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Dongguan: Looking Back on 10 Years

In 2010 Dongguan was just getting over the global recession of 2008 and had the foresight to evolve faster than the world around it, making the conscious decision to switch from a low-tech industry to high-tech.

In 2011 WeChat was released, pushing the agenda of social media.

In February 2014, the most significant change to the city came with the very public crackdown on Dongguan’s infamous prostitution industry. The social activity was quickly put to an end, trickling down and affecting the beauty and salon, food and beverage, spa and hotel industries.

In 2015, after a decade of being open, the New South China Mall started to become occupied by shops. This is the second largest mall in the world by leasable area.

In July 2019, OPPO announced their groundbreaking in Chang’an for a new research and development center.

These are just a few of the notable events that have shaped Dongguan in the past decade.

The city made a name for itself as the manufacturing capital of the world resting in the heart of the Greater Bay Area (GBA), between the two powerhouse cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, and attracted business from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. This boosted its economy and growth over the past 10 years, which contributed to a ripple effect, changing not only the city’s business presence, but also causing its infrastructure to expand, change in social ideology and even the foreign populations increased.

The next 10 years plan to mirror the past on a grander scale as it conforms to the GBA Plan. The plan involves integrating nine cities and two Special Administrative Regions (Hong Kong and Macau) into one megacity to drive the Chinese economy.

Take a look at Dongguan’s evolution over the decade as we prepare to move into the roaring 2020s.

Wai Guo Ren

Dongguan’s foreign population has shifted dramatically in the past 10 years, with families moving here from other nations for work. Eventually they called the city home, raising their children and making it the world they know.

For the new arrivals there is little shock value compared to those who arrived 10 years ago due to an established expat community and sub-communities in place. Yes, there are still a few curious looks and an occasional photo opportunity from local residents, along with the “oh, China” moments, but Dongguan has since become a bubble that is easy to navigate.

Visa

In 2010 the average foreigner in Dongguan carried a tourist visa, which would not allow them to permanently reside in the mainland and had to make trips to Hong Kong or Macau for renewal. The ideal travel document to work and live in China was a Z visa, which allowed for a residence permit 30 days after entering, and until recently was difficult to obtain without certain requirements (a diploma being the main one).

In February 2017 China implemented a point system for internationals to obtain a work visa and make up in some areas for others that are lacking. This would make it easier for most to apply and be approved, while China gets more focused talents and taxes paid.

Lifestyle

The decade has changed Dongguan from a city of motorcycles and bicycles to a city of cars, with various imported cars seen on the roads. This is just one of many examples of the city’s shift in quality of life and wealth.

The shift is credited to the surge in middle to upper class citizens seen between 2012 and 2015. Import stores kept opening along with more expat bars and restaurants. Some came and went, but others stuck around, expanding their business ventures.

“We now have access to a lot more variety and it seems the market has opened to include a multitude of imported goods that I remember being much more costly 10 years ago, if available at all,” Matt Marshall, long-term China expat and owner of Murray’s Irish Pub, said.

He mentioned an introduction/explosion in craft beer breweries, traditional barbershops and secret bars in every town, paving the way for a thriving nightlife.

Language

To live in Dongguan, one must wonder if learning basic Mandarin is a must anymore, between numerous translation apps and a large number of English-speaking Chinese. However, 10 years ago with translation apps not so accurate, navigating social interactions was a “painstaking process” according to nine-year expat Michael Kelly.

Trends in the past two years show foreginers taking particular interest in learning the language with HSK being recognized by more and more countries, as well as counting as points towards a Z visa application.

Social

As the city grew so did its social ideologies, not able to hold back the tide of international influence. City officials continued to implement environmental regulations as the know-how became available.

Although many still question the air quality today, it has significantly improved in the past years, changing from days when the air was gray to blue skies often being seen.

Focus was also placed on improved health care. There were 2,229 medical institutions in 2010, 78 of which were hospitals. By 2018 the number had risen to 2681 medical institutions, with 99 hospitals. The Dongcheng area now has two Western clinics: Global Doctors and YYL.

Environment

In 2011 Dongguan was named a National Model City for Environmental Protection and began strengthening its approach to the relationship between industry and the environment. It implemented ways to cut down on environmental waste and became one of the first 45 pilot cities in China to build a water ecological park in 2013. Dongguan continued to push a 45 percent coverage of green space and has the interconnecting GD Greenway, Green Belt and Green Corridor throughout the city.

The parks in Dongguan have expanded from 1004 parks in 2010—including those built by communities and villages—to 1200 parks in 2018 and is credited for maximumly utilizing the areas available for greenspace.

Education

The education system in Dongguan has seen consistent improvements with many new facilities and programs offering a higher quality of learning.

An increase in international and foreign language schools were seen in the past decade. In 2012 the International School of Dongguan (ISD) opened its doors, and QSI and EtonHouse have expanded their campuses in recent years.

Educational institutions have started developing facilities and hiring professionals for students with learning disabilities.

In 2010 there were 727 kindergartens, 330 primary schools, 150 junior middle schools and 40 high schools. In 2018 there were 1,125 kindergartens, 328 primary schools, 198 junior middle schools and 42 high schools and two special education schools.

Charity

Treasures of Hope (TOH) opened in 2009, and has since been dedicated to serving children, youth and adults in need throughout China. Their store, which is open year-round, sells donated items from factories.

In 2016, to comply with the new China charity laws, TOH joined the Shenzhen Charity Federation, creating the TOH Foundation.

