China’s Greater Bay Area: Looking Beyond its Flagship Cities

Written by Peter Upton, China Briefing, Dezan Shira & Associates

Posted: 8th July 2020 08:53

In February 2018, China released its blueprint for developing the Greater Bay Area (GBA) during the Fourth Plenary Session of the 12th Provincial Party Committee. Internally called the “1+1+9” plan, its aim was to turn the GBA into a sprawling economic region reminiscent of Tokyo or San Francisco, integrating special zones Macau and Hong Kong more intimately with nine other mainland cities.

On May 14, 2020, the People’s Bank of China, along with three other central authorities, unveiled new guidelines to support the financial reform and opening-up of the GBA.

The Opin­ions Con­cern­ing Fi­nan­cial Sup­port for the Es­tab­lish­ment of the Guang­dong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area (“the guidelines”) transcribe a series of 26 new measures aimed at liberalizing China’s controls on foreign exchange and foreign currency remittance, to boost cross-border capital flows in the GBA.

The GBA project is thus now well under way – and will foster healthy inter-city rivalry to establish greater investment appeal and a climate of innovation. GuangzhouShenzhen, and Hong Kong are currently the largest and most prosperous cities in the region; the GBA plan expects them to differentiate their roles based on their strengths so they do not directly compete with one another. Shenzhen is expected to focus on technology and development, Guangzhou on transportation, and Hong Kong on finance and foreign investment.

But the GBA is also home to seven other cities in the mainland – Dongguan, Huizhou, Foshan, Zhaoqing, Jiangmen, Zhaoshan, and Zhuhai. While some of them hold certain acclaim within the country, most have little name recognition outside China. From an investor’s standpoint, the growth potential of these under-reported cities could be much larger than their neighbors.

China watchers should take note of how these cities develop in relation to each other – their respective areas of development, including industrial and service sectors and key infrastructure linkages.

One way to predict their future course of development is to take a look at their recent past and examine existing industry strengths.


One of the mainland’s fastest-growing cities in terms of overall economic growth, Dongguan is located between Guangzhou and Shenzhen. It borders the Zhujiang River Estuary in the west and Huizhou in the east.

For almost a century, Dongguan was the political, cultural, and economic hub of much of the southeast tip of China. The expansion and growing independence of its subordinate cities brought Dongguan to its current stature by the second half of the 20th century.

As of 2019, Dongguan’s GDP was about RMB 948.25 billion (US$137.45 billion).

Dongguan has created a comprehensive manufacturing system covering more than 60,000 types of products across 30 industries. One in every five smartphones in the world is produced in Dongguan. Its major industries include IT, electric, garment, shoe, toy, and furniture manufacturing.

The city boasts a highly efficient comprehensive logistics network as well as close proximity to international airports in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. It was among the first cities in China to adopt non-attended customs clearance upon verification.

Major development areas

Policy implications for the city from the 2019 People’s Congress (PC)

Due to Dongguan’s key location in the GBA as an intermediary between Shenzhen and Guangzhou, one of its primary tasks will be expanding as a transportation hub for the region. Extensive plans are already in place to upgrade the city’s highways, metro system, and high-speed rail connectivity.

Industrially, Dongguan is tasked by the 13th Five Year Plan to develop its financial insurance, e-commerce, and technology services. It has plans to jointly develop a comprehensive national science center with Hong Kong and Shenzhen.


Known as the “Eastern Gate of Guangdong”, Huizhou marks the easternmost reach of the GBA and shares a land border with Guangzhou, Dongguan, and Shenzhen. It has the second largest area among the mainland GBA cities and a population of about 4.83 million. The city is well-known for its scenic environment and abundant natural resources.

It’s current GDP is estimated by government reports to be at about RMB 417.7 billion (US$60.6 billion).

Huizhou’s two major industries are petrochemicals and electronic information. These currently boast production values of up to RMB 1 trillion (US$140 billion). Huizhou’s Daya Bay Petrochemical Zone ranks the first in the country in terms of scale of petrochemical-refining integration. Huizhou’s Zhongkai High-Tech Industrial Development Zone is an important national base for the electronic information industry.

