… and I went to check it out (with Yan Zhihua and company from Z.H. STUDIO) and came away very, very impressed.
SIP isn’t what I expected. Think about that word… Industrial Park. Now imagine one in Suzhou, one of China’s major industrial cities. What are you picturing?
If you’re like me, you’re probably picturing warehouses… refineries… manufacturing plants… big, belching smokestacks. Not exactly a fun place to spend the afternoon. You probably weren’t thinking of this:
The Suzhou Industrial Park isn’t an industrial park, it’s an entire section of a major city- at 728 sq km, over four times the size of my hometown- that’s been given over to an administrative body that essentially acts as a corporation, managing everything from security to venture capital, overseen by the joint body of investors from China and Singapore.
“What other country is preparing to clone itself, calving like some high-tech socioeconomic iceberg? Yes, here it is, the first modern city-state to fully take advantage of the concept of franchise operations Mini-Singapores! Many!” – William Gibson, “Disneyland with the Death Penalty”
While Gibson’s article was memorable, it was perhaps a bit unfair to Singapore- a country that has managed miraculous prosperity in a region of disfunction. But what he said here was true- they’re building franchises, and China is target number one.
The results are astounding. SIP may be the cleanest place I’ve seen in mainland China- the streets are spotless; not a piece of litter to be found. The traffic? Calm and orderly. The security? Impeccable. The buildings? Stunning by office park standards. In addition to everything that’s already gone up – including not only untold acres of office space, warehouses and R&D labs, but enough housing stock to hold more than half a million people and some very attractive shopping centers (and even a ferris wheel!) – there are two 300m+ megaskyscrapers currently being erected, as well as the world’s largest pair of pants.
The SIP administration building has an exhibition hall devoted to the history and development of the park, so I ducked in there to check it out before our meeting with Barry Yang, the Chairman and Vice-Director of SIP…
Deng Xiaoping considered Singaporean president Lee Kwan Yew to be a mentor, despite the fact that Lee was twenty years younger than Deng and ruled a nation less than one two-hundredth the size. He viewed Singapore as what China’s cities could- and should- become. Like many other Asian leaders, he was deeply impressed by what Singapore had accomplished (shortly after his first state visit to Singapore in 1978, Deng moved Singapore from “capitalist running dog” state to “country we should learn from and emulate”. Likewise, Lee was somewhat astonished when Deng presented a willingness to change his mind and disagree with Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy- the extremely anti-communist Lee had never met a Marxist he could get along with until Deng came along.)
Mutual admiration lead to business deals, and SIP, along with many other Singaporean JVs, was born. While many of these ventures lost money in the 90s and early 00s, some, like SIP, ultimately came into their own.
At the heart of the museum is a massive scale model of the entire park in front of a motion-simulator capsule that can take you on a tour of the whole site. It’s a pretty impressive vision:
SIP’s attractive location and subsidies, as well as it’s Singaporean heritage, has attracted many multinationals, highlighted in this blue-lit hall:
The museum even finishes off with a driving simulator, if you want to take a spin around the park but don’t have a Chinese driver’s license (and I absent mindedly left my Coke on the console):
“Authoritative Comments” – that’s a good way of putting it. I also took note that Lee’s handwriting is a bit uneven… which makes me feel better about my own atrocious handwriting (interesting fact: Lee did not grow up speaking or reading Chinese; English is his first language- he was in his thirties before he began studying Mandarin.)
After poking around the museum, I met the rest of the team on the top floor, where we went to wait for our meeting. While I was up there I walked around the balcony, snapping views of the site:
In our meeting with Barry Yang, the locally-born chairman of the park, we spent a great deal of time talking about the park’s innovation ecosystem. Inspired by various industrial clusters around the world, SIP is positioned as an R&D hub for biotech, electronics, IT/software development, mechanical engineering and many other areas, as well as a financial center. SIP’s administration acts as a massive VC clearinghouse and business incubator, with an extremely high rate of project funding- around 25%, according to Barry, far, far higher than most American incubators (like Y-Combinator). This is luring foreign and returned Chinese entrepreneurs and researchers to bring their work to Suzhou. Combined with the clean environment, high quality services (on par with the best areas of Shanghai), redundant power supplies, data centers and telecommunications links, the park is, while not the largest in China, certainly one of the most advanced.
(Above- one of Barry’s assistants and the Z.H. Studio team, sans me of course- I was taking the photo.)
We finished the day with dinner at an Indian restaurant in one of the park’s elegant lifestyle center-style malls, which are still relatively uncommon in China. As I rode the bullet train back to Shanghai that evening, I pondered the existence of places like this; China is filled with fascinating developments on scales that seem almost unreal to Americans. While the unsuccessful “ghost cities” and “ghost malls” get the attention, it’s easy to overlook the successful developments like SIP, which is unfortunate as doing so gives an inaccurate account of China today and what’s really going on here, and makes it too easy for “China bears” to write off developmental experimentation. I wondered what we could learn from places where they still have vision and actually implement effective administration, if only we’d look past our arrogance. The recent articles about the bankruptcy of Detroit make me ponder what could be- could a for-profit “JV city” model be used to fix our disfunctional cities? While the model itself could probably work, such a charter/start-up city approach would never be politically tenable in the US. We’d rather maintain our “moral superiority” in the face of economic decline and social collapse, rather than even consider experimenting with other administrative models.
And we wonder why Asia is eating our (industrial) lunch…