Shenzhen is a really strange city.
I’ll try to give a brief summary of this wacky little town for those not too familiar with it, who might be wondering why PSU would send a bunch of students there of all places.
Shenzhen sits right over the border from Hong Kong and is more/less the birthplace of China’s modern economic machine. China’s former Chairman and major economic reformist Deng Xiaoping established the formerly rural Bao’an County as a Special Economic Zone in 1980 to test capitalist policies and attract foreign investment into the country (China was rather notoriously poor in those days). Almost overnight the area became a booming factory town as the majority of that MADE IN CHINA stuff that we in the west became all too familiar with was mostly MADE IN SHENZHEN. Economically the SEZ was a smashing success, leading China to establish SEZs elsewhere in the country. But Shenzhen continues to be the most experimental in policy and practice (it recently became home to China’s first foray into carbon trading). As the economic output of China grew, Shenzhen went from producing most of the worlds t-shirts and toys to being the worlds leading electronics manufacturing center, and today it’s fastest growing sectors are finance (already has one of China’s three stock exchanges), bioscience, design… basically all the high-paying sectors that every city in America desperately trying to attract. What was a wide, rural area just 30 years ago is now a city of over 15 million (!!!) with an average age somewhere in the low 30s, a booming middle class, and a growing ex-pat community. All this adds up to a modern cosmopolitan city that is starting to run circles around some of its peers, most notably its next door neighbor, the former British colony Hong Kong. 30 years!!!
“Okay, so what?” you might ask. Well a few weeks ago I was reading up on my temporary home and I stumbled upon a 2002 treatise on Shenzhen from Wired Magazine, written by novelist Neal Stephenson . If you’re familiar with Stephenson’s writing, you’ll be pleased to hear that the article is familiarly long-winded, colorful, and altogether Stephensonian(?) take on China’s relationship with technology, the west, democracy, and information. But what I personally found most fascinating is how completely wrong he was about the near future! That’s not a knock on Stephenson (he’s rather adept at speculation) so much as an illustration of how quickly things are changing here.
The default posture from the US, Hong Kong, and the rest of the West seems to be to curiously watch China from afar, critiquing all the things they’re doing wrong (and there are oh so many things that are oh so easy to critique). Yet they are doing so much so fast while, we busy ourselves with debates about background checks for guns or whether or not one branch of the government is improperly using information from another branch of the government. I’m not saying these things aren’t important (I personally feel they are very important), but I can’t help but get the feeling that it’s so hard for us to accurately assess what’s happening in China because we’re not even playing the same game. For right or wrong, good or bad, we’re over in our great big field playing little-league soccer, trying to make sure everyone gets a trophy while out beyond our field of view they’re playing real-life Sim City with the entire planet.
If you’ve got thoughts on this topic please comment away. The Stephenson article can be found here (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/2.02/mao.bell_pr.html).
* The Shenzhen-Hong Kong thing is a fascinating rabbit hole of a topic that I’ll not dig too deep into right now. Their relationship seems a little bit like the South bay > San Francisco relationship but way bigger, heavier and more complicated. Hong Kong’s ongoing transition from colony > quasi-independent > part of the PRC is a topic I’m just now getting more familiar with, but I can’t help but feel like these two cities are on a collision course that might not have any real historical precedent. I recommend reading up on the upcoming transfer of Hong Kong sovereignty for more.