International cooperative development in Zhejiang province

Reports from visitors to Beijing and Shanghai describe the People’s Republic of China as a human beehive in a rush to catch up with Western modernity. Huge investment is evident in rapid growth, urban expansion and endless construction. But what happens outside these giants?

I recently had a chance to visit the province of Zhejiang, which is situated on the southeast coast and bordered to the north by the Yangtze River. The provincial capital is Hangzhou, a city of 6.7 million people built on a lagoon area called West Lake, two hours’ drive south of Shanghai. Ten years ago, the province embarked on an international cooperative development program to get out from under the overpowering shadow of the giant to the north.

This kind of initiative, which can be found in other provinces as well, reflects a program sometimes termed economic federalism. Politically China remains highly centralized in Beijing, yet responsibilities for local development are being devolved to the provinces. Numerous programs invite international scholars, media and business people to experience the provinces’ distinctive cultures and learn about their economic development first-hand. Particularly interesting initiatives in Zhejiang include Xihu, China’s Silicon Valley; a number of Modern Garden Villages; and the Hengdian World Studios.

Xihu has six technical parks housing 56 corporations that are part of the fast-growing digital entertainment industry, supported by synergetic alliances with the Digital Media Centre of Zhejiang University of Technology and the Design Centre, also at Zhejiang University. Located here is the second most important dot-com company in China, Of the 5,000 employees (average age 22), half were trained in programs coordinated with the provincial universities.

After land was denationalized in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many peasants migrated to the large cities. The problems associated with this migration gave rise in Zhejiang province to the Modern Garden Villages program. One such village is near Dongyang City, 120 kilometres from Hangzhou. It covers five square kilometres and has an active population of 4,476, distributed into 1,737 peasant households.

The village structure is not a cooperative or a commune but rather a kind of corporation with shares, individual enterprises and private housing, all directed primarily toward agricultural production. Control is in the hands of the largest shareholders, who are Communist Party members. Daily agricultural work is an obligation in this capitalist-oriented economy. There is no recourse for protest – no unions – in this enterprise imposed from above.

The Hengdian World Studios are a subsidiary of the large Hengdian Group, which owns hotels and tourist attractions including Dreamland, a theme park based on Chinese history and culture. In the past ten years it has been the site of more than 300 film productions from 30-plus countries, specializing in low-cost large productions such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have recently signed contracts for using the production facilities.

Despite this frenetic process of catching up with Western modernity, there is a powerful and growing undercurrent of desire to return to the study of the teachings of Confucius. While Mao has been reconstructed as a sort of benevolent grandfather of the People’s Republic of China, and Deng Xiaoping is seen as the father of modern China, the rising classes are showing great curiosity about the teachings of Confucius and the dynasties of the past.

At the Confucius Ancestral Temple of the South in Quzhou, built in 1253, Confucian scholars combine pride in membership in the Communist Party and in the teachings of Confucius that stress communitarianism and antimaterialism. Confucian schools (once banned) and reenactments of ancient historical events are popping up everywhere, and educated young people are delving into the philosophy of the ancestral teachings.

How a mixture of the ultramodern and the ancient will ultimately work out is anybody’s guess, but the province of Zhejiang will continue to afford visitors a fascinating insight into the process.