Shunde’s City Governance
Photo: 顺德区社会创新中心
By Henry Hing Lee Chan

Shunde’s City Governance

Jul. 08, 2019  |     |  0 comments

From 1978 to 2017, Shunde’s nominal GDP increased by nearly 650 times from 480 million yuan to 301.6 billion yuan. Annual per capita GDP increased from 600 yuan to nearly 120 thousand yuan, and annual per capita disposable income increased from 226 yuan to nearly 50 thousand yuan. The economic success brought substantial financial resources to support Shunde’s accompanying urbanization and enabled it to deal with inevitable urbanization by-product problems in education, sanitation and healthcare, pollution, transportation, safety, social stability. The buoyant economy provided a sound foundation for Shunde to implement a smooth urbanization process.

Shunde’s residential population increased from 780 thousand in 1978 to 2.61 million in 2017, and urban residents increased from 20% of the population to 98.6%. Based on population distribution, Shunde classifies as a highly urbanized area. The district experienced four phases of urbanization since the country’s opening up:  village-based urbanization in the 1980s, rural-urban integration in the 1990s, accelerating urbanization in the 2000s and urban upgrading into liveable city after 2010. Regardless of the period, Shunde has always initiated innovative governance policies based on economic and social situations of the time, and this holistic approach allowed it to avoid many urbanization pitfalls. As the forerunner of China’s market economy, Shunde’s experience on urbanization offers a lot of valuable lessons on how to integrate urban governance and economic development.

Urban governance is typically divided into hard and soft aspects. Hard aspects refer to physical infrastructures befitting a city such as environmental facilities, urban planning, transportation, communication and other domains, while soft aspects include security and social governance. The physical infrastructure aspects of urban governance have been elaborated in the article ‘Urbanization in Shunde’, and therefore this article will focus more on the soft aspects.

Hard aspect of urban governance: emphasizing proper planning and adopting the latest urbanization knowhow

The initial two phases of turning Shunde from a rural backwater to urbanized industrial city – village-based urbanization in the 1980s and rural-urban integration in the 1990s – saw the proliferation of factories across the district. Inefficient land use and poorly planned construction work were unwanted by-products of the transformation. When the district entered the accelerating urbanization phase at the turn of the century, the district government initiated a rationalization process on urban development and the move picked up momentum. In 2018, the Shunde government announced its seven top priorities which included proper planning and adopting the latest knowhow on urbanization, as well as transforming and revitalizing decrepit and poorly planned industrial parks. It also announced that its top focus for the next three years is to transform 33.3 square kilometres of inefficient village-level industrial parks into modern industrial zones. For more detailed information regarding the government’s focus and transformation of the parks, please refer to the articles ‘Shunde’s Reforms’ and ‘Shunde’s Industrial Parks’.

Hard aspect of urban governance: preserving the environment and building a liveable city

Familiar problems that rapidly industrialized cities face include the proliferation of poorly planned factories and extensive pollution problems. The same goes for Shunde. Shunde’s initial industrialization phase in the 20th century came at the great expense of the environment as industries were highly polluting and energy inefficient. In 2002, water quality index was at a dismal 0.28 and aquatic life in waterbodies was almost non-existent. The air pollution index was 0.69, average noise level was 55.4 decibels, and annual acid rain frequency was 56.3%.

In the early 2000s, the district government realized the extent of the environmental crisis and began a series of remedial efforts to mitigate the adverse effects of pollution. It introduced an industrial zoning policy and relocated factories to specific industrial zones to facilitate pollution treatment, implemented urban environmental management and industrial pollution prevention measures, and put in place water treatment measures. Rejuvenation works for old mulberry ponds and inland rivers also started. By 2014, a 24km waterfront greenbelt and a 118km green corridor was built along existing water and road infrastructure, and per capita park area of 19.2 square metres and urban centre green coverage ratio of 40% was achieved.

In 2013 Shunde started the national forest city project. Between 2011 and 2017, the district added green area and brought the total to 1,377.98 hectares, and green corridors totalled 470km. 184 new and rejuvenated parks covering 606.14 hectares were constructed, and per capita green park area was 22.39 square metres. The district’s green coverage ratio was 42.21%; including rooftop vegetation, the green ratio reached 43.9%.

In 2018, Shunde started the Greater Bay Area (GBA) forest city project. The project aims to increase afforestation area by 1,500 hectares by 2022 and increase forest coverage rate by 3.03% in urban areas.

At the moment, Shunde’s environmental remediation focus is to upgrade village-level industrial parks.

