Wang Yang, the Communist party secretary of Guangdong and the wealthy southern Chinese province’s most powerful official, has a nice populist touch. To honour the province’s 30m migrants from elsewhere in China who have made Guangdong the world’s largest factory, he last year invited a couple of hundred migrant workers to a movie about migrants.
More recently, he turned his charm on for executives from EDF, General Electric and Fujitsu at a meeting to discuss transforming Guangdong’s industrial base and attracting more high-tech companies.
Speaking about the need for more innovation, Mr Wang said China’s students lacked an innovative spirit. “Compared with students from developed countries, we still have a lot of room to improve,” he said. He blamed a culture of exams and a tendency for more than 2000 years to regard “a teacher’s answers as the final answer”.
That might be part of the reason, but dispassionate observers would say the lack of freedom of expression and the inability of people to vote is responsible for China’s shortcomings when it comes to innovation.
Since Mr Wang took over as the province’s leader in 2007, Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily – known for its relatively hard-hitting coverage – increasingly reads like a propaganda sheet. Chang Ping, a well-respected Guangzhou columnist, is no longer able to write articles for the city’s newspapers.
Call it contagion, but some of this is travelling across the border to Hong Kong, which enjoys an autonomous city administration under the terms of its return to China in 1997 – and, notably, a robustly critical press. Mysteriously, however, Mr Chang’s employment visa to work in Hong Kong as the editor of a magazine has been delayed by Hong Kong’s immigration department for eight months.
Last month, Mr Wang is understood to have told Guangzhou’s editors to report more freely, but on Monday he clarified and said what he wanted was more good news.
It’s hard to tell whether some celestial prankster has put something into Guangzhou’s water supply recently, but its citizens’ propensity to protest against the government’s initiatives is ever more innovative. Earlier this year, a teenager started a lone protest against the wasteful redecoration of an underground station. Another Guangzhou resident took on the city’s plan to light up the skyline at night, estimated to cost Rmb150m. He started a bizarre online effort to persuade people to shave their heads, arguing that this was a cheaper way to illuminate the city as the light bounced off their bald pates. Amazingly, 80 people joined this protest. Then, like a baton being passed effortlessly, a college student asked the city’s authorities to explain why they were spending so much money on lighting up the city’s buildings by the river. When she did not receive a satisfactory reply, she sent the authorities a rubber ball – a Chinese way of saying that the person receiving it is passing the buck.
In the past two weeks, when a couple of demonstrations turned violent after the police beat factory workers protesting a cut in wages, Mr Wang himself bore the brunt of the province’s scatological wit. Earlier this year, he had taken a leaf out of Bhutan’s playbook by suggesting that the province focus on well-being and happiness. “Happy Guangdong”, one of Mr Wang’s slogans, should now be changed to Rioting Guangdong, say his critics.
This week, Guangzhou was selected as one of the finalists in China’s civilised city campaign. Guangzhou gets our vote as a far more civilised place than Linyi City in the northern province of Shandong, also a finalist. On the outskirts of Linyi City, reporters and well-wishers of the blind human rights lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, have been brutally beaten for trying to visit him. By contrast, for months Guangzhou’s pedestrian crossings have had volunteers wearing bright yellow sashes ushering people across. There is a need for such courtesy to be transported to the mass transit system. Line 3 features a station where both sides of the subway car open and people from one platform try to cross to another line by hurling themselves in the path of people disembarking from the train. It’s more like a rugby scrum than a rugby scrum. I have a few bruises to show for it.