CITY OF DREAMS

深圳四十年

The World of Chinese - - Contents - BY EMILY CON­RAD

Named a Spe­cial Eco­nomic Zone in 1978, back­wa­ter Bao'an county be­came the boom­town of Shen­zhen overnight. To­day, the city's trans­plants share with TWOC the unique mix of in­clu­sive­ness, prac­ti­cal­ity, and ide­al­ism that make up their “Shen­zhen Dream”

Ji Yi­ran was just 23 when she set out to seek her for­tune, leav­ing her na­tive Huang­shi, Hubei prov­ince, for Shen­zhen in 2013. Her story is hardly unique: Less than 10 per­cent of Shen­zhen’s pop­u­la­tion is na­tive to the city, ac­cord­ing to China’s last cen­sus.

Now work­ing as head of her de­part­ment at a me­dia com­pany, Ji at­tributes her suc­cess in part to Shen­zhen it­self: “Com­pared with other first-tier cities, I think Shen­zhen is fairer and more in­clu­sive,” she told TWOC. “In­stead of their back­ground, the city pays more at­ten­tion to peo­ple’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Any­one can find a fair chance here.”

Ji could be the poster child for the so-called “Shen­zhen Dream.” Al­though less pro­mul­gated by the party-state than the Chi­nese Dream, Shen­zhen’s ver­sion is both uniquely pow­er­ful and less de­fined, al­low­ing Shen­zhen­ers to stamp their own vi­sion on a city that con­tin­ues to at­tract young peo­ple from across the coun­try.

“There are a thou­sand Ham­lets in a thou­sand peo­ple’s eyes,” noted Eric Zheng, di­rec­tor for the In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter of China De­vel­op­ment In­sti­tute, a Shen­zhen-based think tank. “Ev­ery­one has their own unique ‘Shen­zhen Dream.’ I don’t know how to de­fine it. But it’s amaz­ing to think about what sort of hu­man mir­a­cle oc­curs when 20 mil­lion peo­ple, full of dreams and rest­less en­ergy, gather to­gether.”

“Shen­zhen is a place where dreams can be re­al­ized,” Ji agreed wist­fully. Oth­ers are more prag­matic. “[The Shen­zhen Dream] means that you can live a valu­able life here,” said Liu Yu, 38, who came to Shen­zhen 11 years ago from Hu­nan prov­ince to work in the con­sult­ing in­dus­try. “You can

achieve fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence.”

In 1978, when Chi­nese leader Deng Xiaop­ing pitched a spe­cial eco­nomic zone (SEZ) on the bor­der of Bri­tish-con­trolled Hong Kong, few imag­ined that the tran­quil fish­ing vil­lages of Bao’an county would be­come the gate­way to a new ex­port-driven econ­omy. Dur­ing the height of the so-called “Shen­zhen mi­gra­tion tide” in the 1980s and 90s, an es­ti­mated 300,000 work­ers moved there each year, hop­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on a sky­rock­et­ing GDP of up to 25 per­cent a year. Seem­ingly overnight, the sleepy fron­tier town of 300,000 be­came a mega­lopo­lis of 20 mil­lion.

In the first decade of re­form, work op­por­tu­ni­ties in Shen­zhen were mostly in la­bor-in­ten­sive, low-end man­u­fac­tur­ing. How­ever, the city had a long-term plan to cap­i­tal­ize on the for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment (FDI) that was be­gin­ning to pour in, and of­fered pref­er­en­tial poli­cies for cut­ting-edge in­dus­tries. This el­e­vated Shen­zhen from the man­u­fac­tur­ing hubs on the Pearl River Delta, such as Dong­guan (the “World’s Shoe City”) and Foshan (“Fur­ni­ture City”), and cre­ated the per­fect en­vi­ron­ment for some of China’s most suc­cess­ful tech com­pa­nies like Huawei, BYD, Ten­cent, and ZTE.

This de­vel­op­ment path, earn­ing Shen­zhen the moniker of China’s Sil­i­con Val­ley, has en­sured not only a steady stream of low-skilled work­ers, but also a highly skilled and welle­d­u­cated work­force look­ing to pur­sue their own “Shen­zhen Dream.”

Ac­cord­ing to Eric Florence, di­rec­tor of the French Cen­ter for Re­search on Con­tem­po­rary China in Hong Kong, di­vi­sions within this pop­u­la­tion were ev­i­dent as early as the 1990s, when the gov­ern­ment de­cided to pro­mote a new, sin­gu­lar Shen­zhen: “Norms of the Shen­zhen In­hab­i­tant,” in­tro­duced in 1994, pro­vided vague guide­lines on how mi­grants should in­ter­act with their host city, with key phrases like “love one’s coun­try,” “build Shen­zhen,” and “open up and cre­ate.”

This helped cre­ate a nar­ra­tive that por­trayed “out­siders” in a rel­a­tively pos­i­tive light, Florence notes; a stark con­trast to the sit­u­a­tion in other Chi­nese cities. In­stead of money-hun­gry leeches, Shen­zhen’s new work­ers were en­vi­sioned as “builders” or “cre­ators” who trav­eled to a back­ward vil­lage, seized op­por­tu­ni­ties, and trans­formed it into a tech­no­log­i­cal oa­sis.

In part, this new “Shen­zhener” iden­tity was ne­ces­si­tated by the fact that most of the in­flux were from out­side Guang­dong prov­ince and spoke nei­ther Can­tonese nor the Hakka di­alect. There was also the fact that Shen­zhen was not built on a pre-ex­ist­ing city, un­like most other metropoles, and posed lit­tle re­sis­tance to as­sim­i­lat­ing the mi­grants—an “ur­ban evo­lu­tion process” that was “com­pressed…into only three decades,” wrote Hong Kong Univer­sity ar­chi­tec­ture pro­fes­sor Juan Du in an es­say on Medium.

In­deed, Shen­zhen seems to have an iden­tity unique from other Chi­nese cities, many of which have his­to­ries stretch­ing back many mil­len­nia. Liu de­scribes Shen­zhen as “mul­ti­cul­tural… con­tribut­ing to an open and cre­ative en­vi­ron­ment.” Ji echoes this, say­ing that mi­grants “have brought with them their lo­cal cul­ture and con­trib­uted to mak­ing Shen­zhen a more di­verse and in­clu­sive city.” Some of her friends have since started fam­i­lies, rais­ing a se­cond gen­er­a­tion of Shen­zhen­ers.

Zheng con­trib­utes this in­clu­siv­ity to fa­vor­able gov­ern­ment poli­cies. “There is a phrase, ‘When you come to Shen­zhen, you be­come a Shen­zhener,’” he ex­plained to TWOC. “Most of China’s megac­i­ties, such as Bei­jing and Shang­hai, have strict [house­hold reg­is­tra­tion] re­stric­tions. By con­trast, Shen­zhen is the mega-city with the least re­stric­tions. This means that it is eas­ier for mi­grants to be­come ‘lo­cal,’ as well as feel a sense of be­long­ing.”

But there are lim­its to this in­clu­siv­ity, some­times im­posed by the out­siders on them­selves. “In Shen­zhen, if you ask some­one older than the age of 35 where they are from, they will al­ways an­swer, ‘I am from Hubei’ or ‘I am from Jiangxi.’ It doesn’t mat­ter if he or she has been liv­ing in Shen­zhen for up to 20 years,” Liu noted.

Ad­di­tion­ally, more at­ten­tion is be­ing placed on the needs of skilled work­ers, to the detri­ment of the lowskilled mi­grants now om­nipresent in China’s cities. In her es­say, Du notes that half of Shen­zhen’s pop­u­la­tion is es­ti­mated to re­side in di­lap­i­dated “ur­ban vil­lages” en­cir­cled by new devel­op­ments, rather in the sparkling high-rises char­ac­ter­is­tic of the city.

And while there are well-pub­li­cized cam­paigns to for­mally reg­is­ter these work­ers as Shen­zhen­ers (such as a 2017 hukou scheme that did not place re­stric­tions on ed­u­ca­tion level), crit­ics claim that the scope of these ef­forts is of­ten too small, and likely won’t ben­e­fit the city’s most marginal­ized pop­u­la­tions.

As the SEZ rushes head­first in pur­suit of its neb­u­lous dream, it is still yet to be seen how the city will pro­vide equal op­por­tu­ni­ties for all of its mi­grants, be­sides of­fer­ing a cap­i­tal­ist haven in which ev­ery­one suc­ceeds or fails on their own. Zheng, how­ever, notes that the city is now for­mu­lat­ing its own 2035 Vi­sion Plan, “shift­ing the em­pha­sis from eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment to hu­man de­vel­op­ment.”

“We need to build a ‘peo­ple-friendly city,’” said Zheng, “which means that we need to cre­ate a good at­mos­phere for highly tal­ented in­di­vid­u­als, chil­dren, el­derly, as well as for­eign­ers.”

Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by Tan Yunfei (谭云飞)

Forty years after re­form, mi­grants are try­ing to de­fine a “Shen­zhen Dream” that binds the city to­gether 从小渔村到大都市,是深圳的“一梦四十年”

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