Inside China’s Newly Booming Tech Hub
As the capital of a western province, Guiyang’s sudden development into China’s ‘Big Data Valley’ has brought astonishing change
“The difference between the Guizhou of today and when I was young is huge,” declares 56-year-old Li Maoqin, a resident in the south-western province’s capital Guiyang. “It’s like the difference between the earth and the sky.”
Guiyang, nestled among luscious green mountain peaks, has typically been known more for poverty than innovation. As a child, Li was so poor she went with her grandmother from village to village, begging for food. But this rapidly developing city has a plan to reinvent itself as a technology hub, attracting thousands of tech-savvy entrepreneurs to a week-long Expo, drawing big names to open data centres and embracing the self-proclaimed nickname “China’s Big Data Valley”.
While China’s growth has generally been powered by top tier eastern cities, Guizhou posted the third-fastest economic growth among China’s 31 provinces last year, and Guiyang was ranked as best performing city in 2016 by the Milken Institute. “If you have missed the investment opportunity in Guangdong or Zhejiang 30 years ago, by no means should you miss that of Guizhou today,” China’s tech poster child Jack Ma proclaimed.
When I was young … people lived in houses built of wood. There was no electricity and we had to get water from the well. Fu Zhangxi, 58
An hour’s drive out of Guiyang is Gui An New District, a 1,795 sq km suburb designated as the strategic heart of Guiyang’s technology aspirations. A new Foxconn plant is among the first to open here, packed with hundreds of young employees brandishing smartphones and ID tags. The centre sits beside a newly built road lined with cars and bicycles in a newly built industrial park – Gui An’s public transport has yet to be built.
While Foxconn is among the first to arrive, more are coming. Tax incentives, state support and lower costs have helped draw companies including Microsoft, Huawei, Hyundai Motor, Tencent, Qualcomm and Alibaba to Guiyang. A partnership with India’s NIIT for a Professional College of Electronics has been agreed, and a Chinese-UK data park of 30 companies will jointly develop health technology. Several British universities are exploring Guiyang-based collaborations. The government has projected that investment into Gui An will increase by 11% to $3.34bn (£2.6bn) this year, and create 30,000 jobs.
This marks a change from the established pattern of economic growth in China, which has been overwhelmingly based around the eastern growth corridor through Beijing, Shanghai, and the southern cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou – Shanghai alone has been growing at an average annual rate of about 10% for the past 20 years. But as populations have soared, so have costs, and the relative affordability of western China is increasingly appealing.
The third Big Data Expo in May was the latest opportunity to market Guiyang’s benefits. This year, Alibaba announced it will launch a block data centre with the Guiyang Public Security Bureau, while Tencent showcased augmented reality hongbao and Hydata unveiled lip-reading recognition tech.
Although big data investment into Guizhou almost doubled last year, the landlocked province’s growth is also down to much-needed infrastructure. Guiyang now has a modern railway station and international airport, with another 10,000km of highway and 4,000km of train tracks planned to complete by 2020. There have also been efforts to boost Guizhou’s tourism, which draws more than a million international visitors each year, according to officials, and many millions of domestic tourists.
This growth is inevitably transforming life for city residents. Programmes to improve housing saw 458,000 people resettled into new homes in 2016, and the government says it lifted 1.2 million Guizhou people out of poverty last year alone.
“When I was young there were very few roads, and they were all bumpy and narrow,” remembers Fu Zhangxi, now 58 and living in one of Guiyang’s newer residential districts. “Transport was not convenient and people lived in houses built of wood. There was no electricity, and we had to get water from the well.”
“I come from a big family, and when I was little we were so poor we were always hungry,” says Li Maoqin. “Now I don’t need to worry about food, and everything is so much better. My husband and I joined a community choir and every day we sing songs, go to the park, play mahjong – I feel very happy.”
