The caption to the comic reads, “Comrade, wake up, you still have overtime to work.”
There is much talk of neijuan (内卷) or involution in Shenzhen and indeed throughout China. The conversation is so robust, it even made the New Yorker (Yi-Ling LIU, May 14, 2021). Liu explains that China’s “involuted” generation is overworked, burned out, and despairing that life will get any better. Instead, of seeing rewards at the end of their hard work, they’re seeing just more pointless work. Indeed, as the comic suggests, crashing is often the result of neijuan. In popular culture, many young people have expressed their discontent through tangping (躺平), which translates as “laying down” but resonates with what US Americans would call getting out of the rat race. The expression is so popular, Alibaba even came up with a tangping app, which promotes making money through a relaxed, enjoyable lifestyle.
Of course, the tangping app is itself a symptom of involution…
In Shenzhen, mobilization to get people tested for covid-19 continues, as does pressure to get vaccinated. Everything is online and seemingly streamlined–from registering, to getting an appointment, to having the information pop up on your cellphone covid-app. And it works, until it doesn’t.
The other day, I was asked for my thoughts on the trending hashtag, “Shenzhen girl (深圳女孩儿).” I didn’t understand the question because I don’t Tik Tok. According to my young friend, the hashtag origin story occurred when a couple Shenzhen girls walked into a Beijing bar. The Beijing girls chatted about falling in love and relationships; the #shenzhengirls talked about making money and what they would buy with their cash. Apparently, this generation of #shenzhengirls are too materialistic. I wasn’t shocked by the hashtag because sexing the greed is an ongoing Shenzhen conversation, where people have tended to attribute a woman’s economic success to an immoral character.
But things aren’t so straight-forwardly chauvinistic.
A great Shenzhen neighborhood brings together several generations and types of housing. There is usually an urban village or two, danwei housing that was built before 2000 (more or less), and a larger mall complex that brings in the subway. When these clusters of different building types are located within walking distance of each other, you end up with a thriving independent food scene, affordable housing for singletons and low-income families, and upscale spaces that provide air-conditioned comfort for a cup of coffee or a cram school.
Among 90s generation immigrants (who are twenty-something or just turned 30), Meilin has become popular because it not only provides a diversity of housing and shopping options, but also because it is centrally located; anyone who lives here is looking at relatively quick commutes to work. Nearby urban villages are also popular among low-income families, who can rent two-bedroom apartments for 3,000-4,000, which is expensive, but doable with two parents working and an elder who watches children.
The popularity of this kind of mixed housing neighborhoods means that Shenzhen doesn’t have enough elementary school places where most families live. Historically, Shenzhen has lacked school places relative to population, but that was managed through hukou. However, since the city has allowed the children of long-term residents to attend elementary and middle school, high-density schooling has increasingly become an issue in the city, especially in neighborhoods like Meilin, where low-income families live.
I was playing with the 1866 map of Xin’an County (above) and ended up labeling three important sites on the map–Chiwan, Nantou, and Xixiang. These are the important sites on what used to be called Dachan Bay, and is now known as Qianhai. The reference to all these place names is “Nantou,” which is the colloquially name for the Xin’an County Seat. “Xixiang” means “Western xiang” because it was west of Xin’an. Qianhai means “Front Sea” and Houhai means “Back Sea,” and both are named with respect to Xin’an. Chiwan, of course, was the site of departure for the Western Seas in the Ming and then the South China Sea in the Qing.
The historical relationship between these three places has been gradually restructured since the establishment of the PRC in 1949. First, the County Seat was moved from Nantou to Shenzhen. In practical terms, this meant moving from the PRD to the Kowloon-Canton Railroad. It also meant that Xixiang became the most important town on Qianhai. Second, in 1979, the development of the Shekou Industrial Zone incorporated Chiwan into the new port area. Third, when the Second Line was fixed in 1982, it was drawn just north of Nantou. The new county seat was built up between Nantou and Xixiang. This new county seat was called Bao’an, after the rehabilitated name of the county.
Most recently, this area has been restructured as Qianhai, within the context of the Greater Bay Area. The borders of the Qianhai area run parallel to the coastline (new, reclaimed, but another story), but do not include Xixiang. In other words, what is being restructured as the city’s future are Shekou and Bao’an, while Nantou has been repositioned as a tourist site and Xixiang is on the rise as a residential area.
