Shunde: A General Introduction
By Henry Hing Lee Chan

Shunde: A General Introduction

Apr. 01, 2019  |     |  0 comments

Shunde is one of the five administrative districts of Foshan city in Guangdong province. It is located in the middle of the Pearl River Delta and is adjacent to Guangzhou, the central city of the Delta. Shunde is also near to Guangzhou South Railway Station, Nan Sha Port, Baiyun Airport and other important hubs in Guangzhou, enhancing its transportation advantage. The district is also adjacent to Zhongshan and Jiangmen. And the newly built longest bridge in the world — the 55-km long Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge is just about 1 hours’ drive from Shunde, providing easy access to Hong Kong and Macao.

Figure 1. Vicinity within one hundred kilometres of Shunde

The land area of Shunde is 806 square kilometres, and it has 205 villages (communities) under four subdistricts and six towns. Ranked by population, the 4 subdistricts are Daliang, Ronggui, Leliu and Lunjiao, and the 6 towns namely Xingtan, Beijiao, Lecong, Longjiang, Junan and Chencun. The resident population is 2.61 million, and the population with resident registration (hukou) numbered 1.39 million at the end of 2017. There are more than 500,000 Shunde people who are living overseas. As of the end of 2017, the proportion of permanent residents in Shunde’s urban areas was as high as 98.58%. From the perspective of population indicators, Shunde has taken the lead in achieving a high degree of urbanization.

Table 1. Shunde subdistrict/town overview

Geography and climate of Shunde

Shunde is located in central area of the Pearl River Delta, with more than 2.5 kilometers of waterways per square kilometer. The criss-cross river network accounts for 37.4% of the entire area of the district. Most of Shunde’s land consists of fertile alluvial plains, endowing the area with one of the most favourable agricultural production conditions in China. Shunde has been one of the wealthiest counties in China since the time of the Song dynasty.

The climate is sub-tropical with a yearly average temperature of 22.3°C. The temperature in winter rarely drops below 10°C, and for more than one-third of the year it stays above 30°C. Annual humidity ranges from 72% in December to 85% from April to June.

History of Shunde

Shunde’s history can be traced back to Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) when the central government set up the Nanhai County in the area. The place remained sparsely populated until the late Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) when northerners massively migrated to Guangdong province to escape from the onslaught of the Mongols. The official name ‘Shunde county’ was adopted in 1452 AD during the Ming dynasty.

In 1992, Shunde County became a county-level city and was renamed Shunde City. In 2003, Shunde City was absorbed by Foshan — the neighbouring prefecture-level city, and became one of its districts.

As early as the Song dynasty, the place was well-known as the county abounding with fish, fruit, and rice. In the Ming dynasty, the implementation of the integrated mulberry tree and fish pond agronomy model helped the establishment of Shunde’s silk industry. Shunde became the famous ‘Silk Capital of South China’ and the ‘Bank of Canton’ by the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century. The latter designation reflects the wealth accumulated by Shunde’s wealthy merchants in silk and other trades that underpinned the banks at the nearby provincial capital  — Canton (Guangzhou).

The economic history of Shunde is more important than its political one. The district has repeatedly played an important pioneering role in China’s reform and opening up that began in 1978.

Shunde is a microcosm of China’s success story

Shunde was a pioneer in the opening up of China in the 1980s. It set up some of the first ‘three-plus-one’ cooperative trade enterprises of the country as early as the late 1970s. The ‘three-plus-one’ model means the mainland factory take the three items — materials for processing, materials for assembling, and the product sample — and the ‘one’ refers to the compensation for the labour provided in the production.

In short, the state-owned or collective enterprise process imported raw materials, manufactured or assembled products according to the imported samples, and used the products to repay imported equipment and technology loans provided by foreign companies. Shunde established the 'Shunde model' for the development of township enterprises and became the first of the 'Four Tiger Cubs of Guangdong'.

The ‘three-plus-one’ model became popular in the Chinese coastal area in the late 1980s, with all the participating enterprises exporting their products abroad. By earning the processing fee, they become the primary force in the processing trade. This model played a vital role in promoting China’s trade development during the early 20 years of China’s reform and opening up. Until now, various forms of processing trade still account for a large part of China’s total export trade.

