When I say the Greater Bay, I’m not talking about the San Francisco Bay Area. Instead, I am referring to a region that consists of 11 cities in Southern China, nine in Guangdong Province and two in the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau. It wasn’t my idea to call it “Greater,” but it fits: what is happening here in China is way more 2019 and pretty much a once-in-history process. I won’t bore you with the statistics: you can read the basics here and here.
The area, formerly known as the Pearl River Delta, has been talked up in media and business circles following its rebranding as the Greater Bay, which comes with an integration plan from the Chinese Central Government. But the region’s potential doesn’t come from a plan: I moved to Hong Kong eight years ago because of its unparalleled growth, abundance of resources and unique opportunities. The plan may help—but the region already has plenty to get excited about.
I specialize in urban innovation and mobility. For someone like me, the Greater Bay is a candy shop. You can take ferries, high speed railway, helicopters, ocean liners, choose from five airports to fly anywhere you can dream of, take a limousine and zig-zag the cities for a reasonable cost, ride an Internet of Things-enabled bike on demand, call a ride from Didi, China’s Uber-killer car sharing app, and pay for all this on your phone. Sometimes you even see aircraft carriers.
Living in Hong Kong, I have access to an economy the size of Australia’s or that of Spain and Portugal combined, within one hour’s travel. I could live in Barcelona, one of the smartest cities in Europe where football is magical or in Sydney with sun and surf all year. I love football, I love surf, but I love growth and opportunities even more.
Momentum is with the region. Its GDP has been growing about 10% a year for the past 20-30 years. Over the past three decades, the city of Shenzhen has grown out of the ground from a few hundred thousand inhabitants to between 15 and 20 million. And it has become one of the cities in the world of global tech. Insane.
It’s not just tech: It’s trading and logistics, with three of the top six ports in the world located here—Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Guangzhou. The region’s airports now serve about 170 million passengers a year, a crazy figure, but expected to grow to 320 million by 2035. It is a finance superpower, with Hong Kong alone accounting for the most IPO placements in the world six of the past 10 years and not showing signs of slowing down. If we combine Hong Kong and Shenzhen—two cities that have already grown into each other—the result is by far the biggest financial center in the world.
The region, famous as the world’s workshop, has upgraded to high tech manufacturing over a very short period of time and is pushing the boundaries of industry 4.0. Once, half the world’s toys, shoes and DVDs were made in these cities; today, it is home to the company that sells the most electric cars (BYD) and the second most smartphones (Huawei). But the region is also home to Macau, a casino city that dwarfs Las Vegas, taking in five to 10 times more money depending on the year. Shenzhen is also home to the world’s largest insurance company, Ping An.
And this, my friends is just the tip of the iceberg. We haven’t talked about Tencent; Li Ka-Shing’s CK Hutchinson conglomerate, which operates everything from ports to the world’s largest health and beauty retail store network; or AIA, the second largest life insurance company in the world—the start of an endless and colorful list.
This region is the most diverse economic cluster in the world. It can produce anything you want at world-class quality and extremely competitive prices, with direct access to the Chinese and global markets thanks to the “One Country, Two Systems” that makes Hong Kong and Macau special among all other cities both in China and around the world. Look up, and you see some of the tallest buildings in Asia; look around, and you see some of the smartest, most ambitious, fastest people in the world. When you dig into the statistics, the only response is: “WOW.”
So, what do we expect from the forthcoming development blueprint? Not much new—but that’s enough. Despite the new name, the region has been the business Mecca that it is for a long time and will remain so in the future. Imperial dynasties have come and gone, political systems have changed, the internet economy has emerged and the region is still about what it’s always been: business. No blueprint will change that.
If the plan makes business somewhat easier, smoother, or bigger, well, that’s the cherry on top. But even without any significant change, I can still rush from a business dinner in Guangzhou through three cities, 50 million people and $800 billion in GDP in a 47-minute train ride, and arrive in Hong Kong in time for a night hike.