Below are some impressions of Xixiang, its history, and residential diversity.
Shenzhen is apparently in the midst of a COVID surge. I don’t know what that means in terms of actually numbers; the numbers of confirmed cases that pop up on my app haven’t been more than a couple a day. In terms of events, it means that our weekend walking tours have been postponed. In terms of rumors, we’ve been told to stay away from Yantian and Longgang.
There’s been enthusiasm about the question: why is Shenzhen called Shenzhen and not Bao’an City? Most responses have been as speculative as my own; to date, no one has mentioned a paper trail that actually says why Shenzhen and not Bao’an. Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, I’m going to outline the facts as I understand them.
In 1953, the Bao’an County seat moved from Nantou to Shenzhen Market. In 1979, when Ba’an County became Shenzhen City, the place name Bao’an ceased to exist. The site of government for Shenzhen City was the original Shenzhen Market. In 1980, Shenzhen City became the Shenzhen SEZ. In 1982, Shenzhen City was divided into the SEZ and Bao’an County. Thus, the name Bao’an as a marker for the rural was only rehabilitated in 1982 as part of ongoing restructuring in the 1980s. There was no premeditated preservation of the rural; that was an effect of attempts to govern the newly established city and SEZ.
So I’m going to make the question more explicit: who knows if there is an official reason that the name was changed from Bao’an to Shenzhen? Who has suggestions for where I should look for this paper trail? What level of leader would be involved in this kind of decision?
To contextualize even further: Shekou was part of the Xihai Commune. When it was selected as the site for the China Merchant’s Industrial Park, the new industrial park was called “the Shekou Industrial Park.” There was no name change for a place that would have been more familiar to Hong Kong people or foreigners. Both Chiwan and Mawan, for example, are historically more famous than Shekou, and are in fact part of present-day Shekou, but the name wasn’t changed.
All this to say, I get naming the SEZ Shenzhen because the experimental epicenter was located in and around the old Shenzhen Market. However, renaming Bao’an County is the part I’m struggling with. Indeed, for at least the first twenty years of Shenzhen’s history, we only talked about the SEZ. All this to say, the Shenzhen SEZ could have as easily been located within Bao’an City borders as within Shenzhen City borders. I’m looking for the logic behind the change, or, an explanation for the absence of geographic logic as a feature of Shenzhen’s establishment.
In December 2020, the central government called for speeding up rural modernization (加快农业农村现代化). As elsewhere on the planet, this means industrialization, more Science and Technology R&D, and a new role for Shenzhen in the region! (I know that’s what we care about.) Anyway, a few days ago, I visited the Huizhou City Shennong Fragrant Orchid Valley Ecological Agriculture Science and Technology Ltd. (惠州市神农兰香谷生态农业科技有限公司), which is a grape farm, where no grapes would naturally grow, let alone thrive. So what’s the connection to Shenzhen?
Yesterday, I attended a high table dinner for Muse College, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen. CUHK-SZ is located in Longgang, next to the Shenzhen Moscow State University-Beijing Institute of Technology University (Shenzhen MIS-BIT) and the Longgang sports stadium, which was built for the 2011 Universiade. Both universities were established after the Universiade through national and international initiatives. The first class at CUHK-SZ entered in 2016, while the first class at Shenzhen MIS-BIT entered in 2017. These collaborations indicate Shenzhen’s commitment to formalizing science and technology innovation in the city. Indeed, these investments have been of a piece with the renewal of Huaqiangbei, where upscale malls have replaced the former factory buildings which housed low-cost storefronts, offices, and workshops on the area’s main strip.
Head of the Shanghai Medical Treatment Expert Group, Zhang Wenhong (张文宏) was the keynote speaker at the high table banquet, which also included a performance by the renowned Cantonese opera singer, Zhuo Peili (桌佩丽). Zhang Wenhong became nationally famous for his role in understanding and controlling COVID-19 in China. Accordingly he has become something of a science rock star, especially in venues like CUHK-SZ, where teachers and students lined up to have their picture taken with him.
So, here’s a photograph that confused me for way too long. It pops up on Baidu, when I search “深圳老照片”. It was not immediately apparent to me, however, when and where this landscape existed. And then I stumbled upon a map of Futian Commune and it was like, wow, I get it. Here’s the map: