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108

A Chinese Grand Prix? As Western influences grow in the Far East, just such a race is fast approaching feasibility

Zhuhai, we learned soon after arrival, is “one of China’s top 10 cities in Ideological and Cultural Advancement”, and a “Model City of Harmonies between Army and People”.

Not bad, you’d say, for a place that was little more than a small port and fishery some 15 years ago, when the decision was taken to make the province an economic free zone and to expand the economy vigorously.

What, you ask, has this to do with a specialist motoring magazine? Curiously, motor racing is one of the showcase events chosen by the Zhuhai Municipal People’s Government to promote the area and earn hard western currencies, and China’s first international motor race was held in mid-November to test the waters.

The event, through the bumpy streets of Zhuhai City, was surprisingly successful. Bob Wollek, Jean-Pierre larier and Jacques Laffite, who won in the Larbre Competition Porsche Turbo S Le Mans, are not the only competitors who’d love to go back next November.

The Zhuhai International GT race won the hearts and minds of all the competitors, officials and media people who travelled with the BPR Organisation to the inaugural event, and who were shown the plans of the FIA approved, Formula 1 standard track which might become the official venue in 1996.

Going further, the Zhuhai International circuit may be the setting for the first Chinese Grand Prix, perhaps as soon as 1997. Should this give Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill any sleepless nights, pondering their chosen career?

They will, in fact, step into another world, one of cosseted luxury and Oriental charm. The grand titles bestowed on Zhuhai were certainly mentioned in the executive vice-mayor’s 45-minute welcoming speech (attendance was optional) but once the formalities were over a normal life began.

For a start, forget the Chairman Mao boiler suits and red-starred forage caps. Almost everyone in Zhuhai is dressed western style, some in snappy Italian or Parisian outfits, and there are almost as many hand-held telephones in the hotel lobbies as in the streets of Hong Kong. The majority ride bicycles but a few drive in Mercedes and BMWs, and seem to be treated with respect.

“Communism no longer really exists in China,” says Hong Kong financier Adam Topping, who crossed the water to drive the Chamberlain Engineering Lotus Esprit S300. “What they have is capitalist communism which means that it’s alright to do business, invest, advertise and make a profit.

“Communism is a brand of central government which has to control a population of 1.2 billion. Democracy probably wouldn’t work because you need strong government to control rampant crime and anarchy.”

China’s record on human rights is not good. Tiananmen Square is still fresh in westerners’ minds and, undeniably, justice comes from the barrels of guns. Whether bullets are reserved for murderers and mobsters, as the government says, or may be directed as rumour has it at prostitutes and petty criminals, is for others to determine.

In Zhuhai, though, the great majority of people seemed to have nothing to fear. In the streets, and even in the back-streets, they laughed, chattered and gazed curiously at European visitors. Street scenes could just as easily have been seen in the poorer suburbs of Tokyo.

Some of the world’s leading economists believe that China will have the world’s strongest economy within 25 years, and Topping agrees. “A lot of people will become very rich. The government is shaping things so that this can happen.”

A total of US$200 million will be invested in the next three years in the Grand Prix circuit, two 18-hole golf courses, two luxury hotels and 4000 apartments. The entire facility will be world class, and the Grand Prix circus might feel more at ease at Zhuhai’s Pearl Land facility than at Silverstone or Suzuka.

Little of this money will be raised in China, though. The Zhuhai Municipal People’s Government provides the land and the labour, a comparatively straightforward matter.

A Malaysian consortium, Lamdeal Investments, is responsible for raising the bulk of the money, and there are signs that it is not flowing as freely as was hoped. The first 18-hole golf course will be opened in 1995, but that is the easiest part of the exercise.

Eventually, the scale of the Zhuhai development will be staggering. An eight-lane Phoenix Highway will extend from Zhuhai City to the circuit, 12 miles to the north, and will continue to a new international airport.

The Phoenix Highway will continue further, in due course, to the foot of the Lingdingyang Bridge. This will make history as the world’s longest, no less than 33 miles altogether, linking the Zhuhai Province with Hong Kong via two islands in the Pearl Delta.

Although the official target is to complete the bridge before the end of the decade, sceptics believe that it will be nearer 20 years before it is finally ready.

Twenty-twenty is the date that trips off many tongues.

It is a quarter of a century ahead, but in that time China could make more progress in the world than in the past two millenia.

Motor racing seems incongruous in a society where fewer than one in a thousand actually possess a car, and where the average wage of £20 a week leaves precious little disposable income.

Could it be, then, a signal to Hong Kong, and beyond that to the western nations? It must seem very important to the Chinese to soothe fears in Hong Kong that the colony will become a rigidly Communist society when power is handed over in 1997.

If the Chinese can say: “Look, we are like you,” to Asia at large, and be believed, the transition for Hong Kong (and later for Macau) will be a good deal less anguished.