Urbanization in Shunde
Photo: 顺德城市网
By Henry Hing Lee Chan

Urbanization in Shunde

Jul. 03, 2019  |     |  0 comments

Cities and villages are two distinct biospheres. They are very different but there is an evolutionary relationship between the two, because all cities evolved from town and villages. Before the Renaissance and industrial revolution era, cities existed either as an administration centre or as the country’s transportation hub. Technology was backward and problems brought by a dense population, such as in public healthcare and sanitation, energy supply, pollution, transportation and livelihood could not be addressed adequately. As such, urban population was limited to only hundreds of thousands.

The problems associated with a dense population were solved as technologies evolved in the 19th and 20th century. Application of ever-advancing technology not only eradicated these problems, the emergence of urban centres also created new demand for high-end service industries which in turn created new jobs. These new jobs helped to solve the redundant labour problem brought by the mechanization in agriculture. The economic benefits brought by talent concentration and technology clusters in the urbanization drive are significant. The city’s past function as a political administrative centre and transportation hub no longer strictly apply as economic and educational functions became defining parameters of many new cities. In these cities, economic vibrancy became their reason to exist and grow.

The Industrial Revolution in the 19th century saw the emergence of many industrial cities in the west. Coal was the source of energy, and notions regarding environmental protection and social responsibility were weak. Urbanization led to many problems in governance, healthcare, education, environment and transportation. Following the shift to a service-based economy and an increase in environmental awareness, many industrial cities leveraged on existing human capital and financial resources to successfully transform into modern, liveable cities and continued to grow. However, some cities were unable to make the transition and gradually declined. One of the most notable cities in this failing class is Detroit.

Each stage of Shunde’s urbanization is accompanied by Shunde’s economic development. The urbanization process has four phases: village-based urbanization in the 1980s, integration of rural and urban areas in the 1990s, accelerating urbanization in the 2000s, and urban upgrading into liveable city from 2010 onwards.

1980s: Village based-urbanization led by village-led industrialization

In the first ten years of China’s opening up from 1978, Shunde pioneered the formation of township and village enterprises (TVEs) and the “three-plus-one” cooperative trade model. The innate ambition and daring attitude of locals also led Shunde to pioneer the country’s first attempt at industrialization. During the initial ten years of the reform, TVEs emerged in every village. This industrialization was driven by the proliferation of unplanned and poorly regulated factories. The development of TVEs played a crucial role in Shunde’s rural urbanization, and the image that Shunde carried at that time was that it was neither a village nor a town. Factories, rice fields and fish ponds interspersed with each other, farmers and factory workers lived next to each other, and town centres were scattered in the middle of the fields.

Due to its proximity to Hong Kong and Macao, Shunde developed an early awareness of urban planning. Following the opening up of China in 1978, Shunde formulated China’s first county planning initiative – the “Daliang Town 1979-1985 Municipal Plan”. In 1984, Shunde took the lead in establishing a special government agency responsible for urban planning and construction, the Urban and Rural Construction Committee. The committee unified all urban planning, land acquisition, fund raising and construction activities. It also rolled out the “Daliang Town 1985-2006 Master Plan” which formulated the development of one town centre, two growth axis and three town clusters in Shunde.

In the 1980s, the source of Shunde’s industrial labour was mainly excess local farmers who became redundant due to privatization-driven productivity improvements. There was little demand for migrant workers in the 1980s. However, this source of farmer surplus labour dried up following the rapid industrialization in the 1980s, and by the 1990s, Shunde needed outside migrant workers to sustain the industrialization drive. This influx of migrant workers negated the effectiveness of the city planning done earlier. The migrant wave can be seen in the non-hukou population number in Table 1.

Table 1. Shunde population

1990s: Rural-urban integration

In 1992, Shunde’s administrative status elevated from a county to a city. It was later selected as “Guangdong Province Comprehensive Reform Experimental City” and “Urbanization Pilot City”. The designations allowed Shunde to start a comprehensive reform which focused on government administrative reform and property rights reform. As part of the administrative reform, Shunde also pushed for rural and urban integration.