Focus of urban governance (soft aspect): prioritizing livelihood

As a forerunner in China’s economic reform and foreign trade, Shunde realized the importance of having a harmonious industrial relationship between economic and social development at an early stage. A harmonious industrial relationship indirectly promotes economic growth, and a robust economy in turn supports a more generous social spending program. Shunde captured the virtuous cycle on economic growth and social stability and was the first district in China to address employment, living condition and social security concerns of workers.

In 1984, Shunde launched the country’s first social security reform. All employees in Township-and-Village Enterprises (TVEs) under its jurisdiction were enrolled in the new social security program. Although the outcome of the reform was unsatisfactory in terms of actual coverage and implementation, the attempt provided valuable lessons for future social security reforms. A very important consequent of this reform was the public’s confidence in support of future economic reforms: the message of sharing the fruits of economic development and the presence of a caring government were embedded in people’s mind. Public’s scepticism toward reforms was lowered and the forward-looking social security reform paved the way for the reform of enterprises in 1993. In each of Shunde’s milestone that followed, the topic on social security and livelihood have featured strongly.

Shunde has been a strong advocate of the property rights reform since 1993. Although the reform affected the interest of almost everyone in the city, it was widely accepted and did not cause any large-scale social unrest because the presence of a multi-faceted social security system provided a safety net to the affected populace. The second social security reform was implemented in 1994 as a complementary policy to the property rights reform. It consolidated different social security programs, centralized collection, management and implementation, and established the main framework of Shunde’s and China’s modern-day social security system.

The third social security reform occurred in 2000 and introduced unemployment insurance. It expanded the coverage of the social security system to essentially all sectors in the economy. In 2002 Shunde introduced the first ‘social security card’ in Guangdong Province which complied with all rules and standards promulgated by the central government.

In recent years, Shunde has carried out the fourth social security reform by setting up a more comprehensive and multi-tiered system incorporating both rural and urban areas. The system succeeded to raise minimum benefit payments every year, and expanded coverage for the elderly, orphans and disabled.

Education and medical care are key concerns of every individual and family and have remained top spending priorities of the government.

During the initial years following the 1978 reform, the government focused on providing basic education and held remedial classes to raise workers’ general knowledge. Since 1980, vocational schools have also been built to train technical personnel for the then-nascent industrialized Shunde.

The 1980s target on rural-urban education integration was basically met by the 1990s, after which Shunde’s emphasis shifted to providing quality education. In 1998, urban and rural graduates achieved comparable educational attainment. Primary school enrolment reached 99.96%, junior high school enrolment 99.65%, senior high school enrolment 52.13%, and senior high school and vocational school enrolment 91.6%. In 2006, Shunde implemented a nine-year free compulsory education programme and provided free miscellaneous fees for indigent and deserving students. Primary and junior high school enrolments reached 100% and senior high school enrolment reached 99.36%.

Shunde’s education sector has three distinct features. The first is the provision of high-quality and readily accessible basic universal education so that every student has equal educational opportunities. The second is its responsiveness to the work force requirement of the economy. For a long time, Shunde emphasized vocational education to churn out graduates that fill the industry’s labour force requirement, and more recently, following the industrial upgrading requirement, the government partnered with tertiary institutions to build research institutes and provide higher calibre graduates for research and development work. The close alignment between education and economic development not only facilitates economic upgrading, it also minimizes employment mismatch between graduates and industry. The last feature is the wide variety of schools that cater to students from different backgrounds. There are schools that partner with overseas international schools, special schools for underprivileged children, and private schools at different levels catered to special needs. The provision of high-quality education nurtured qualified technical workers and is also a compelling reason for migrant families to settle in Shunde. For more information please refer to the article ‘Shunde’s Education System’.

Shunde has always been concerned about the development of its healthcare industry. Much support from the government, community and Shunde natives residing in Hong Kong and Macao have been received, and the industry has been making considerable progress. Shunde pioneered an insurance system that covers both rural and urban residents; in 1984, it implemented basic medical insurance for workers, and in 1994 for registered urban residents. Part of the insurance premium is covered by the individual while the other is covered by the government and subsidies.