Shunde is also a pioneer in China’s property rights reform. In 1992, Shunde was identified by Guangdong provincial government as a comprehensive reform pilot county (city) which took the lead in promoting comprehensive reforms with the reform of the property rights system as the core. Since then, a large number of state-owned enterprises and collective enterprises were transformed. The Shunde experience was replicated in many parts of the country. In 2018, two of the world’s Fortune 500 companies came from Shunde: Midea (ranked 323) and Country Garden (ranked 353), both were the products of marketization in the early 1990s. The early reforms laid the basis of the Shunde economic model, which is dominated by private enterprises.

In 1999, Shunde was missioned to be 'the pilot city taking the lead in basically realizing modernization'. In 2009, Shunde was identified as a pilot area for the implementation of 'the Scientific Outlook on Development' and took the lead in launching a series of comprehensive reform experiments focusing on administrative system reform, social system reform and grassroots governance reform. In 2018, Shunde was approved to build the pilot zone for the reform and innovation of high-quality development system in Guangdong Province.

The ingenuity of Shunde’s populace in charting new paths has contributed to be chosen as the pilot area whenever the central government starts a new wave of reforms. Since the reform era of 1978, Shunde’s people have been making the best use of the advantage of geographic position, the strength of policy-making, and the ingenuity of Shunde people. They have transformed Shunde from a traditional agricultural county into a fast growing industrial district marching towards the new technology-based economy. At the same time, they have shared their development experience with others and have promoted the overall growth of the country.

The culture of Shunde

Shunde has a long and rich cultural heritage. The county produced famous painters such as Li Zichang, Zhao Xianming, and Liang Yuanzhu in Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD). The renowned painter and calligrapher Li Jian and Su Renshan in Qing dynasty, were both from Shunde. Among the nine Guangdong scholars of the imperial court examination from Song to Qing dynasties (960-1911 AD), three are from Shunde.

Shunde is considered one of the cultural hubs of Guangdong. It has 24 items of intangible cultural heritage. It is one of the birthplaces of Cantonese opera. Of the five popular singing styles of the Cantonese opera, three can be traced to Shunde’s opera singers. In 2007, Shunde was declared ‘The Chinese Folk Art Hometown’ in recognition of its contributions to Cantonese folk opera.

The rise of modern textiles relegated the Shunde silk industry to irrelevance in the 20th century. However, the handcrafted gambier Canton gauze (gambier Canton silk) maintains its niche, featuring the unique silk production process of repeatedly dyeing the silk with gambier juice and then covering it with iron-rich native soil adds a unique bactericidal property to the silk. The silk is ideal for buyers who suffer from skin allergies. The handcrafted silk has an annual production of around two hundred thousand meters and often serves as a souvenir item representing Shunde.

The most famous Shunde cultural heritage is undoubtedly its culinary arts. In 2014, UNESCO proclaimed Shunde as the ‘City of Gastronomy’ under the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, and it was the second Chinese city after Chengdu to receive the coveted award. A popular saying in China goes, ‘Eat at Guangzhou, but the cook must be from Shunde’ — highlighting the culinary skills of Shunde’s chefs. Guangzhou is the provincial capital with the complete assortment of ingredients, highest consumption power, and greatest appreciation for good food. However, it is the culinary skill of Shunde’s chefs which transform the ingredients into delicious food. The legend goes that a good Shunde chef can cook a fish in two hundred different ways.

Cantonese cuisine is one of the eight major Chinese culinary types and it emphasises the natural flavours of the ingredients and avoids the use of condiments. The people of Shunde were among the earliest emigrants who went abroad at the end of 19th century in search of a better life, and they often brought their culinary arts along with them and operated Chinese restaurants anywhere they settled. Many foreigners today take Cantonese food to be representative of Chinese food.

The most famous personality of Shunde is Bruce Lee (1940-1973), the kung-fu superstar who passed away at the young age of 33. His father was Lee Hoi-Chuen, a famous Cantonese opera singer who hailed from Shunde. Although Bruce Lee was born in the United States and never lived in Shunde, the people of Shunde still consider him to be their folk hero, and they have built a park in his memory.

