SHENZHEN - On the eve of its 30th birthday as China's first economic reform zone, Shenzhen received a lavish "coming out" gift from the central government.
The State Council, China's cabinet, on Wednesday decreed that the southern coastal city bordering the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is to become "a national economic center" and "a city of global clout" in exchanges of culture, economy and technology.
Its reclassification from "the central city in southern China" came in the State Council's reply to its urban development plan as the city prepared to mark its big anniversary on Thursday.
Its new status carries with it the role of the economic axis to drive the development of surrounding cities such as Guangzhou, Dongguan and Huizhou, as well as Jiangxi and Hunan provinces to its north.
Xu Chongguang, deputy director of the Shenzhen city planning and land resources commission, said the State Council has recognized Shenzhen's acknowledgement of its responsibilities.
"When we started to map out the plan in October 2006, we stressed the control and suppression of excessive urban expansion so as to explore a sustained and more effective way for China's urban development," said Xu.
The city is required to deepen its ties with Hong Kong, give priority to public and green transport, and become a sustainable and environment-friendly habitat complete with quality public services in education, healthcare, social security and housing for low-income families.
Wang Rong, secretary of the Shenzhen Committee of the Communist Party of China, said Shenzhen's soaring gross domestic product (GDP) - up from 196 million yuan ($29 million) in 1979 to 820 billion yuan last year - has spurred other cities to copy its model, known as "Shenzhen speed".
"After making tremendous contributions to raising the material well-being of the Chinese people in the past 30 years, Shenzhen has a new role to play in the reform, which is to improve the environment for people and businesses to prosper, and become an international modern city at par with Hong Kong and Singapore," he said.
However, Guo Wanda, vice-president of the Shenzhen-based China Development Institute, said the city must look to its own problems before it can stand alongside other international cities.
Citing one of his surveys, Guo said Shenzhen, though already on the way to becoming a developed economy, falls behind its overseas peers in many aspects, most notably in the efficient use of energy and resources.
The city's GDP per square kilometer, for instance, was only eleventh the size of Hong Kong's. Its water use efficiency measured by consumption per 10,000 yuan of GDP was less than a third of that of Japan.
Official figures show its GDP is only half of Hong Kong's, but its population and land area are double.
Apart from an unsustainable economic growth mode, other problems, such as corruption and labor exploitation, also exist.
Former mayor Xu Zongheng was formally removed from his post in mid-August for having abused his office to make profits for others, taking bribes and leading a corrupt lifestyle. And the suicides of 12 Foxconn employees this year also put Shenzhen in the limelight for all the wrong reasons.
Guo said the two issues are "convincing evidence" that economic growth alone cannot guarantee a service-oriented government and satisfaction for ordinary people.
"Thorny issues such as the widening wealth gap, corruption, unbalanced development and insufficient public services all need to be addressed soon," he said.