Representatives of free zones from around the world have gathered in Shanghai for the 11th World Free Zone Convention (WFZC), with speakers at the opening ceremony stressing the role such zones have to play in generating growth and facilitating trade as the global economy enters a difficult new phase.

The mayor of Shanghai, Han Zheng, and governor of Shanghai Pudong New Area, Jiang Liang, were among the dignitaries on hand to open proceedings at the Crowne Plaza Pudong hotel on November 10. The mayor highlighted the importance of free zones to Shanghai's development and China's more generally, a sentiment seconded by the other Chinese officials making opening remarks.
Graham Mather, chairman of the WFZC, said free zones "have much to offer" at a time when the world is desperately seeking job creation, economic growth and development ahead of an anticipated downturn amid a worsening eurozone crisis. "Free zones are key to the world's search for growth," he said.
Citing a World Bank study analysing the benefits of free zones, which include the ability to absorb unemployed labour, raise skills and productivity levels, and generate taxes from inception, Mr Mather said these are among the reasons why many countries are returning to the free-zone model or newly embracing it as a way out of economic troubles. "All areas of the world could benefit from free zones and they all need them," he said.
He pointed out that the European Commission stated recently that it was open to the idea of creating special economic zones in Greece as a means of attracting much needed foreign capital to the beleaguered country.
For its part, China, the crucial engine of global growth, remains committed to the free-zone model. The government's latest five-year plan includes an edict on upgrading its zones so that they would carry out more value-added activities and move beyond just trading goods into offering more services. This explains the Shanghai Free Trade Zones association's interest in hosting the WFZC, the first to take place in China.
Deng Xianhong, deputy administrator at the Chinese State Administration of Foreign Exchange, said that Shanghai was keen to learn from international best practice as it seeks to bolster it's position as a centre for finance, trade and shipping.
Sun Yibiao, deputy commissioner-general at the General Administration of Customs, said that China "is dedicated to innovating and improving the functions" of its special economic zones.
Attendees from three dozen countries were on hand for the event, including nearly 100 representatives of overseas free trade zones and related international organisations.
Last year's convention took place in the United Arab Emirates, in Ras Al Khaimah.