Dragon boat racing is another famous cultural heritage of Shunde. Every year on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar, Shunde’s residents will unearth the dragon boats that they buried the previous year and compete in a dragon boat race. The entire village will watch the race and then dine together. After the dragon boat race and the dinner, the people will bury the dragon boat again under the mud of the riverbed in the shallow waters nearby. Shunde is known as the 'Hometown of Chinese Dragon Boats'.

An outstanding architectural relic of Shunde is the Qing Hui Garden built in 1621 by Huang Shijun (1570-1661 AD), one of the top scholars in the imperial examination. The 3,400 square meter garden is considered a classic Chinese garden with unique Southern Chinese elements. It is considered to be one of the top ten traditional Chinese gardens in the country.

Figure 2. The folk culture of Shunde. Leftmost clockwise: Cantonese opera, production of gambier Canton silk, Shunde gastronomy, martial arts, dragon boats, Qing Hui Garden

Transportation in Shunde

The Shunde transportation network is one of the most well developed in the country. The road density in the district is more than 200 km per 100 square km, which is higher than other cities in the Pearl River Delta. It is also way above the national average of less than 50 km per 100 square km.

Figure 3. Road density in the cities of the Pearl River Delta (km per 100 square km)

Shunde has invested substantially in recent years on its district road network. There are seven highways which traverse Shunde covering all ten subdistricts and towns. Shunde’s highway length of 108 km at 13.4 km per 100 square km is three-and-a-half times that of Guangdong’s provincial average and is almost ten times the national average. The city road network is now 30:15, that is, 30 minutes to each town, and 15 minutes to the highway entrance from anywhere in Shunde.

Figure 4. Highway network of Shunde

Shunde’s railway and subway transportation has improved significantly in recent years. The Guangzhou-Zhuhai Intercity Railway is completed in 2012, and there are five stations at Shunde. The second phase of the Guangzhou-Foshan Metro Line 1 connects to Foshan New Town (Lecong Town in Shunde). The Guangzhou-Foshan Ring Line, Foshan Metro Line 2 and Line 3, and the Guangzhou Metro Line 7 extension are under construction and are expected to be completed by 2022.

Figure 5. Shunde railway network link with nearby key destinations

Guangzhou Baiyun Airport and the Guangzhou South Railway Station are the regional air and rail hubs of Southern China. Their excellent connections with Shunde makes the district one of the most convenient places to reach in China.

The Shunde Rongqi cargo port has ten berths that can accommodate inland cargo vessels as large as 3,000 tons. The port is the third largest inland water cargo port in Guangdong Province and handles eight hundred thousand containers in addition to three million tons of other general cargo annually. Smaller multi-berth inland water ports at Beijiao and Leliu can handle smaller cargo vessel of 2,000 and 1,500 tons vessel respectively. The new Shunde cargo port can berth ships as large as 5,000 tons, but the annual throughput is smaller at 96,000 containers and 1.6 million tons of general cargo in its initial phase. The four cargo ports provide linkages to the principal container ports at Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong.

There is a passenger terminal at Shunde port that provides ten trips to Hong Kong daily. The connectivity of Shunde by air, land, and sea is excellent for both cargo and passengers.

The Shunde economy: Industry at its core

Shunde is an important manufacturing base in the Pearl River Delta. In 2017, the first, second and third industrial structure of Shunde was 1.5%: 56.3%: and 42.3%. Shunde’s industry is characterized by industrial clusters, local brands, private enterprises and high proportion of local components in their products.

In 2017, Shunde had eight pillar industries, including home appliances, machinery and equipment, furniture manufacturing, fine chemicals, electronic information, textiles and garments, printing and packaging, and medicine and health care. The industrial output value of the eight pillar industries accounted for 77.8% of the industrial output value of enterprises above a certain designated size. In recent years, Shunde has successfully developed three major industries, that is, jewellery, auto parts and lighting. Thanks to the huge manufacturing industry in Shunde, the e-commerce trade has also risen rapidly.

