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Tour of the South

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"To get rich is glorious"

The state-controlled media called it the Tour of the South. Or at least they did when they got around to reporting it, two months after the Tour had been and gone. 

 

At the start of 1992, influential conservatives in Beijing who were ideologically opposed to the economic reforms that Deng Xiaoping had pioneered in the 80s – fearing that those reforms would undermine the political status quo – continued to press their foot down on the economic-development brake pedal. 

 

  Deng, believing that “Slow growth equals stagnation and even retrogression”, decided to do everything in his power to reenergise the reforms.  Instead of confronting his critics in Beijing, the 86 year-old master-strategist climbed on board a train and headed south to the cities that had been the drivers of China’s economic development in the 80s, where he would urge provincial and local governments to speed up the pace of economic development.

 

  His message was simple: Caution would be disastrous for the country; only ‘boldness’ would result in a bright future.  Or, extending the driving analogy, the message was something akin to: Don’t even think about using the brake, just put your foot on the accelerator and push it down as far as it will go.

 

  The most significant stage of Deng’s Tour of the South was his visit to Shenzhen, which in 1980 had been declared China’s first Special Economic Zone (The thirtieth anniversary of the declaration is tomorrow).  Shenzhen was the jewel in the crown of China’s economic development in the 80s, and had very much become the city that developers in other Chinese cities had looked to for ideas.

 

  And so, at 9am on 19th January 1992, Deng Xiaoping’s train pulled in to Shenzhen railway station.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

 

  Over the years, millions of migrant entrepreneurs have answered Deng’s call to turn Shenzhen into the most vibrant and prosperous city in China by putting their ‘migration anxiety’ to the back of their minds and focussing, instead, on the carrot of future wealth.

 

  I am pleased to report that 30 years on from Shenzhen’s opening up, and 18 years after Deng’s world-changing Tour of the South, the Dengesque spirit of ‘fortune favours the brave’ is as vibrant as it ever was:

 

  “Excuse me.  Would you take our photograph?”

 

  I looked around and saw that a young woman was trying to catch my attention by waving a small digital camera in my direction.  I was on my way to a meeting, but had enough time to oblige.  She wanted me to take a photograph of her and her friend with a picture of Deng in the background (poster-size photos of Deng taken during his 1992 visit here are dotted around town).

 

  “Where are you from,” the same woman asked me after I had pressed the shutter release button.  “I’m from Beijing,” I replied.  “And you two?” I asked.

 

  “We’re from Nanchang in Jiangxi province. Have you been there?”.  They were both surprised to find out that I had.  With the ice now well and truly broken I asked what had brought them to Shenzhen.

 

  “I’ve come here to do business,” replied the woman with the long hair, who was clearly the spokesperson for both of them.

 

  “My mame is Mingming and this is Xixi, she is my best friend – I call her my daughter!”.  They both laughed at the idea (Xixi is 6 months younger than the 20 year-old Mingming).  Xixi had to get back to Nanchang in three days’ time for the start of the new university year.

 

  “So you’re going back to your hometown to study electrical engineering, while Mingming is staying in Shenzhen to make her fortune,” I joked.

 

  “That’s right!” exclaimed Mingming with a glint in her eye… “I’ve come here to sell clothes on Taobao.” 

 

  I am well aware of the popularity of Taobao (often referred to as the “Chinese eBay”) and was keen to find out how Mingming was going to make money from it.  Her plan – to sell Shenzhen-made clothes and fashion accessories to buyers in Africa – was nothing short of genius: No stock, no overheads, and no risk.  All she had to do was to tailor the stock and the offer to the needs of the target audience she had in mind, and then develop relationships with the right suppliers (people who would let her post photos of their stock onto her Taobao page). 

 

  I surmised that most people she approached would be keen on the proposition, on the basis that – even if they were already selling on Taobao – the business that Mingming would be generating for them would be incremental.  A true ‘Win-Win’ relationship no less.  I congratulated Mingming on her enterprising and well thought through business plan.

 

  It’s as if Mingming (her name means ‘shining’) has been inspired by the words of Deng Xiaoping, who said:  “An important experience of Shenzhen is the courage to make breakthroughs. Without a path-breaking spirit, the ‘venturing’ spirit, morale and energy, it is impossible to blaze a trail and to create a new undertaking.”  

 

  “But won’t you miss Xixi and your family back in Nanchang?” I asked. 

 

  “Of course I will,” she replied, “But they understand that I have to grasp this opportunity”. 

 

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Mingming, Deng Xiaoping, and Xixi