Not Bad for an Old Fishing Village: China’s boomtown Shenzhen is on the cusp of intercontinental stardom

No place symbolizes China’s economic miracle quite like the city of Shenzhen. Often described as a mere fishing village before 1980, it’s today home to some 12m people, with a gross domestic product approaching $300b. That’s roughly equivalent to the entire economy of Pakistan, which has a population of 190m people. A Bloomberg News report in September cited one financial analyst who thinks Shenzhen will have a larger economy than that of its nextdoor neighbor Hong Kong as soon as next year. And this year, Shenzhen is finally starting to develop the international aviation heft commensurate with a truly global city.

China first made Shenzhen a “special economic zone” in 1980, opening the door to foreign investment. By 1991, when the city opened its airport, factories were everywhere, taking advantage of low-wage labor. A 1993 Wall Street Journal article described it thus: “In Shenzhen, a new China of skyscrapers, luxury hotels and modern factories is rising even as the old China of mudholed roads, shanties, open sewers, polluted water and surging masses of people remains very much in evidence.” Annual economic growth routinely topped 10%.

But in a city where most locals still traveled by bicycle, there wasn’t yet much demand for airline flights. Even as the wider Pearl River Delta region was developing into the world’s largest manufacturing center, most travelers reached the region via Hong Kong or the giant city Guangzhou, just a few hours’ drive to the west. This started to change by the mid-2000s—in 2005, Shenzhen’s airport welcomed 16m passengers.

The city’s development never stopped. Today, Shenzhen is far more than a place to make cheap toys. It’s instead home to worldclass technology firms like Tencent and Huawei. It has the world’s third largest container port. Real estate values are sky high. And Shenzhen’s airport last year was the 40th busiest in the world, with 42m passengers.

Something else started happening last year: Shenzhen began seeing longhaul flights beyond Asia. As late as 2015, the city’s only international flights were shorthaul journeys to Japan, Korea and the ASEAN region, plus a lone once-weekly China Southern flight to Mauritius launched the year before. But last year, China Southern began linking the city to Australia, operating service to Sydney. Air…

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