Mauritius is a country few people know. I first started studying Mauritius because they used a zone like this to get out of the trap of extremely high barriers to trade and to open the economy up. The way they did it was that they created something they called a zone. All you had to do to be in the zone was self-identify and say that this firm was in the zone. If you said that you were in the export processing zone, what that meant was that you could freely import any goods with no limits, no quotas, and no tariffs, but you had to export all of your output. That was the one restriction. You couldn't sell anything domestically.
You could also operate under different labour law restrictions from in the rest of the economy. No firm was required to join this zone, and no worker was required to work in the zone. A number of firms entered the zone, so to speak. A number of workers, especially women, who had never had access to the labour market, got jobs in these firms that came in from overseas. Then eventually, some of these women became entrepreneurs and started their own local firms. As the Mauritian economy saw how beneficial trade could be for the people who engaged in it, they eventually lowered the trade barriers throughout the entire island.
It is a case of reform that people can opt into, which then gets accepted within the society as a whole as legitimate, because nobody feels that it was forced on them. This is why I first started studying the history of Mauritius.
The more relevant example would be Shenzhen, which is one of the four special economic zones Deng Xiaoping started, with the same view that he wanted to create places where foreign firms could be matched with Chinese workers. Rather than force that on any city or Chinese worker, he created some places where this could be done.
The president, Hu Jintao, recently referred to Shenzhen as a miracle, because it went, in about 20 years, from total GDP in the order of $10 million to a GDP of more than $100 billion a year.
It's the success of the Shenzhen model, both on its own terms and in terms of persuading the rest of China to adopt the market model and let foreign firms come in, that I think has persuaded developing countries around the world to look at special zones as the way forward.