shennan rd, part 2

Walking further east on Shennan Road, from the old city hall building toward the train station, what becomes clear is the extent to which we might describe urbanization in Shenzhen as a process of “the city surrounds the countryside”. This phrase, a reworking of the Maoist revolutionary maxim that “the countryside surrounds the city” points to the geographic shift that has enabled the transition from rural revolution to urban reform. Under Mao, revolution was understood as starting in rural areas and spreading to urban areas. Although the revolutionaries aimed to modernize China, they nevertheless first occupied rural areas and then liberated urban areas. Thus, the Maoist slogan referred to a military strategy. In contrast, under Deng, reform was understood to entail freeing up urban processes in order to allow the economy to develop naturally. Consequently, the Shenzhen inversion of Maoism makes explicit the shift from political to economic concerns, even as it maintains the occupation of land as central to historic process. All too crudely, we might say that for Mao, the occupation of territory was conceptualized as a political process that was to bring about economic change. In contrast, under Deng, the occupation of territory was understood as an economic project, which had political consequences.

What is interesting to think about in terms of Shenzhen’s rural urbanization, is how the rural and the backward (in need of modernization) constantly change as new areas are developed. Thus, areas that ten, fifteen years ago were considered modern are today looking worse for wear. These now constitute the relative rural, which needs to be updated. The process of ruralizing the urban with respect to newer, taller, more modern urban spaces creates a particular kind of urban geography, one of poorer eddies, or (quite literally because they stand in the shadows of taller buildings) dark holes that are surrounded by shiny new buildings. The relative poverty of these pockets is of a different kind than the kind of isolation that has taken place in Shenzhen’s new villages, which are actually well off. Instead, these pockets are the manifestation of a necessary dialectic in which progress is measured by overcoming what already exists—there is a necessary surpassing of these older areas.

I think I’ll write more about the creation of ghettos and its particular manifestation in Shenzhen in another entry. Today, I want to call attention to the ongoing contradictions, but also the shiny brightness of Shenzhen construction during the 1990s. These images can be seen at:

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