Illustration: Liu Rui
I have been to South China quite a few times, the first in 1988 as a tourist, when it and the rest of China were another world - more akin to the 19th century than the 20th. The first time that I went to Dongguan in Guangdong Province, however was a few weeks ago. Believe me when I tell you that I am still in a state of shock.
I was fully expecting the Chinese version of the sinful biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. What I found was so much different. It is sad that when it comes to the difference between perception and reality, if the perception is warped or untrue, for those who cannot personally verify the facts, perception is reality.
As have many foreigners, I had heard quite a lot about Dongguan before. Its reputation very much precedes it. The most widely-held belief is that the city is a sexual paradise full of beautiful girls available for a wide range of services. The city also has a reputation for being a dirty, dingy crime-ridden industrial base where the streets are not at all safe.
The media both perpetuate this stereotype and reflect it. Just after my visit, the Economist called Dongguan "a southern Chinese city famed for its labor-intensive factories and sleazy nightlife." And at about the same moment, Time called it "the huge, dreary factory town between Guangzhou and Shenzhen."
But based on research conducted by the City Branding Laboratory of Tsinghua University, while most people who live in Dongguan are quite happy there, and indeed proud of where they live, foreigners and other Chinese, have the stereotypic misperception that the city is all about sex workers, factory workers and the crime and grime that accompany them.
I can't deny that the sex trade is there. And of course for a city of over 8 million with an industrial base, there is going to be grit and dirt and crime. But there is so much more on the positive side of the ledger.
I was struck by the city's efforts to make Dongguan a better place. It was not at all the dreary factory town Time mistakenly called it.
I was especially impressed with the Central Square, with a new theatre, library and exhibition center. To me it was like the ideal of what a city-center should be. Too many cities in China and abroad have either soulless centers, or even worse, like the city of my birth, Detroit: a doughnut with urban blight and little of value in the middle.
The one place that really excited me was the Songshan Lake National Hi-tech Industrial Development Zone. I enjoyed biking and walking there, picking lychee fruit right off the tree, and even riding around a mini-bus for a look at just a portion of the vast lake and recreation-area.
More than the ecological thoughtfulness that went into building the green environment, however was the careful planning that went into the business incubation side. I was most impressed with the way businessmen from Taiwan and foreign investors were welcomed, as well as the efforts made to recruit and encourage Chinese to return from overseas and help grow a new China.
What can the city fathers - and mothers - do to bring the perception and the reality into alignment?
One way is a truth squad to immediately correct the kind of news reports I cited. Actually, these are a gift to the city because they provide an opportunity to get their message out about the real Dongguan.
The author is former director and vice president at ABC Television. email@example.com