Following the implementation of the property rights reform, many TVEs were transformed into modern enterprises. Vitality was injected into these newly privatized businesses. The reform also solved the financial problems plaguing many TVEs as well as the problems faced by local village and town government sponsors, which was TVEs binge-borrowed to fund their insatiable investment appetite and that their management may siphoned out enterprise profit for private gain while leaving all liabilities to the sponsoring local government. After the reform, Shunde’s initial “three-plus-one” cooperative trade model was transformed to a higher level of industrialization. Shunde’s manufacturers became independent exporters which did not rely on outside technology and consigned raw materials.

The government’s fiscal improvement following the property rights reform accelerated Shunde’s urbanization process as Shunde started to build a city centre area and focused on transforming industrial and residential areas. The move to disaggregate the factories area from residential areas started. In 1993, Shunde started the specialized industrial township program to consolidate industries to achieve economies of scale and improve the living environment.

By the end of 1998, Shunde had a developed urban area of 63.52 square kilometres (70% more than in 1991) and the city had built infrastructure of more than 12 billion yuan since 1978. A number of residential areas with modern planning, novel design and comprehensive modern facilities were built, and living conditions improved significantly. For the first time, galleries, gardens and beautiful landscape filled the city. This period also saw Shunde standardizing urban management. Orderliness, cleanliness and beauty of the urban environment became apparent. Shunde became a unique city which combined Lingnan rural and urban cultures. 

However, the rural-urban integration exposed two vital problems. The first problem was on industrial dispersion. Shunde had more than 200 industrial zones of varying sizes and location, land utilization rate was low, and the large number of industrial estates made central planning difficult. It was difficult to build a large-scale industrial zone, and this limited industrial upgrading and enterprise development. The second problem was that the city centre was not well developed. Although the development plan called for a prominent city centre, development on the ground reflected a township image than a city centre image. Individual buildings were beautiful but on aggregate they looked uncoordinated, infrastructure construction was backward, and small sidewalk stores dominated the landscape instead of large retail malls.

In 1999, Shunde’s non-agricultural population accounted for 32.7% of the total population. Shunde itself identified mostly as a blend of rural-and-urban-integrated minor city on the way to becoming a modern city.

2000s: Accelerating urbanization

Shunde’s economy continued to grow fast at the turn of the century. In 2000, it was declared as the first pilot city in Guangdong Province to have achieved modern urbanization. For four consecutive years (2000 to 2003), Shunde ranked first in the top 100 counties in China, and in 2006 its GDP went over 100 billion yuan. It was the first county-level city to achieve that level of economic output.

With the support of a strong economy, Shunde regarded urbanization as a key indicator of modernization. In 2000 Rongqi and Guizhou merged to become Ronggui Town, and later Daliang and Desheng merged to become the new Daliang Town. The proportion of urban population in Shunde reached 58.4% in 2003, 14 years ahead of the 2017 58.6% national average.

In 2002, Shunde became a district under Foshan City. As a result, Shunde’s urbanization plan was absorbed into Foshan’s overall urbanization development, and Shunde moved to a phase of rapid urbanization. The city centre, with over one million residents from Daliang, Ronggui and Lunjiao, emerged by 2008. Public facilities like an administrative service centre, performing arts centre, library, Desheng plaza and Shunfeng park were built, forming a new city centre. At the same time, Shunde improved public facilities for Beijiao, Lecong, Chencun, Longjiang and other towns, accelerating the level of urbanization.

In 2009 the Shunde district Development Planning and Statistics Bureau was formed. The bureau approved a plan formulated by urban experts – the Foshan City Shunde District Master Plan (2009-2020) – and Shunde decided to work on integrating then isolated towns to a unified metropolitan. Henceforth, urban planning was conducted on a district level and not just on township level. The plan to eliminate town development silos was a major step in the continuing urbanization drive. The master plan also envisioned Shunde to become a key player in the Guangzhou-Foshan greater metropolitan area.

However, urban and rural development in Shunde during the 2000s remained uneven. Most of the towns at the district were not able to deliver public services expected of a modern urban area and infrastructure remained relatively backward. Progress in industrial upgrading, regional integration and coordinated development also remained slow.

2010 onwards: Urban upgrading into a liveable city

In 2010 Shunde was assigned the special status of a city district directly under provincial government supervision in the areas of economic and fiscal management, social and cultural affairs. The expanded scope of power provided good conditions for urban upgrading.

