The Eleven-Hour Drive– Part Two
As our caravan exited the suburbs of Guangzhou we soon entered rural Guangdong. Paved roads gradually gave way to gravel ones, bisecting paddy fields, fish ponds with flocks of ducks, irrigation ditches with wallowing water buffalos, People’s Communes with “In Agriculture, Learn from Dazhai” painted on their walls, and the occasional light industrial factory.
Our first stop was Dongcheng, the county seat of Dongguan –already an emerging force in export trade.
At the first of two car ferry crossings across tributaries of the great Pearl River, the fickle hand of fate inserted itself into the fuel line of our minibus. A temporary repair job got us across the river and a few miles further, to a small river town called Zhongtang, where we got stuck again.
Luckily for us, it was Saturday morning in Zhongtang, and we came upon a brand new phenomenon which we had heard about but never seen: a free market, where farmers would sell their produce or wares directly to consumers. Like advertising, this had previously been taboo. It represented the first shoots of major reforms to China’s rural agricultural sector, which began experimentally in Guangdong and eventually became a nationwide phenomenon with far-reaching impact.
The arrival in the free market of a lumbering group of gawking foreigners provided considerable entertainment value for the Zhongtangers, and lots of lively, animated banter.
Before long, our minibus was pronounced dead. We walked onto the second car ferry, and were met on the other side by several Chevrolet Belvedere station wagons. Several pro-American comments were heard; prematurely, as it turned out.
After a lunch stop and briefing in Guancheng, we hit the road again. In Taiping, we visited factories and the site where foreign Opium was burned during the Opium war (fortunately the Brits were more the bad guys here than us Yanks).
Next was a tour and tasting session at a winery making sickeningly sweet lychee wine., which we were obliged to toast and consume liberally in the sweltering mid-afternoon heat.
As we left Taiping, the roads resembled logging trails. Our drivers, undeterred, were trying to make up for the fact that we were 3 hours behind schedule, so they drove in Formula One style.
As a result, serious breakdown number two took place, resulting from the high-speed marriage of a low-flying clutch with a high-flying bump in the road. Down went the Chevy Belvidere, which left us stranded in a small, mosquito-infested jungle.
To make matters worse, our esteemed President answered the call of nature amidst the subtropical foliage and inadvertently wet the pants of his safari suit. For the rest of us, this was high entertainment, but our fearless leader was not amused.
Before leaving the scene of the second breakdown we noticed a sign posted by the local revolutionary committee exhorting the peasants to be cooperative in removing the remains of their ancestors from prime land needed for new factory construction.
Finally, automotive reinforcements arrived, and our group eventually limped into Bao An about 7:30 in the evening: hot, sweaty, and exhausted.
We were shown to the hotel, which was a 5-story concrete walk-up. My room was on the top floor, so I scaled the heights carrying my suitcase. Unfortunately neither the water nor electricity were flowing at the time of our arrival, so a much-needed wash-up had to be postponed.
I was greeted in my room by a very well-fed rat who seemed a bit surprised by my arrival. He looked more the relaxed, free-range, brownish rural kind of rat than your typical beady-eyed, steal-your-cheese, gray, downtown type rat. There was no time for me to chit-chat with Mr. Rat, however, because we were due at the briefing.
Comrade Li’s excellent presentation on the ambitious future development plans of the Bao An Foreign Trade Base were soon drowned out by the crescendo of great growling gringo stomachs. At this juncture, our gracious hosts wisely offered to feed us first, and brief us later.
After dinner, washed down with copious amounts of cold Tsingdao beer, we were told that Bao An County had a population of 300,000 people, but the town itself had only 33,000, of whom 85 % were farmers. (I guessed that the other 15% were at least not hotel service staff, and wondered what they did for a living.)
Bao An’s exports in 1978 were said to be RMB 9 million, an insignificant sum.
We were shown charts and diagrams, plans and projections, and given what seemed to be a phantasmagorical description of the dramatic transformation in store for the very ordinary looking rice paddies we had just spent hours driving through.
Light industry, heavy industry, research and development, universities, tourism zones, modern transport infrastructure – all this and more were promised, and in the very near future. Foreign investment of various types would be welcome. Everything modern, first class, cutting edge.
Right. Got it. Sure thing.
Perhaps because we were weary to the point of being shell-shocked, our reaction to the bold plans and projections was quietly very skeptical, especially insofar as the near term was concerned.
The next morning it was raining. We trudged through the mud and visited the first Hong Kong-invested factory in the zone, a Millie’s Shoe plant. It was the only factory in sight, surrounded by rice paddies and other agricultural fields, although others were under construction.
We thanked our hosts, and bid them farewell before crossing back into Hong Kong.
Shortly after our visit, Bao An Foreign Trade Base was renamed Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. It was the first and most important of China’s Special Economic Zones, which have been a cornerstone of China’s Open Door and Reform. Policy.
Today its population, at 7 million-plus, is almost the same as Hong Kong. It boasts a variety of world-class high tech companies, manufacturing plants, China’s second stock exchange, top colleges and universities, tourist spots, golf courses, upmarket residential developments, 5-star hotels, an international airport, etc., etc., etc.
The lesson I learned from the 11-hour driving adventure is this: if Comrade Li says he’s going to build a thriving city overnight in a place where there was none, it’s best to pay attention, because he just might surprise you.