Within living memory Shenzhen was a sleepy fishing village. Now, with Huawei at its heart, it is a digital metropolis that has set alarm bells ringing in America and Europe.
If the past is a foreign country, then the future for China’s Communist Party is the city of Shenzhen.
Hailed by President Xi during a visit this week as a model for the rest of the nation to aspire to, what was a sleepy fishing village only two generations ago is now a high-tech metropolis whose rise over its troublesome neighbour Hong Kong has been blessed at the highest level.
And at the heart of its success are several of the Chinese business behemoths that pose a threat to the established order of western technological superiority. The design of Huawei’s sprawling lakeside campus here may draw inspiration from classic European architecture, but the technology inside is so advanced that it has set alarm bells ringing across America and Europe.
Inside, drone delivery vehicles bring engineers their coffee, driverless cars are learning to navigate complex courses, and a superfast 5G network allows its 20,000 employees to work seamlessly from any corner of the 313-acre site, be it the “Heidelberg” campus pub or its “Paris” café, with unparalleled speed.
Huawei has helped turn this southern region by the Pearl river into a the global hub of innovation and entrepreneurship, a Silicon Delta that Beijing plans will lead the world in an array of technologies and which it can brandish as the shining beacon of its socialist model.
Tech companies in Shenzhen are already having a profound effect on the lives of the city’s 13 million inhabitants, who can ride its commuter trains with a wave of a mobile phone, apply for government permits online, and share medical information among hospitals with a single QR code.
But Huawei has grander ambitions to advance city life, and wants to tap a vast ocean of data from traffic patterns to power usage, from police calls to school enrolment figures, from airport flights to port freight volumes, and create a virtual computerised city simulator, where new ideas can be modelled and refined before they are applied in real life.
That is a prospect that appeals to Mr Xi.
“We must unswervingly implement the innovation-driven development strategy,” the Chinese leader said this week, “to build a technological and industrial innovation highland with global influence.”
Shenzhen, once a poor manufacturing facility for orders placed in Hong Kong, was made a special economic zone in 1980, but by 2018 it had grown to rival its neighbour’s financial clout. High-tech industries accounted for one third of the city’s economy, and more than 70,000 technology companies are headquartered here. Its local stock exchange, founded in 1990, is now the world’s eighth largest in the total value of the companies listed on it, more than those listed in Germany.
Among them is DJI, which claims 70 per cent of the worldwide market for consumer drones. Also here is Tencent, the company behind the WeChat messaging app as well as the world’s largest video games producer; and Huawei, whose connections with the Chinese government have raised security concerns that are at the heart of American and Chinese global rivalry.
Critics say its hardware can intercept data and messages, and it is legally obliged under Chinese law to hand over any information it collects if Beijing wants to see it. The company has denied that it does either ofr those things. Its founder, Ren Zhengfei, was in the audience listening to Mr Xi this week.
They also say that China’s rush to technology supremacy allows the state to indulge in digital authoritarianism, allowing Shenzhen’s tech giants to conduct pervasive surveillance, trawling vast shoals of personal data.
It became the first Chinese city to use facial recognition technology, equipped with high-resolution cameras and fast computing, to identify anyone jaywalking at pedestrian crossings. The offender would then be shamed by projecting their personal information on to a big screen next to the traffic lights. It was reportedly linked to your “social credit score”, a measure of individual behaviour, which can restrict access to financial or other services if it falls too low.
Yet two years after they were introduced, the shame screens have gone dark. “Maybe the public does not like it,” suggested a taxi driver.
Plenty of other technological innovations though have been warmly embraced. Train tickets are a thing of the past as a wave of your mobile phone allows anyone through the turnstiles of Shenzhen’s Metro and deducts the fare directly from your bank account.
Shenzhen residents can also use a personal QR code to share medical test results, diagnoses and prescriptions across hospitals and clinics.
Acquiring a residency permit no longer depends on the mood of a local bureaucrats as the paperwork can be uploaded online before the certificate subsequently arrives on your doorstep.
Huawei is at the heart of much of this drive and is helping the Metro system install as many as eight high-resolution cameras on the outside of each train car to detect any mechanical irregularity, and is helping the city’s airport optimise its use of its gates, which is estimated to have saved 4 million passengers a year the hassle of taking a shuttle bus between the terminal and their plane.
But it is Huawei’s virtual city simulator that has urban planners most excited. This “intelligent twin” of Shenzhen will analyse and compute vast layers of data, from traffic and pedestrian flows to power consumption, building statistics, or police calls, and allow policymakers to try out new ideas on the virtual model.
“The project aims to build an integrated deep learning system for citywide co-ordination, enabling a smart city that is perceptive, conscious, evolvable, and familiar,” Huawei said when it revealed the project last month.
It might even have been able to tell that the plan to shame jaywalkers was not going to be popular.