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, Wednesday decreed the southern coastal city bordering Hong Kong 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 prepares to mark its big anniversary on Thursday.
But like any person coming of age, Shenzhen is finding that with maturity comes greater responsibility and the realization that it needs to improve itself to make its way in the world.
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 Municipal Planning and Land resources Commission, says 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," says Xu.
Rigid targets include limiting the built-up area to 890 square kilometers by 2020, only half of its total area, and capping the permanent population at 11 million, a rise of 22 percent from the current 9 million.
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, health care, social security and housing for low-income families.
Two new centers strategic to its internationalization are to be built: a service center in Qianhai to speed Shenzhen-Hong Kong cooperation; and a high-end manufacturing base doubling as a regional trade center to the west of Shajing and north of Bao'an Airport.
Detailed plans are expected to be released at the end of the year so construction can begin in earnest next year, says Xu.
Wang Rong, secretary of the Shenzhen Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China, says Shenzhen's soaring gross domestic product -- up from 196 million yuan 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 reform, which is to improve the environment for people and businesses to prosper, and become an international modern city on a par with Hong Kong and Singapore," he said.
However, Guo Wanda, vice president of the Shenzhen-based China Development Institute, says the city must look to its own problems before it can stand alongside other international cities.
Citing one of his surveys, Guo says Shenzhen, though already 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 gross domestic product per square kilometer for instance was only an 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 that of Hong Kong, but its population and land area are double.
"This is a result of a resource depletive economic growth model. If Shenzhen can successfully restructure its economy, then China will have some experience to draw upon," says Guo.
Apart from an unsustainable economic growth mode, other problems have arisen, highlighted by former mayor Xu Zongheng, who was formally removed in mid-August for having abused his office to make profits for others, taking bribes and leading a corrupt lifestyle, and the 12 young Foxconn employees who had migrated to the city and ended up taking their own lives.
Guo says 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 as soon as possible," he says.
Guo says the city government must expand grass-roots democracy, encourage greater public responsibility and enhance transparency of government affairs.
From this year, the city authority is ending life-long employment for all new government employees and plans, over the next 30 years, to transfer the city's 40,000 government officials in service from de facto life-long employment to labor contracts.
This means the breaking of "iron rice bowl," a legacy from the planned economy now reserved mainly for civil servants.
Meanwhile, non-government social organizations have been encouraged to grow to improve the efficiency of public services and constrain the unnecessary sprawl of government affiliates.
"The booming Chinese economy will for sure lead to explosive growth of the middle class," Guo predicts. "When that day comes, people will be more aware of their rights, demand the building of a market economy guaranteed by the rule of law and express more diverse individual opinions."
In response to the concerns, Wang Rong likens the development of an internationalized modern city to building a house.
"To make the house solid and attractive, we need to lay the foundation with a much higher efficiency in the use of energy and resources, develop high-end manufacturing into the framework and use fair and quality social welfare as the roof," says Wang.
Unlike earlier reforms with their focus on dragging Chinese out of poverty, says Tang Gang, vice president of the Party School of the Shenzhen Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China, Shenzhen's future reform must take into account both economic and social development.
"As I understand it, reform tasks in the more complicated social fields are more crucial," he says.
The policies of "opening-up" should be redefined to boost not just foreign investment and trade, but also closer regional collaboration within the country, says Tan.
This innovation is essential if Shenzhen wants to fulfill its new duties as a "regional economic axis."
"Shenzhen is not enough to take the world's most populous nation into modernity," says Tan. "If Shenzhen can find a sustained and harmonious way of developing into a mega city, China's urbanization and modernity will be greatly accelerated."