As the focus of Shunde’s industries shifted towards high-tech manufacturing, attracting high-calibre migrants to transform the economy became a priority. Upgrading the district into a liveable city became key to attracting talents and also an important consideration in terms of urbanization. The district accelerated environmental improvement works to rectify earlier legacy issues of pollution and coordinated city planning.

The focus of the 2011 urban upgrading program shifted from the earlier city-economy approach to city-economy-modern living approach. The additional consideration of modern living into city planning increased the importance of creating a conducive living environment, and as a result city planning integrated more greenery, leisure and education facilities. The change emphasized the needs to meet the aspirations of the high-end population. In 2017, Shunde became a highly urbanized area where proportion of urban residents reached 98.6%. Many towns and streets in the district also had their unique development theme.

In 2011, Shunde started the implementation of a three-year urban upgrading plan (2012-2014). The main aim of the plan was to make the district more liveable by improving Shunde’s urban clusters, living environment, public infrastructures and using smart urban technology and so on. After the three-year upgrade, Shunde pushed out another two-year extension plan (2015-2016) to improve the results of the original plan. In 2016, the five-year urban upgrading plan met its set target.

In 2011, Shunde also pioneered the construction of themed towns. Beijiao was assigned as the role of a representative town for upgrading. In 2016 and 2017 respectively, Beijiao and Lecong won the recognition as national-level special themed towns. 

High-quality developments

On January 2018, Shunde implemented a new three-year action plan to strengthen the city centre. The plan consists of developing a modern, vibrant and liveable city centre with 1.5 million people and using this to lead the pack of special, uniquely-themed towns.

Table 2. Unique development theme and industrial clusters of each town/street in Shunde

Shunde’s city upgrade program is currently proceeding smoothly. In terms of transportation, a network within and outside of Shunde have already been formed. The network follows a “30:15” guideline, whereby 30 refers to the 30-minute driving time taken from one town to the other within Shunde and 15 refers to the 15-minute driving time from any town to the nearest expressway. The current Shunde transport network will complement the transportation plan of the Greater Bay Area (GBA), whose transportation network envisions a one-hour travel time by either high speed train, car or water transport between two city centres of the eleven component cities.  For more information, please refer to the article “Shunde: A General Introduction”.


Shunde is currently building two city centres: Shunde New City and Foshan New City. These two centres are designed to provide all amenities present in a modern liveable city. Ten major projects including traffic engineering, science museum, the renovation project of Guipan river system, brightening and beautifying the city centre, the Desheng Sports Centre, half marathon race track, transforming the cultural blocks, Desheng Business District and the Shunde Tower are also underway to further improve Shunde’s city liveability.


In terms of transforming old industrial estates, Shunde’s current 205 villages house 382 small and often decrepit small village-level industrial parks. These legacy industrial parks cover nearly 9,000 hectares and accounts for 70% of industrial land in operation, and the plan is to transform 3,300 hectares of these parks to modern ones from 2018 to 2020. As Shunde sets new industrial zone clusters, the redevelopment of the old village level industrial estates into modern industrial parks will likely take some time. The project will also consider the impact on employment and the government’s overall industrial upgrading plan. For more information, refer to “Shunde’s Industrial Parks”.


In terms of environmental control, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment announced in 2018 that Shunde is a pioneering model city for eco-friendly development. In recent years, Shunde has made progress in ameliorating air, water and soil pollution. With the exception of urban sewage treatment rate (95.3%) and village environmental development rate (80.8%), Shunde achieved all the environmental improvement targets it set in 2018. Treatment of sewage, garbage and hazardous waste are the foci of future treatments. Water pollution treatment is also a focus, and the quality of water has been improving every year.


Shunde’s urbanization process has always been linked to its economic development. This approach ensures good coordination between the two factors and avoids the situation where any medium- to long-term urbanization plan implementation is derailed by sustainability problems that might arise from unexpected medium or long-term economic turbulence. It also ensures that urbanization does not negatively affect economic development or create employment and social instability. The holistic approach on urbanization and economic development is an experience that Shunde can share with other Chinese cities.

The current drive towards a liveable city is proceeding well and is very promising. The GBA plan will affect the urbanization process of the district. Shunde has the foundation for striding towards a brand new modern city and the ability to meet new challenges in the future.

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