To adapt to increasingly multi-faceted and diversified medical and healthcare needs, Shunde launched a healthcare institutional reform in 2009. A 3-tier grading system (primary, secondary, tertiary) was introduced in 2011 whereby hospitals are classified based on the number of beds they can accommodate and the type of services they provide. The more comprehensive services the hospital offered, the greater likelihood it will be called a tertiary hospital. Shunde’s hospitals all strived to optimize resource allocation and improved their services to attain a high ranking (A, 2A or 3A). The Number 1 District Hospital as well as the women and children’s hospital became the first two tertiary 3A hospital in the district, and all its towns have 2A secondary hospitals (most village hospitals were primary hospitals offering limited service). At the same time, Shunde carried out its comprehensive healthcare reform and set up high-quality, standardized, community-based basic healthcare centres in ten towns (streets), and most of Shunde residents could reach a community health care centre within 15 minutes. With the promotion of family doctors, the government provided 14 free basic healthcare services such as health record management, health education, vaccination, maternal health check and other healthcare services. Accessibility to healthcare facilities improved vastly over the years.

Improving livelihood of the people has always been the foremost consideration of the Shunde government. The government realized early on that livelihood holds the key to social stability in an era of rapid economic change, and that the only way for the economy to develop and for reforms to be accepted is when people are content with their situation. More than 70% of the government’s annual fiscal expenditure goes to livelihood enhancement spending. This includes physical infrastructure building as well as education and healthcare spending which enhances human capital. Prioritizing livelihood is an innovative and unique approach of city governance in Shunde.

Focus of urban governance (soft aspect): rural reform, equalizing and standardizing rural-urban public services

Shunde transformed from an agricultural-based county to an urbanized industrial city using a two-pronged approach. The first approach was through industrialization, and the second through rural area reform. During this process, Shunde learnt value lessons on grassroots governance and carried out many innovative policies to manage social tensions arising from rapid urbanization. Its success in standardizing basic public services for urban and rural folks was an important milestone for urban governance.

In the 1980’s, the household contract responsibility system allowed farmers to keep all the profit after paying a small rent to the village government. The move boosted the morale of the farmers. Shunde also benefited greatly from this system, and to further boost land productivity, the government encouraged the formation of cooperatives that resembled modern corporations in the 1990’s. This reform was a first in China.

During the early 2000s, Shunde started to reform collective assets management system by solidifying equity and quantifying assets. The move achieved three effects. It promoted urbanization and facilitated migration of villagers into the city as they were still allowed keep their share in the securitized cooperative, it boosted the morale of the farmers and encouraged hardwork,and it reduced contraditions caused by distribution.

On the issue of livelihood service, rural-urban difference over education and healthcare systems were eliminated in the 1990s. From 2004 onwards, Shunde implemented a unified household registration reform. This move was an important phase of urbanization. In 2011, it started to construct administrative service centres across all villages to improve village-level public service provision, and by 2012 there were a total of 201 administrative service centres.

In recent years, Shunde has implemented measures to improve the provision of basic services and instituted boards of supervisors in rural areas. The board of supervisors has the right to monitor and discuss village affairs, and its establishment boosted grassroots self-governance and is a meaningful institutional innovation.

Rural reform in Shunde revolved around three main areas: finding the most suitable land contract management system, developing the rural economy, and promoting grassroots governance. The district has been successful in promoting the integration of rural residents into the market economy and establishing the governance structure that integrates rural and urban societies.

Focus of urban governance (soft aspect): integrating new citizens

The success that Shunde got to enjoy in the past is not just attributable to hardworking locals, it is also attributable to the diligence of migrant talents. In the 1990s, the Shunde government and its enterprises started to attract migrant talents to supplement its labour force. In 2005, the number of talents reached 162,400 and they represented 13.5% of Shunde’s population. This talent density was much higher compared to the whole province and the country.

Economic development in the 1990s led to a wave of migrants entering Shunde. Many of them were of high calibre seeking to find opportunities in Shunde, and some were ordinary workers. However, the large influx of new people led to security problems, which brought challenges to city governnance

2005 was a watershed period for Shunde to manage its migrant population. During that year, Shunde combined the public security, housing, family planning administrations into a three-tiered, integrated management body to serve migrant workers’ housing needs. The three-tiers were on a district, town (street) and village (community) level. The goals of this single-agency approach were to strengthen management of housing arrangements, minimize fraud and illegal activities and provide migrants with a peaceful environment to work in, and promote people-oriented services like one-stop service, door-to-door service, health consultation, child vaccination and so on to the family of the migrants.

