What Is the Pearl River Delta (PRD) and Why Is It So Important to China?


Written by Lisha Pace

Updated: October 14, 2022

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The Pearl River Delta (PRD) had been outpacing the rest of China in terms of economic growth and innovation. The region located around the Pearl River estuary, is one of the world’s most successful economies, with its gross domestic product (GDP) of more than $1.2 trillion, bigger than that of Indonesia and other developing and underdeveloped nations. From 2007 to 2017, PRD’s economy has been growing at an average of 12% annually. In 2021, PRD’s GDP increased by 7.9% compared to the previous year.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. In the late 1970s, this fertile river delta north of Hong Kong was an agricultural land. Shenzhen only had a population of 30,000, while China, by large, was still a rural and communist country. The maze of streams and canals that make up the PRD reached as far as Huizhou and Zhaoqing. The delta also passed through the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.

Here’s the 2021 population of the municipalities and special administrative regions of the PRD:

Shenzhen12.59 million
Dongguan10.5 million
Zhongshan2.9 million
Jiangmen1.7 million
Huizhou2.6 million
Zhuhai1.8 million
Foshan7.4 million
Guangzhou13.6 million
Zhaoqing1 million
Hong Kong7.55 million
MacauApprox. 666,000

Where Is the Pearl River Delta?

The PRD (Zhu Jiang Sanjiaozhou in Chinese) is also called Canton Delta. It is a maze of extensive low-lying streams and canals that run through several municipalities and special administrative regions, starting from Guangzhou (Canton) in the north and Macau in the south. It formed the junction of the four rivers in the south of Guangdong province.

Located at the entrance of the South China Sea, the PRD spans 40,000 square kilometers, covering 31 cities and counties, including Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Zhuhai in the immediate region. The delta is dotted with rice paddies that benefit from the 12-month-long season. The PRD, after all, receives plenty of rainfall with a temperature so mild that it doesn’t fall below zero even in winter.

The crops along the river delta are varied. It has sugarcane, flowers and fruits, jute, silkworms, and other crops used to make luxury goods and famous brand-name products. Iron, steel, chemicals, and shipbuilding materials are also being manufactured in the delta. The PRD’s proximity to major economic and trade hubs, such as Hong Kong and Macau, made it a convenient transportation network for major shipping lines.

Sunset over the South China Sea, Kota Kinabalu

Why Is the PRD So Important to China?

China hasn’t always been the behemoth economic powerhouse it is today. Its rise to economic power began only in the late 1970s when Deng Xiaoping implemented his open-door economic policy. At the center of this policy was the role of the river delta because of its strategic location at the entrance of the South China Sea, where the major shipping lanes are. In short, the PRD took on the role of attracting foreign direct investments as the once reclusive country became a more market-oriented economy.

China has three coastal growth areas, with PRD as the southern pillar. The north is led by the Beijing-Tianjin-Bohai corridor, while the Yangtze River Delta region stands in the middle. These three coastal areas account for only 21% of China’s population, but it makes up 40% of the country’s GDP. The most notable of these three coastal growth areas is PRD. Although the Pearl River Delta has the smallest population, it has the highest income per capita.

Historically, the PRD thrived in commerce and trade because of its location. It was an important stop on the ancient Silk Road, immortalizing China’s role in ancient trade. This was also the strategy after which the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road — a planned sea route that would pass through China’s east coast, Europe, India, Africa, and the Pacific — was patterned.

Although foreign investments, private enterprises, and international trade were more mature than China during the late 1970s, Beijing did not budge. Instead, it operated on a disciplined ideology akin to a bird cage. Chen Yun, a supporter of market reforms, suggested that China’s economy should operate like a bird cage: the cage, representing socialism, shouldn’t be too big that the bird will fly away and shouldn’t be too small to suffocate the bird.

Logistical Advantage and Geographical Location of PRD

The PRD’s geographical proximity to major shipping lanes also caused its massive economic growth. This was also why three of the four Special Economic Zones (SEZs) were established in Shenzhen, Zhuhai, and Shantou in Guangdong. The other zone was in Xiamen, Fujian province.

Shenzhen was chosen because it is near Hong Kong, which was still a British colony during the late 1970s. Zhuhai was next to Macau, another special administrative region, while Shantou is Taiwan’s neighbor. China’s central government also granted more independence to Guangdong to manage its economy. And in the 1960s and 1970s, Beijing forgot to include Guangdong in its economic policy that moved industries away from the coastlines. This proved to be in Guangdong’s luck because it freed itself from establishing state-owned enterprises and focused instead on market reform policies.

