Yesterday, I was walking in one of the new sections of Houhai. On my left, behind the walls of an elite gated community, children frolicked in a recently completed swimming pool. On my right, migrant workers hung out at a corner kiosk of a construction site shantytown. The juxtaposition of these two spaces, common throughout Shenzhen, symbolizes the class structure that has enabled the construction of the city. On the one hand, urban residents (whether from other cities or long term Shenzhen residents) occupy the new buildings and spaces—upscale housing, high-rise offices, and shopping malls bulging with designer goods. On the other hand, rural migrants build these spaces, inhabiting temporary structures that vanish at the end of a project. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see children playing or women cooking in front of a row of construction site shanties. Unlike the enclosed lives of the gated community, shantytown lives spill into the street, disrupting the flow of traffic. Then, they vanish and the street takes on the “normal (正常)” appearence of a residential neighborhood.
When I first came to Shenzhen, well-meaning urbanites repeatedly warned me that life in Shenzhen was “disorderly (好乱)” and “complex (复杂)”. Moreover, they explicitly attributed urban crime to outsiders (外来人), who were ineligible for household residence in Shenzhen and therefore thought to lack “emotion (感情)” for the city. In fact, one of the more interesting themes running through conversations about Shenzhen has been whether or not a person can feel attached to a place that isn’t their hometown. Much is at stake in this question: how and when do residents self-identify as “Shenzheners” rather than as sojourners from other places? But back to questions about disorderly and complex living conditions. Ten years after my arrival, urbanites continue to issue warnings about walking in Shenzhen. And although I have never been robbed (I have “lost” several bicycles, but that’s another matter), my friends continue to worry for my safety. They are convinced that foreigners present a ready target to unscrupulous outsiders. When I ask if they feel safe in the city, they usually reply, “yes”, but then add, “you can’t be too careful”. And I wonder if this “you” means me-in-particular or one-in-general…
Signs of an underlying anxiety also permeate the built environment. In addition to taking precautions before going out, Shenzhen residents build gated communities, enforce community walls with barbed wire, and hire security guards. Security walls are also built around construction sites. Recently, I have noticed advertisements for private eyes (私人侦探) throughout the city. These advertisements are spray painted on walls throughout the city, as well as onto sidewalks and telephone booths. I’ve posed my found objects with these signs of anxiety–a first attempt at a dialogue with the built environment Shenzhen about terms of inhabitation. Some of these signs of anxiety are now online.
Officially, Shenzhen has not commented on the question of public safety. However, there have been indirect references to the matter; Shenzhen’s leaders are vigorously promoting the idea of “harmonious society (和谐社会)”. This slogan also links up with national concerns. Under Jiang Zemin, the Party emphasized a policy of “using morality to govern the country (以德治国)”. Hu Jintao’s administration has continued to deploy revamped Confucianism to exhort citizens to participate in capitalist reforms, offering the slogan “harmonious society (和谐社会)” as a collective goal. Given the class differences and concomitant social tensions that characterize even walking down the street in Shenzhen, “you” feel the importance and desirability of such a society.