In August, 2019, they moved their shop to 33 Town, offering higher visibility in a more centralized area. In November, they opened their Christmas store, which offers an array of holiday decorations and gifts.

Business

Dongguan’s future was unclear 10 years ago, with factories closing and a large number of migrant workers forced to go back to their hometowns. However, today, many new companies are starting up.

Dongguan became the GBA’s fastest growing economy in 2019, reaching a GDP of 7.2 percent at its peak, averaging at 6.9 percent in the first half of the year.

Industry Shift

Dongguan was the city known for the “Made in China” tagline, and in some areas it still is. It was the fourth largest exporter after Shanghai, Shenzhen and Suzhou.

The industry has shifted through a number of peaks and valleys, as manufacturers drifted away from South China to cheaper areas of Southeast Asia. This is credited to a combination of the increase of material costs, as well as higher demands in salary.

To support the new demands, manufacturers needed to produce products with a higher value and attract more focused talents.

High-Tech Boom

The world was seeing itself move into a new age in 2010, and Dongguan had foresight to change from textiles to technology after the 2008 global recession. Tech giants Huawei, OPPO and Vivo began to build in Dongguan. These are three of the top five phone brands in the world and an estimated one in every five phones are made in Dongguan.

“The so called hi-tech boom really didn’t become substantial until the knock-off Nokia, iPhone and Samsung makers started realizing that they have piggy-back-ridden off of the name brands well enough, and now they have a few dollars in hand, it might be a smart thing to do to be branded, too. So, investments started raining from the sky left and right, and this is exactly when people started noticing that being smart and making clever gadgets is not just a cool thing to do and it pays pretty well, too,” Rickey Lin, business incubation expert and director of counseling at Inno17, said. He added the buildup to today has not only happened over the past 10 years, but 15 years.

Factories

Factories have since stepped away from the excessive mass production that was seen through the 2000s and early 2010s and are focusing on smart technology.

“What’s happening to the factories is that they are all in a deep limbo trying to figure out what could make them smarter, faster, more efficient, and much more profitable,” Lin said.

By September, 2019, there were an estimated 178,351 industrial enterprises in Dongguan, according to a Dongguan government report.

While upgrading the city’s traditional manufacturing sectors, extra focus was placed on research and development centers, concentrating on robotics and smart technologies mainly in the Songshan Lake area. This increased the value of products, as well as the area.

Infrastructure

The basic framework making up Dongguan’s roads and buildings has evolved to provide a more efficient way of life, bringing about the continuous expansion of Dongguan Avenue and other roads that connect the city. Skyscrapers started to go up in designated areas, with the construction of the Dongguan TBA Tower finishing in 2013, and the construction on the Dongguan International Trade Center, Tower 1, beginning in 2014. The tower is scheduled to be finished by May 2020.

To maintain the integrity and openness of the city’s use of greenery, skyscrapers are limited to certain areas.

Transportation

Some may remember the days before DiDi, having the option between a taxi (often having to haggle a way into a decent price) or the bus.

Today there are an estimated 3 million cars registered in Dongguan, which increases by 200,000 cars each year. In 2016 the first subway line opened, with Line 2 connecting 16 stops from Humen Railway Station to Dongguan Railway Station. This has contributed to the build up of areas along the line. On September 23, 2018, the Humen high-speed railway connecting Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou to Dongguan opened.

China has always been a nation of bicycles, but Dongguan saw the explosion of smart-city bike-sharings conveniently placed on the sidewalks, with OFO (2014), Mobike (2015), Hellobike (2016) and DiDi Bike-Sharing (2017).

Real estate

The value of land dramatically increased after 2010, with property buyers seeing another increase in 2016. The construction of the railways and soon to be metro lines connecting the cities is credited to attracting buyers from Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

However, compared to Guangzhou and Shenzhen, the property prices are still reasonable, with some of the most expensive properties at the border between Dongguan and Shenzhen. To buy an apartment in the city center is an estimated 24,650 RMB per square-meter and outside the city center is an estimated 18,350 RMB per square-meter.

As expected, the cost of housing has increased; however, for most the average income still outweighs the cost of living.

Venues

On the surface it may seem the only social options in Dongguan reside in bars, however other venues have blossomed.

In 2010 there were an estimated 46 cinemas in Dongguan, according to the 2011 Dongguan City Fact Manual. The number increased to 79 in 2016.

Over the years Dongguan saw the construction of Dongcheng Wanda Plaza, opened 2014, and Houjie Wanda Plaza, opened 2015, and the completion of the DG Mall in 2018. These locations have brought a plethora of activities for individuals to take part in, such as shopping, arcades and fun parks.

Dongguan Flashbacks

2010 225 kilometers of the GD Greenway Cycling Path opened in Dongguan, making it one of nine cities in the 2,200-kilometer network.
2011 The Dongguan Dragons Baseball Club was founded.
2012 April, Huawei announced plans to build 120-hectare campus in Songshan Lake.
2013 Plans to build a Wanda Plaza in Chang’an were announced, making it the third Wanda Plaza in Dongguan.
2014 February, the infamous prostitution crackdown occurred.
2015 Mobike launched in Dongguan.
2016 May 27, the first Dongguan Subway Line (Line 2) opened, with 16 stops.
2017 Dongguan became a first-tier city.
2018 Dongguan Metro offered more payment options with Apple Pay and Union Pay options.
2019 August to September, Dongguan was a host city for the FIBA World Cup.