in the latter half of 2019. Despite enhanced connectivity with the GBA, such as the completion of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao bridge and the Express Rail Link arriving into West Kowloon, Hong Kong’s deep-rooted discord ultimately hinges on fundamental questions of identity and governance. Although local contesting voices on integration versus differentiation have been profoundly unsettling, Hong Kong’s super-charged irresolution involving the entire citizenry is being thoroughly played out in the city’s public domains, which may yet engender deliberative possibilities of genuine social renovation that mediates between appropriate autonomies and collective inter-dependencies, ones that could have wider ramifications for the rest of the GBA.

Many mainland researchers still regard the GBA as a global-level experiment in region-building under the twin trajectories of economic progress and national integration. Hardware improvements (such as new connections like the Shenzhen-Zhongshan bridge, port extensions and new special cooperation zones, etc) go hand-in-hand with the earnest pursuit of GDP-oriented benchmarks for the construction of an economic “super region” of global influence. With improved transportation reducing the effect of boundaries, the GBA’s industrial clusters are expected to replace cities as the basic units of global competition. Uneven social conditions between cities are to be overcome via long term planning, coordinated development and growth management.

In terms of regional restructuring, the GBA has transitioned from a simple “hub-and-spoke” model (front shop, back factory mode) to a polycentric network or “constellation” of four prominent cores connected to seven lesser nodes. The GBA’s bay-head delta geography is creating an “inner ring” (Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Dongguan up to Guangzhou, Foshan, Zhongshan and down to Zhuhai and Macao) that is heavily invested, highly connected and more developed with advanced urban functions, and an “outer ring” (Huizhou, Jiangmen, Zhaoqing) acting as supply hinterland with heavier industries and taking spillovers radiating out from the inner ring cities. The three PRD city clusters – Guangzhou, Foshan, Zhaoqing (GFZ); Shenzhen, Dongguan, Huizhou (SDH) and Zhuhai, Zhongshan, Jiangmen (ZJJ) – are formed to intensify cooperation and interaction, pool resources and raise competitiveness, although collaborations have had varied success. The Guangzhou-Foshan integration has been most notable, with joint mass transit, planning, and development programmes for adjacent areas implemented. Shenzhen has been working with neighbouring Dongguan and Huizhou to relocate companies and industries there so as to accommodate higher value operations itself, while Zhuhai, Zhongshan and Jiangmen will be less active until the western GBA further develops.

More nuanced views recognize the need to deepen institutional innovation and recalibrate governance structures to balance state, provincial and municipal interests. More dialogue and negotiation as well as wider participation by enterprises and sections of society should be enabled.

Instead of over-relying on more hit-and-miss city-level collaborations, there should be effective higher-level interventions with adequate openness that also allow market forces to inform organic integration. To minimize rivalries and avoid overlapping investment and vicious competition, macro policies and procedures that are conducive to the spirit of cooperation should be set up to coordinate the sharing of benefits and responsibilities; while micro projects and incentives that play to the advantages and practical needs of each city should be introduced. More exchange and cooperation platforms with Hong Kong and Macao should be realized both to counter the mainland’s impression of favouritism towards the two SARs, as well as allay the SARs’ fear of losing their distinctive ways of life.

The current GBA population of 70 million is already double that of Koolhaas’ prediction for 2020. It is expected to double again to 150 million within the next 20 years. If Castells’ caution not to compare the PRD to other examples abroad (such as the San Francisco Bay Area) due to its specific contextualities is to be heeded, then the GBA needs to develop along its own strengths by nurturing complementary differences within. A viable multi-level institution-building process that reconciles competing values and systems, institutes checks and balances, rewards and penalties and guards against resources and environmental over-exploitation is called for. The outdated “PRD pattern” of municipality-based metabolisms heavy on resource input, environmental cost and unfettered consumption must give way to region-based, energy-conscious and climate-inspired ecologies fitting to the resource resilience and environmental carrying capacities of individual cities. The impetus for developing trade, industries, technology and transportation must be coupled with aspirations to nurture a more enlightened quality of life, cultural inclusivity, intellectual openness and ecological protection. Here we return to Li’s understanding of the intellectual foundations of the Chinese city for conceiving alternative urban imaginaries. Instead of the endless production of artificial pleasures and consumption of desirable things, the Chinese city, which “maintains a closer intellectual link with labour and things” and attunement to the biological rhythms of life, may offer a genuine “reformulation of the conception of good life in the context of a renewed understanding of the (situated) freedoms and the rights of humans and things”.

If the GBA is to be regarded as the 21st-century face of mega-urbanism in this age of climate change, two natural analogies of regenerative ecologies may be relevant. First, the rainforest morphology’s potential as a urban model lies in its complex global morphology with varied microclimates that supports symbiotic diversity and indeterminacies of life-forms and cycles. A rainforest city is a super-organism with an internally-regulated metabolic process, whereby the negotiation of climate with the finely tuned coordination of nested loops of energy, matter and information flows inform distribution patterns, height differentiations and density gradients to produce a “heterogeneous landscape of emergent interactions within a homeostatic environment”. Second, the PRD’s once celebrated dyke-pond aquaculture of fish, vegetable, fruit and silk cultivation fused the delta’s fertile floodplain tidal ecology with a thriving productive landscape that underlay the economic culture for the region’s past prosperity. The idea of “catalytic polyculture”, the practice of designed mutualism that nurtures unexpected economies and change cultural behaviours, could be an integral part of responsibly developing the GBA’s rural-urban continuum to produce an adaptable, scalable hybrid ecology of humans, things and the natural world. Perhaps the GBA is where subtropical rainforest cities meet polyculture landscape to become estuary mega-urbanism, a confluence of complex systems with homeostatic periodicities comprising archipelagoes of islands and ports, ponds and dykes, whereby interactions and flows traversing its infrastructures will be energized at its cores and replenished by its nodes and edges, all integrated as a differentiated continuum of regenerative ecologies enlivened by the successive emergence of new economic, social and cultural realities.

Research support: Wu Fangning