As a growing city, Guiyang is also showing some success in drawing in young talent. Office administrator Yang Yuanlin studied at the prestigious Beijing University and completed a master’s degree in Hong Kong before coming back to Guiyang. A Guizhou native, she finds the Guiyang of today a very liveable city.
“When I was a child we lived in a small house we built ourselves, at the side of a mountain,” she says. “My father used to ride a bicycle to take me to school, and I’d often go to look at a bookstore after school – but although books were only one or two kuai I couldn’t afford them.
“After graduating from a good university, people often ask why I have come back to our small town. But I can see more and more international companies and conferences here, and new opportunities all the time.”
Xiaoxiao Pan, a lecturer at Guizhou Normal University, agrees. He originally moved back to Guiyang from Shanghai to be with his ill father, but decided he liked the lifestyle and stayed.
“Even compared to two years ago, there are many new companies going public, familiar brands, shopping malls, tall buildings,” he says.
Housing is cheap, at around 2,000 yuan (£227) a month for a central apartment, while comparatively fresher air and the lush surrounding countryside also have appeal.
Taiwanese teacher Jerry Xie chose a job in Guiyang over Beijing because of pollution concerns and affordability. “The salaries now are similar to Beijing, where the air sucks, and the cost of living here is much cheaper,” he says. “And they are eager for talented people.”
Cranes and road works
There is however, much to be done in the rebranding of Guiyang. Gui An New District is currently an enormous building site marooned in surrounding countryside. A recent survey put Guiyang in the top 10 worst Chinese cities for traffic. The skyline is dominated by cranes and roadworks, particularly around the Guizhou financial city district, and although there is an impressive new city museum, it is difficult to catch it actually open. Even a short walk in the city centre is disrupted by road blocks, construction works and closed pathways.
It also remains to be seen whether Gui An can draw China’s best tech brains from established hubs like Beijing’s Zhongguancun, the state-backed “China’s Silicon Valley”, which has been housing technology companies since the 1980s. Some experts have warned of too many companies fighting over the same niche; others express concerns there just isn’t a big enough talent pool.
“There are a lot of people who know the technicalities of how to run data warehouses or data clouds, but there are not enough people who actually understand the applications in a human way,” says tech ethnographer Tricia Wang, co-founder of consultancy Constellate Data. “This isn’t just a problem in China, but globally – what the industry lacks is people who understand the social implications of the kind of data they are tracking.
“China sorely lacks that because people are trained how to do the technological capture, but not many people are trained how to do analysis and interpretation, which requires a lot of thinking outside of the box.”
New districts also need to prove they can spread the wealth. Guizhou is home to more impoverished people than any other province, and more than one million residents live on less than 2,300RMB a year – about 50% of China’s national average. According to charity ActionAid, around half of all village women it works with in Guizhou are illiterate, while villagers in remote mountainous regions face challenges of scare land resources, soil degradation, floods and limited access to drinking water and healthcare.
“The main issue with any development project in China is the distribution of benefits,” says Sarah Rogers, research fellow at the University of Melbourne. “New developments tend to be set up close to the county town, and that’s not typically where the poorest people live. Ultimately this is about the targets set for local officials – in the past poverty has been something that nobody really cared that much about, but Xi Jinping has set “do or die” targets at local level. If you don’t meet those targets, you’re in trouble.
“You can also see from the way local government is set up that building things is what the system is designed to do. Less tangible things like training, sustainability measures, don’t really fit as neatly into the local government political system.”
There is an old saying about Guizhou which the province’s new middle classes are hoping to shake off: “You won’t find three days of good weather, three li of good road, or a family with three silver coins.” But as the urban fabric of Guiyang changes under their feet, locals don’t mind the disruption caused by roadworks and construction. Finally, their city is going places.
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Lead Image: Guiyang’s Big Data Expo: the city is attracting hi-tech companies with lower costs than Shenzhen or Beijing’s Zhongguancun; while residents enjoy cheaper housing and relatively fresh air. Photograph: Reuters
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July 13, 2017 at 03:06PM