Three Shades of Guangzhou: August 7th-10th, 2013

Guangzhou, China - For many in Canada the name evokes confusion, a rather odd response in a country which is home to 1.3 million people from the Pearl River Delta. It is even more surprising so many know so little about this place when you consider Guangzhou is officially home to 13 million people, and the cities which ring it (within 2 hours) are home to another 71 million. Or as many people as live in Florida, New York, and California combined.

It is a city which I first visited with Global Vision in 2006, and subsequently visited again in 2010 and 2013. To say Guangzhou is an indicator gauge for the growth story in China does not do justice to just how much has changed in 7 years.

I still remember the first time I stepped out of the Guangzhou East Railway station - home of the Hong Kong-Guangzhou through train, a station slated for replacement in 2013. The air was thick, it was raining and of course the sky was brick brown from all of the low end low value manufacturing taking place in the city and its immediate vicinity. The traffic was horrendous, and many of the roads were dirt - made muddy from all of the rain - and with the exception of CITIC tower (CITIC is a large Chinese bank based in Guangzhou) there was little in the way of tall buildings. This made the 80 story tower look particularly out of place in this city which looked to be part construction zone, part industrial wasteland.

As for mass public transit in 2006 - forget it - the metro was "under construction" - with four small lines it was hardly adequate to serve 13 million people. In meeting with city officials they proudly discussed their grand plans, as did the businesses - including Jade and Company, and HJM Asia law - both of which we met that rainy Guangzhou day. I have to say the team at the time was left slightly skeptical an entire modern city could be built in a decade - let alone one for 13 million people.

In 2010 we undertook to visit Guangzhou with a team for a second time. Once again the connections built on the first mission with Jade and HJM were relied upon to help teach a new generation of young Canadians about business in Guangzhou. On the day we were leaving Beijing to fly into Guangzhou - I made sure to prepare myself, and my team for the Guangzhou I remembered - a disorganized place (or so I thought) where we would have to be prepared to rough it.

Anyone reading this who was living in or visited Guangzhou in 2010 would understand I was in for an earth shattering shock - the Guangzhou I visited in 2006 was more or less gone. Thousands of architecturally interesting tall buildings dotted the sky as we cruised into the city - again on a famous rainy Guangzhou day - on a brand new state of the art expressway with traffic signals designed to alert drivers of traffic jams and allow them to divert around them. Not only that the city had an efficient, and functioning metro system with over 150 KM of track, and 6 long operating lines with another in the trial phase.

Some features from 2006 did however remain, there was a large amount of garbage, debris and some general untidiness especially when it came to the area around the waterfront. By 2013 - when we visited last week - I expected the city to have changed greatly - and it had. Not only were there many new buildings and features on the skyline - but the highway system was even better than I had remembered. And a couple more lines, and another 100 KM of track had opened on the metro system. As for that dirty waterfront, the debris and general dirtiness? It had given way to tree lined boulevards, and granite walkways lined both sides of the pearl river.

Notably the air quality had improved on both of these subsequent visits. An indication of the move up the manufacturing value chain which had taken place in the region. No more is Guangzhou a city of the made in China plastic toy or undergarments - it is a modern high end manufacturing centre building complex products from pressure washers to cars.

Upon explaining these contrasts to the students we brought with us from Canada - none of whom had ever been to Guangzhou before - myself and Terry received looks of confusion and disbelief. It was quite apparent they did not believe this gorgeous city could have been anything different less than a decade ago. In the Canada such development would be impossible - Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver have all embarked on mass transit projects to build single lines - all took decades to build or are still not complete 10 years later.

In short its hard to believe something until you see it for yourself, and in the case of many Canadians the extent of their exposure to the Chinese economic progress is the large quantity of goods originating from China. They have not had the opportunity to witness the leaps and bounds by which the economy has grown on the ground, and the extent to which life has dramatically improved for millions of people. While many are now talking of a "China slowdown" the reality is it does not hold water as a story, the situation on the ground is such that it is clear the economy is still booming. What is also clear is China is so large any economic statistic regarding it should be taken with a grain of salt, and probably disregarded - as the country is so large many "leading economic indicators" are simply immeasurable.