Geography is destiny. Nowhere is this more true, of course, than in China. The country is the world’s fourth-largest, in terms of territory. But, much of the country is inhospitable: with deserts, mountains, loess and other areas less fit for human habitation. In a population of 1.4 billion, over 550 million are peasants and farmers. Yet, only 14.86% of the land in China is well-suited for cultivation. Too many hands with too little land to hoe. That basically sums up China’s vast agricultural economy.
The most fertile agricultural areas are also the ones that have had the highest rate of industrial and overall economic development in the last 30 years. The three richest provinces in China also have the highest concentrations of fertile land: Guangdong, Zhejiang and Jiangsu. Together, these three coastal provinces have a population of about 230 million, or 17.5% of China’s total. But, their combined share of China’s gdp is almost twice that.
When economic reform got underway, these provinces were already relatively well-off, because of the high quality and productivity of its farm output. They were not as heavily industrialized as more northern parts of China, which got the major share of government investment and attention during the first 30 years after the 1949 revolution.
This lack of industrial infrastructure turned out to be a decisive advantage for the three provinces, especially Guangdong and Zhejiang. As reform took hold, they weren’t weighed down by the bloat of forced industrialization. The rich farmland and relatively high living standards helped create a greater sense of economic security and this, in turn, bred more of an entrepreneurial mindset.
As the Chinese government relaxed controls on private business, Guangdong and Zhejiang were the first to seize the opportunities. Capital from private sources was more readily available because of the profitability of farming in the region. Entrepreneurship flourished. To this day, one can travel around Zhejiang and Guangdong and rarely, if ever, come across a state-owned business. Their economies are almost entirely in the hands of private business, with larger, private SME in the lead.
Travel north or west and the situation is markedly different. Here, subsistence farming was often the norm. There were no large agricultural surpluses to finance the growth of private business. State-owned companies, often of the “we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us” variety, have predominated. The private sector still fights for its share of resources in these other regions of China. Those with entrepreneurial flair often emigrate. Shenzhen is particularly full of such transplants, drawn from every corner of China. I’ve met many successful entrepreneurs here from inland provinces, especially Jiangxi, Hunan, Sichuan and Hubei.
I’m in Zhejiang as I write this, and am stuck struck by the beauty of its scenery as well as the industriousness and wealth of its people. It reminds me most of Northern Italy, where I’ve spent a lot of time, earlier in my life. Northern Italy is one of the world’s most prosperous places, as well as among its most visually stunning.
In both places, mountains are close by nearly everywhere, and over recent decades, much of the rich farmland has been plowed under to build factories. Northern Italy includes most of that country’s (and the world’s) most successful private-sector companies and brands, including Benetton, Luxottica, Armani. The food is also particularly excellent, another trait it shares in common with Zhejiang.
Northern Italy, statistically, is the richest area, per capita, in Europe – richer even than next-door Switzerland. Zhejiang, similarly, is the richest place in China, per capita. While Zhejiang can’t yet claim its home to any internationally-renowned brands, it does have China’s strongest nucleus of SME businesses. Many of these, in coming decades, will likely grow into large businesses that dominate their markets. One Chinese auto brand, Geely, which is about to complete its purchase of Volvo from Ford, is based in Zhejiang.
Zhejiang is unique among provinces in China. It has three cities that vie for commercial and entrepreneurial supremacy. Wenzhou, Ningpo and Hangzhou act like separate pumps, channeling energy and wealth into the province’s circulatory system. I spent time recently in Fuyang, the area about 30 miles to the south of Hangzhou. We’re now lucky to have an outstanding client SME in that city. Fuyang is mainly mountainous. Thin strips of flat richly-fertile land hold much of the population, transport infrastructure and industry.
It’s hard to imagine there could be a more productive slice of our planet than this flat land in Fuyang, including in Northern Italy. In a hectic 36 hours, I visited six different companies in Fuyang, each from a different industry, and each already of a scale that puts it in the top flight of all China’s SME. They are a very small sample of the great entrepreneurial output of this area of Zhejiang. I was very impressed with each company, and with each “laoban” (老板）, Chinese for “boss”.
These companies, and Zhejiang itself, embody the two most powerful forces that are now reshaping the Chinese economy: the twin reliance on private sector SME, and on producing for China’s domestic market rather than manufacturing OEM products for export.
Zhejiang started out with a lot of natural advantages that other regions in China could only envy: the fertile land, an abundance of fresh water, inland waterways (including the Grand Canal) and plentiful rainfall, proximity to the coast and the major ports in Ningpo and nearby Shanghai. But, it’s richest blessing is a population of talented, instinctive entrepreneurs. They’ve taken what nature provided and augmented it, building a thriving, vibrant industrial economy in an area that 20 years ago was still mainly farmland and rice paddies.
Other people’s idea of a perfect holiday is a week on some beach, or a visit to a tourist city like Rome or Paris. Mine is to spend time in a place with great food and great entrepreneurs, visiting their factories, hearing their strategies to conquer new markets and seize new opportunities to make money.
Zhejiang really is my kind of place.