Population Led to the Growth of PRD

Another reason why PRD succeeded was its population. Coincidentally, wealthy overseas Chinese make Guangdong their home. They have also been supportive of the province’s economic progress. Hong Kong’s proximity played into this, as was evident in the change of their family origins after 1981. Back then, around 40% of Hong Kong’s Chinese population was born in mainland China. By the early 1990s, this switched to Guangdong and neighboring provinces.

The province also had an abundance of cheap laborers who immigrated from China’s inner provinces in search of opportunities. It also had affordable real estate, which made it attractive to enterprises.

The combination of additional economic powers in managing tax, finance, foreign trade, resource allocation, and investments turned PRD into a manufacturing hub. Soon, thousands of Hong Kong-based factories relocated to PRD, and by 2000, PRD became the economic base of heavy industrial manufacturing and high technology equipment.

The PRD also became the world’s largest base of consumers. But there’s no stopping there because the Pearl River Delta does not solely depend on its labor-intensive market. It knows that the future relies on high-tech sectors, so it has already begun transitioning its manufacturing industries into producing telecommunications, biomedicine, and new energy products.

A great example of this transition is Shenzhen. Once home to textile manufacturers, it has rapidly morphed into robotics, advanced manufacturing, and genomics. Today, it houses telecommunication giants Huawei and Tencent. Apple also sources electronic components from Shenzhen.

apple logo

The PRD provides a critical source of revenue for such companies as Huawei, Tencent, and Apple.

PRD’s Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge

In October 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping opened the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge after nine years of construction. The bridge stretches across 55 kilometers to connect Hong Kong with Macau. It is the second-longest bridge in the world, with a section that runs for seven kilometers in a submarine tunnel. That section alone crossed four artificial islands.

This is one of the first parts of the ambitious plan to build a megacity by turning the nine mainland cities of the PRD into a single urban area. The principal goal of the vast infrastructure network is to reduce the travel time to one hour from any which way of the PRD’s provinces and special administrative regions.

The PRD had won recognition from the World Bank as the world’s largest urban area or megacity. It surpassed Tokyo in population, territory, and GDP. To date, the Pearl River Delta is China’s most important economic hub, making up more than a fourth of the country’s exports. It also has good trade relations with Germany and the United States.

Such an ambitious goal of building a network of infrastructure will put PRD on the map of economic growth and a pathway to economic supremacy. And in China, where everything is magnified and projects are becoming increasingly ambitious, the world’s largest sea-crossing fits right in.

Impact of Bridge on Wildlife

Conservationists at the World Wide Fund for Nature in Hong Kong blamed the construction of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge for the falling number of white dolphins in the waters near the bridge. The dolphins found near waters of Lantau were worst hit with numbers dropping by 60% between April 2015 and March 2016.

Modern-day and Post-pandemic PRD

Each of the provinces in PRD has a specialization. That’s what makes them so great. Hong Kong is the finance hub, while Macau is the global gaming and entertainment center. Shenzhen specializes in technology. Guangzhou is an international trading hub. Finally, Foshan and Dongguan are manufacturing centers.

Summary of Facts: Pearl River Delta

  • What Is the Pearl River Delta? It is a network of streams and canals dotted on the side, with rice paddies stretching from Guangzhou in the north to Macau in the south. It is an important economic hub and has outpaced China’s own economic growth.
  • What Are the Provinces Located in the PRD? Macau, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou are the most popular provinces and special administrative regions of the PRD. Others are Dongguan, Zhongshan, Jiangmen, Huizhou, Zhuhai, Foshan, and Zhaoqing.
  • Why Is PRD Important to China? The Pearl River Delta passes through the coastal economic areas of China. This was by design because China granted special exemptions and policies to PRD regarding taxation, trade, and investment. These allowed the region to grow exponentially, and even more than Japan, Indonesia, and mainland China at times.
  • How Will the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge Help the Region’s Progress? The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge is part of an ambitious plan to connect all provinces and special administrative regions along the route of the PRD. The bridge is expected to cut travel time to one hour from whichever way.

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About the Author

After a career of working to provide opportunities for local communities to experience and create art, I am enjoying having time to write about two of my favorite things - nature and animals. Half of my life is spent outdoors, usually with my husband and sweet little fourteen year old dog. We love to take walks by the lake and take photos of the animals we meet including: otters, ospreys, Canadian geese, ducks and nesting bald eagles. I also enjoy reading, discovering books to add to my library, collecting and playing vinyl, and listening to my son's music.

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