March 18, 2010
This excerpt is part of a larger feature I wrote that was published by The Atlantic in November 2009. To read the introduction and access descriptions of the other eight “nations” of China, click here.
THE BACK DOOR
(Hong Kong, Macau, Guangdong, Hainan)
Territory: 231,963 km2 (2% of total)
Population: 112 million (8% of total)
Per Capita GDP: $6,910 (#2 of 9)
Exports as % of GDP: 82%
Net Trade Balance (ex-China): $176 billion surplus
In Chinese, the “back door” refers to a way of doing business outside the normal, approved channels. The South Sea coast is China’s Back Door, far enough from the centers of power that nobody will notice if you bend a few rules. As locals put it, “The sky is broad and the emperor is far away.” Officials who were exiled to Yueh, as this land was once known, found it a fearful place whose inhabitants spoke strange dialects—Cantonese, mainly—and feasted on snakes, cats, and monkeys. But its clan-based villages, lush jungles, and rocky inlets offered ideal shelter for smugglers and secret societies to flourish. Unlike their staid northern cousins, these freebooters learned to take risks and profit from them. Other Chinese regard southerners as clever, sharp, and a bit slippery. But as rebels and renegades, emigrants and entrepreneurs, they infuse much needed flexibility and creativity into an otherwise rigid system.
The Back Door might be troublesome to China’s rulers, but it has also been useful. When China was closed to the outside world, enclaves like Canton, Macau, and Hong Kong offered safely removed points of contact and exchange. So when Deng Xiaoping wanted to open China’s economy to trade and investment, the Back Door offered an ideal laboratory. If reforms failed, they could be disowned and contained without contaminating the rest of China. In fact, they succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, transforming the region into an export juggernaut and a model for the rest of China.
The Back Door’s very success, however, poses a dilemma. Now that the rest of China has applied its example, is a laboratory really necessary? The region may have found a new purpose as a playground for Chinese tourists who gamble in Macau’s casinos, frolic at Hainan’s beach resorts, and ride the rides at Hong Kong’s new Disneyland. But there are others who think the experiment isn’t over, that the Back Door still has vital lessons to teach about democracy and rule of law. Perhaps China still needs a few rebels—at a safe distance, of course.