Zhuhai’s High-Life Legacy


A Singapore tourist looks admiringly at paintings by an Italian Jesuit living at the Beijing court in a building modeled on portion of the palace of Louis XIV at Versailles. Outside, the rooms are painted in the rich crimson reserved for the Chinese Emperor.

This grand reconstruction of the Yuan Ming Yuan, an imperial palace destroyed by the British and French armies in 1860 and left in ruins by successive governments, is not some tourist attraction in Beiing, as one might imagine, but is instead 2,000 kilometers south, in the seaside city of Zhuhai. It is one of many grandiose projects initiated by Liang Guangda, who was mayor and party chief of Zhuhai from 1983 until the end of 1998. Local residents gave him the nickname “Da Pao,” or “Big Cannon.”

Nearly 10 years after being dismissed for profligacy and disobeying Beijing’s orders, the Big Cannon’s legacy still dominates the city – a giant airport with just eight flights a day that lost money from the day it opened, a Formula One track that is almost never used and a municipal debt that is among the highest of any city in China, about 20,000 yuan per person.

But he also left behind parks and tree-lined avenues, quality golf courses, half a dozen university campuses and a quality of air and water rare among Chinese cities. His peculiar vision of a city of tourism and leisure has survived. Instead of being lined with the wall to wall factories common in much of southern China, Zhuhai is a gateway to Macau and a booming tourist destination, albeit one with a reputation for sex and sleaze.

Liang himself was a larger-than-life character who saw the opportunities of post-reform China and made the most of the anything goes ethos of his day. Born in Nanhai, Guangdong Province in 1935, he was assigned to Zhuhai as mayor in August 1983, just three years after it had been declared “a special economic zone” (SEZ). It was a sleepy city with a population of 135,000 living off agriculture and fishing. At that time, nobody knew what an SEZ was supposed to be.

Liang realized early that the key to a successful career in the Chinese bureaucracy is to cultivate powerful backers. He made two – Deng Xiaoping, who came here in 1984 and 1992, and Li Peng, Prime Minister from 1987 to 1998 and a frequent visitor. Liang showered Li with the best accommodation, food, wine, gifts and ladies, winning support for his ambitious plans.

In 1988, he created Zhu Kuan, a company registered in Macau, that issued bonds and took out large loans from overseas banks. In 1996, its highway unit raised US$200 million in bonds backed by future revenue, the first international high-yield debt from China. Zhuhai also borrowed heavily from domestic banks.

The airport opened in June 1995, at a cost of US$870 million. With 93,000 square meters of floor area, it has the size of an international airport but not the traffic. Built in defiance of orders from Beijing to establish a local airport, it has just eight flights a day. Last year the Hong Kong airport took over its management.

After the airport he built a circuit with the hope of hosting an international Formula One race. China was sure to get one, he thought, and he was right – but Shanghai’s star power and lobbying clout was superior and it won the honor.

He also attracted six major Chinese universities to set up campuses here by giving them land and other incentives. In one case, he built a university which he planned to run himself. When he found he could not do that, he donated it, plus a gift of 100 million yuan, to Zhong Shan University of Guangzhou.

Liang’s industrial policy was also unusual, especially given China’s reputation for freewheeling growth. Attracted by the SEZ, companies came to him for permission to open a factory – but he refused most of them, saying that he wanted a “green” city. Many went to neighboring Zhongshan County, now a manufacturing center and one of the richest cities in Guangdong.

For this policy, Liang was and is strongly criticized by his subordinates and ordinary people who say that the city would be richer and have more jobs if he had approved the applications.

Things started to come undone for Liang when his investment vehicle, Zhu Kuan, stopped making paying on it debts of US$965 million. In 1999 a bitter seven-year legal battle began with domestic and foreign creditors. In 2006, the company reached a settlement to pay more than 30 creditors a total of US$393 million.

Li Peng’s patronage also could not prevent Liang from being dismissed for extravagance and accumulating the city’s enormous debt, but it did save him and his family from charges of corruption. He is living a life of comfortable retirement.

And Zhuhai has realized his vision. It is a garden city that relies heavily on tourism and second homes bought by Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan people and mainlanders, especially those who want to escape the bitter winter in the north. Its population has increased ten-fold to 1.3 million.

Every year it attracts 3.6 million mainland visitors and 1.3 million non-mainlanders. Many stay in Zhuhai’s hotel and make the short trip over the border to Macau for gambling. Many also come for sex, which is readily available. In September 2003, the city was forced to close its four-star International Conference Centre Hotel, after newspapers reported on a three-day sex romp by nearly 300 Japanese from an Osaka construction company. But business soon returned to booming normality. The hotel boasts a Golden Opera nightclub and “water sauna,” the largest in the city and open 24 hours a day.

The hotel itself has many touches of the Big Cannon – a giant lobby worthy of an airport, with palm trees and a glass roof with water running down the sides. It has a large sculpture, painted in gold, of a star rising over a map of the world.

On a recent weekend it was full with a conference of anesthesiologists. “Our average occupancy is 50 per cent during the week and about 80 per cent at the weekend,” said a floor manager. “The events of 2003 had no long-term impact.”

A taxi driver summarized it more succinctly: Sex and gambling – they are hot in Zhuhai this year.”