Major development areas

Policy implications for the city from the 2019 PC

Due to its location and current connectivity, Huizhou will likely continue to expand its connection with China’s east coast as well as neighboring countries like Korea. Already the city is working on constructing a large central airport said to be capable of putting through 10 million passengers.


Translating roughly to “Buddha Mountain,” Foshan is well-known in China as a former center of Buddhism in Guangdong. The city was known internationally for its ceramics and silk well into the early 20th century before local disputes and cycles of international depression brought about the downfall of both industries.

Foshan borders Guangzhou to the east, Zhaoqing to the northwest, Jiangmen to the southwest, and Zhongshan to the south, making it another major connection point in the GBA master plan. Its logistics and transportation networks are already heavily integrated with Guangzhou. A subway line currently connects the two cities.

In 2019, Foshan’s GDP was roughly RMB 1075.1 billion (US$155.9 billion). It is known for having among the highest GDP per capita in the region.

Industrially, Foshan mostly focuses on electronic appliance manufacturing.

As of 2015, the city was home to over 3,000 electrical appliance factories (about half foreign-invested) and produced 20 percent of the output for China’s electrical appliance industry. The city is home to Shunde, the largest Chinese production base for air-conditioners, refrigerators, and electric gas heaters and the largest global production base for electric rice cookers and microwave ovens. It was estimated in 2015 that Shunde factories accounted for half the world’s air conditioners and refrigerators.

The city has additionally become the headquarters for several well-known car manufacturers.

Major development areas

As per media reports in September 2019, Guangdong’s vice governor, Chen Liangxian, stated that Zhuhai and Foshan would lead the development of an advanced equipment manufacturing industrial belt on the west bank of the Pearl River. Foshan has also been a leading source for industrial technology investment in Guangdong.

Foshan plans to leverage its high level of development and connectivity to become a “hometown for young people” in the region.


Sometimes called the “Home of Gold” due to its numerous gold mines, Zhaoqing is located to the west of Foshan and Jiangmen. It has the largest land area of the GBA cities (14,891 km2) and very well-developed transportation networks. It is home to one of the most important inland ports in China, the Zhaoqing New Port.

Between the sixth and 16th centuries, Zhaoqing was an important military and political center for the region. For centuries it was known as the “capital of inkstones in China.”

In 2019, Zhaoqing’s GDP was RMB 224.9 billion (US$32.6 billion).

Zhaoqing has an expansive mining and tourism industry. Some sectors for mining include limestones for cement, limestones for flux, gypsum, granite for overcoating, granite for construction, porcelain clay, ink-stone, mineral water, and geothermal water.

Major development areas

Policy implications for the city from the 2019 PC

As one of the westernmost cities in the GBA, Zhaoqing will likely continue focus on linking the region to China’s southwest. Currently, predominant investment into the city is focused on its tourism sector and urban development.


Jiangmen is located to the west of Foshan, Zhuhai, and Zhongshan and serves as one of two western gates into the region. It has eight expressways connecting it to other cities and has been integrated into the “1-hour economic circle” of the Greater Pearl River Delta. It has two class-one cargo ports – Xinhui port and Taishan Guanghai port.

Jiangmen was historically under the administration of Xinhui county until it became an official city in 1952. It was among the regions that was forced to open to western trade in 1902, but its development was stunted by the growth of nearby Guangzhou and Hong Kong during the great depression of the 1930s.

In 2019, Jiangmen’s GDP was RMB 314.7 billion (US$45.6 billion).

While Jiangmen currently lags somewhat behind its neighbors in terms of overall production, it has developed a fairly-advanced industry for motorcycles and auto parts manufacturing, textiles and garments, paper-making, shipbuilding, food, packaging materials, bathroom accessories and sanitary hardware, printing, and electromechanics.

It is also a key source for agricultural products and by-products for the Pearl River Delta, Hong Kong, and Macau and the first agricultural cooperation pilot zone with Taiwan in the Guangdong province.

Jiangmen has been rapidly developing its new energy, new lighting, new materials, high-end equipment manufacturing, and green household appliances industries.