Figure 6. The production value of the eight pillar industries of Shunde

Shunde’s industrial clustering

Industrial clustering is an outstanding feature among the townships of Shunde. Eight out of the ten subdistricts and towns have their own traditional signature industries. The district ranked for seven consecutive years (2012-2018) as the top district in the ‘Top 100 Districts of Comprehensive Competitiveness.’

Figure 7. Industrial clusters in Shunde townships

The home appliances industry is an apt illustration of industrial clustering. The home appliances cluster located at Beijiao and Ronggui have more than 3,200 companies in different parts of the production chain. A vast majority of the companies in the cluster are privately owned, and the presence of both large, medium and small players in the industrial production chain allow for specialization and complementation. The industry associations plays a crucial role in technology sharing, and demonstrate Shunde’s great entrepreneurial spirit.

Shunde has developed numerous home appliances brands. By the end of 2017, Shunde had 9 nationally famous brands — Midea, Hisense Kelon, Macro, Galanz, Ronshen, Vanward, Canbo, DonLim and Bear, which account for almost one-third of all nationally famous home appliance industry brands. It also has 31 well-known Guangdong provincial brands. There are also 57 well-known Guangdong provincial products, such as Midea refrigerators, Kelon air-conditioners, Galanz microwave ovens, Macro gas heaters and water heaters, and Vanward gas heaters.

A similar industrial situation can be found in the other pillar industries. The robust industrial clustering which maximizes local component inputs and holds down costs, the development of local brands which produce quality products,the private sector domination of businesses and the entrepreneurship of Shunde’s businessmen, are intangibles behind the success of Shunde as the bastion of local privately owned manufacturers in China. By the end of 2017, there were 74 private businesses with annual sales of more than one billion yuan in Shunde. These are called the ‘hidden champions’ in their respective fields. The private sector accounts for more than 77% of the industrial production in 2017.

Shunde runs a large trade surplus as compared to other cities in the Pearl River Delta. The district exported 138.31 billion yuan and imported 38.13 billion yuan in 2017. This figure can be contrasted to Dongguan City’s export value of 702.74 billion yuan and import value of 523.7 billion yuan and the corresponding values of 1,653.36 billion yuan and 1,147.79 billion yuan for Shenzhen. The comparison illustrates the success of the locally centric industrial model of Shunde in keeping its earnings at home.

At the moment, Shunde is working on industrial upgrading in its pillar industries through projects implementing Technology Shunde. The home appliances and other pillar industries are facing the pressures of fast changing technology and rising labour costs. Hence there is a call for smart manufacturing to keep costs down and quality up. One of the critical industrial transformation goals is to implement intelligent manufacturing systems in the pillar industries. The government is setting up a robotation (robots plus automation) industrial park with Midea and Kuka to draw multinational and private companies to the location. The emergence in recent years of robotics companies in Shunde attests to the progress in this area.

The Shunde government is implementing the strategy of 'One City, Three Areas', focusing on building the Shunde New Downtown. The northern part will focus on industrial services and innovation, and the key development platform is the Sino-German Industrial Service Area. The eastern district will be an intelligent zone led by scientific research groups and financial departments, with a focus on Southern Wisdom Valley. The southwest area will develop environmental protection technology and intelligent manufacturing technology to meet the needs of industrial upgrading and innovation. The key platform is Shunde High-Tech Zone.

Figure 8. ‘One City Three Areas’ development plan

Shunde is a manufacturing hub in the Greater Bay Area of Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macao. In the future of the Greater Bay Area, Shunde will play an important role in the smart manufacturing industry and other manufacturing industries in which Shunde has production advantages.


Shunde’s story is a microcosm of China’s reform and development. The Shunde model counts among other successful regional economic models, including those of Shenzhen, Kunshan, Dongguan, and others. A closer look at the Shunde model will reveal the challenges and possible solutions to the continuing reforms that China must undertake now to avoid the ‘middle-income trap’ and the difficulties that will arise from its economic transformation.

This paper is the first article in IPP Review’s eighteen-part series on the Shunde story. Through this series, we hope our readers will gain a better understanding of the China story.

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