China’s emergence as a major economic power was one of the most compelling narratives of the late 20th century. Today, the country’s transformation from manufacturing powerhouse to global centre for hi-tech industry and innovation is a defining story for the early 21st century.In what seems the blink of an eye, labour-intensive production lines have been replaced by ultra-modern factory units. Shoe factories have made way for companies championing software design. China has decisively shifted its focus from labour-intensive manufacturing to innovation and hi-tech industry.
The technological tide sweeping through China has already been paralleled by other advanced nations at different stages of their history. What makes China’s story different, however, is that the evolution is taking place at an astonishing and unprecedented pace.
No location better reflects the transformation of China in the new millennium than Beijing ETOWN – a 64-square-kilometre site in Yizhuang on the southeastern outskirts of the capital where, over the past two decades, a world-class centre for high-end industry and technology has taken shape.
In this thoroughly modern corner of the Chinese capital, a vast sprawl of former agricultural land that was once home to collective farms is now the most advanced and sought-after location in the country for innovative entrepreneurs and multinational companies.
Here, some of China’s leading companies and top entrepreneurs rub shoulders with executives from global brand names such as Mercedes-Benz, GE, Bosch, Johnson & Johnson, LG, Philips, Bayer and Shell.
Stand for a moment at one of the many busy crossroads in this meticulously planned industrial zone with its high-rise tower blocks and immense factory complexes complemented by five-star hotels and shopping malls and it is impossible to imagine that one generation ago it was farmland and rice fields.
The rise of Beijing ETOWN is a triumph of central planning and vision that few other countries would be capable of. And, as business leaders in the zone will tell you, strong government support is the driving force behind its continuing growth.
Just 20 years after the zone was approved by China’s State Council in August 1994, Beijing ETOWN is home to more than 10,000 enterprises from more than 40 countries and territories, including 120 projects from more than 80 companies listed in the Fortune 500. In that time, it has drawn in total investment of more than $40 billion. Over the past decade, its annual growth rates of GDP, total industrial output and fiscal revenue have exceeded 40%. At the end of 2013, total foreign and domestic investment had grown 36% year on year.
It is home to 485 national high-tech enterprises and – in a powerful reflection of its spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship – has generated more than 10,000 original patent applications.
The electronic information sectors account for over 50% of output value of all such enterprises in Beijing, while the biomedicine sector accounts for around 50%, the equipment manufacturing sector claims a 20% share and automobile manufacture 15% of their respective sectors.
Perhaps above all other sectors, the IT sector represents the central ambition of Beijing ETOWN in wanting to champion scientific innovation. Here, some of the most cutting edge technology in LED, digital TV, mobile communications and integrated circuits is being deployed.
Although they might not yet be household names, the Chinese companies here are world leaders in some of the most advanced technological fields, with one company featuring in this supplement making a respectable proportion of glass screens used for mobile phones and laptops worldwide.
Beijing ETOWN is also a national centre for cloud computing – a technology that one of the zone’s business leaders describes as being this century’s equivalent of the introduction of grid electricity in terms of the effect it will have on the way data is stored and retrieved.
The bio-medicine industry park meanwhile is home to some of the leading companies, such as Bayer, alongside progressive Chinese companies such as Tong Ren Tang and Sino Biological, which has produced thousands of new treatments at its state-of-the-art facility.
In the equipment manufacturing zone, companies such as Bosch, ABB, Schneider and SMC Pneumatics represent a cross-section of high-end equipment companies serving a global market from a base that has the advantage of the most modern infrastructure in the country.
The emergence of Beijing ETOWN marks a break from the past in more ways than one. Not only does it reflect a move away from a reliance on labour-intensive manufacturing but also a move towards increasingly environmentally aware practices.
The emphasis throughout Beijing ETOWN is on a green approach, with incentives and funding for companies that take steps to reduce their environmental impact, spurring a host of clear-sighted initiatives throughout the zone.
Water is used from a variety of sources to avoid wastage. Tap water, rain water, underground water and municipally renewable water, sewage water and recycled water are all carefully processed to avoid wastage. As a result, the zone was named the first National Water Conservation Demonstration Park in 2002.
Perhaps the biggest change in recent years at Beijing ETOWN in recent years, however, has been its gradual transformation from a place to work to a place to live. In the early years, most people commuted to work there from downtown because of its lack of facilities.
That is changing. The head of a leading Chinese company on the site told us: “Since 2009, there has been a big change. On the way to work, you see shopping malls, supermarkets and all kind of different facilities. A big portion of our employees have bought apartments and live here as well as work here.”
For Beijing ETOWN, that is an important step forward. It brings life and diversity into the zone and gives experts in different technological fields the chance to socialize and spend time together, fostering the cross-fertilization of ideas the zone was designed to encourage.
Already, more than 3,000 foreign professionals have brought their expertise to Beijing ETOWN. As it continues to grow, it will become more and more a place for great minds to meet – and to turn bright ideas into brilliant reality.