Major development areas

Highlights from the 2019 PC

Jiangmen currently has the lowest population density of any of the other GBA cities. Most city’s efforts in the near future will likely focus on urban development, transportation, and attracting new talent. Jiangmen is currently known for being the home city for a large percentage of Chinese living abroad. The city’s PC report seems to imply they wish to lure a portion of this demographic back to the city to help increase innovation and commerce.


Zhongshan, the birthplace of former Republic of China prime minister Sun Yat-Sen (Sun Zhongshan in Mandarin),
is located just south of Foshan and shares borders with Guangzhou, Zhuhai, Jiangmen, and the Pearl River Delta. It is a key transportation node on the Pearl River Delta.

Zhongshan has seen many conflicts. It was the sight of multiple skirmishes in the Opium Wars in the mid-nineteenth century and later was occupied by the Japanese during the Sino-Japan war. Finally, it was the last holding for the Republic of China troops as they were forced out of the country by the Peoples’ Liberation Army. Zhongshan was previously known for its sea salt trade.

Zhongshan’s 2019 GDP was RMB 310.1 billion (US$45.0 billion).

The city serves as the base for many large-scale industrial projects started by central government-level state owned enterprises, including the State Shipbuilding Corporation, China Railway Group, and China National Offshore Oil Corporation.

Major development areas

The only bonded logistics center on the west bank of the Pearl River Estuary is located in Zhongshan.

Highlights from the 2019 PC

Zhongshan was specifically singled out in the GBA masterplan to become the regional transportation hub for the west side of the bay. It is planned that Zhongshan will be connected to the other 11 cities in the region through a railway network.


Zhuhai is located at the confluence of the Pearl River Delta and the South China Sea. It shares land borders with Zhongshan to the north and Macau to the south.

Zhuhai has been a city for only a little under a half-century. Before it was established as a county in 1953, it was only a handful of fishing villages. It became a full city in 1979 and was given Special Economic Zone status in 1980.

In 2019, Zhuhai’s GDP was about RMB 343.6 billion (US$49.8 billion).

Six major industries in Zhuhai are electronic information, home appliances, electricity and energy, biopharmaceuticals and medical devices, petrochemicals, and precision machinery. Its special industries are printing supplies and yacht manufacturing.

Zhuhai’s largest manufacturer is Gree Electronics, the self-proclaimed “king of the world” for home appliances, specifically air-conditioners. They are currently the world’s largest manufacturer in this area.

Major development areas

Highlights from the 2019 PC

Zhuhai is already considered a very well-developed city with a “first-class living environment”. It will likely work to further improve its relationship with close neighbor, Macau, to expand its industry and workforce. Sizable effort seems to be currently being put towards Zhuhai’s ecological conservation and coastal tourism industry, which will likely expand to accommodate Macau’s increased role as a regional leisure center.


Macau is located on the western side of the Pearl river estuary and is joined with Zhuhai to the north. It is only 60 km across the sea from Hong Kong.

In 1553, the Portuguese colonized Macau, creating the first European colony in East Asia. For the following centuries, it was a major port for global commerce. The city’s influence began to decline in the early 19th century after the Opium Wars brought the British to the region and created a massive port in Hong Kong. The city was finally relinquished to the Chinese government in 1999.

In 2019, Macau’s GDP was MOP 434.7 billion (US$54.17 billion). Macau has had strong economic growth since its establishment as a special administrative region with its gambling and junket (operators that work with casinos to bring wealthy VIP gamblers to the city) industry making up the backbone of its economy. Due to its open economic policy, Macau’s tax rate is one of the lowest in the region. The city enjoys unlimited foreign exchange and claims its own customs territory.

Macau’s responsibilities as part of the GBA include promoting business cooperation with Portuguese-speaking countries and its image as a multicultural Chinese city to the world. It has created a Macau Young Entrepreneur Incubation Center to aid its young workforce in taking advantage of new favorable hiring policies for young locals in the GBA. Macau will also likely continue working on expanding its tourism and gambling industries in its role as the leisure center of the GBA.

This article was first published by China Briefing, which is produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. The firm assists foreign investors throughout Asia from offices across the world, including in ChinaHong KongVietnam, Singapore, India, and Russia. Readers may write to for more support.

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