In 2010, Guangdong introduced a residence permit system to replace its old temporary system. The new permit could be used in the entire province and allows for the availment of many social services. In 2012 Shunde renamed ‘mobile workers’ to ‘off-site employees’, focusing on the ten areas of providing employment support, skills improvement, working environment, welfare protection, residential improvement, children education, management participation, rights protection, equal opportunity, and shared happiness. The government launched four projects for migrant workers and their family: provide migrants with equal social service as locals, promote the concept of home away from home, help them reach their aspiration, and provide care and affection. In 2014, Shunde renamed the migrant population to ‘new citizens’. A points system was introduced whereby accumulation of certain points will grant them residency right and their children could enjoy same schooling privileges as a local born. Points comprise of four components: basic, bonus, special and special indicators set by each town (street). Basic indicators include personal particulars, social insurance status and living condition. Bonus indicators include meeting the skill requirement in the labour market, government priority area, patent innovations and social contributions, science awards, family planning and projects participation. Each town (street) also has twenty points that can be separately awarded based on community requirement.

In the same year, Shunde established the New Shunde People Service Association to help new citizens participate in social governance. As of July 2018, 1.906 million migrants in Shunde with valid resident permits could enjoy 18 basic public service benefits provided by the government. In recent years Shunde has focused on providing basic public service benefits for the migrant population, providing them with various services in the fields of healthcare, social security, and children’s education.

Focus of urban governance (soft aspect): meeting different social service needs of a diverse population and promoting high-quality development in public service

Under the backdrop of a highly dense urban population, many urban problems related to family, youth, elderly, neighbourhood and shortage of migrants have become more serious compared to the past. In 2012 Shunde established the ‘District Innovation Centre’ whose goal is to use modern corporate management methods to improve public service deliveries, strengthen the government’s ability to provide public service, and extend services to every corner of society.

During the same year, Shunde began to build a three-tiered social service system in towns and villages. At the district level, the District Social Innovation Centre is committed to establishing an innovative public welfare support mechanism and nurturing social organizations, enterprises and talents to solve social problems. It also encourages the establishments of the Workers Association, Social Service Association, and other associations which aim to combine resources and promote self-governance. At the town (street) level, the establishment of unique social service centres, industrial park staff service centres, youth centres and other centres aim to support professional service organizations and link up talents, projects ad resources. At the village (community) level, reliance is placed on the 201 welfare associations and 174 social worker service stations to direct professional services right at peoples’ doorstep. Services cover family, elderly and youth services, drug rehabilitation and so on. As of 2018, the district has 1,820 social organizations. 117 of them have been awarded 3A grade, which is the most compared to other counties or districts in Guangdong province.

In response to the negative impacts brought by industrialization and urbanization, in particular the declining sense of belonging and involvement in societies, since 2013, a pilot project directed by the government was implemented to respond to community needs, resolve community issues, rebuild a sense of ownership, enrich community services, beautify community landscape and revitalize the economy. By end 2018, 17 community demonstration sites were identified to actively enhance cohesiveness and inject vitality in the community, creating a new pattern of grassroots social governance.

In recent years, Shunde introduced a smart administrative system that addresses consultation, appointment, evaluation and inquiry needs of the citizens. The system covers 75 administrative functions and is broadly categorized into government review and approval, non-government review and approval, and miscellaneous services. Functions covered are in the areas of administration, transportation, social security, taxation, livelihood, healthcare, travel, and industry and commerce.

Focus of urban governance (soft aspect): increasing transparency in public policy implementation

In 2012, Shunde was the first county in Guangdong province to pioneer the participatory budget scheme whereby locals were given the chance to participate in the budget formulation process. The scheme increases public involvement in government decision-making, provides more avenue for the public to voice out their suggestions, and gives them more authority to decide what they want. It is an innovative reform with regards to budget preparation and distribution. The reform has gradually matured over the years; in addition to soliciting opinions online and conducting project discussions which occurred in the early stage, current plans include on-site inspection, supervision and evaluation. 127 projects from 60 organizations, with a budget of 5.38 billion yuan involved, went through this process within five years.

In 2019, the participatory budget programme conducted by Shunde Finance Bureau and Shunde City’s website handled 39 projects with a total budget of 21.16 billion yuan. The number of projects and amount of budget involved was the highest recorded.


Shunde has accumulated a lot of valuable experiences in urban governance and improving people’s livelihood. The expansion of social services to the basic unit of society and the move toward greater transparency in government spending and policies helped to gather public support for the district government, and fits the aspiration of this generation of young, urban talent to have greater participation in public affairs and clamour for more social services. The skilful combination of soft and hard approaches of city governance has increased satisfaction level and has given a sense of well-being. In the face of inter-city rivalry to attract investment and talents under the GBA, Shunde’s drive towards a livable city is the right competitive strategy. The district is in a good position to be one of the competitive cities under the GBA.

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