thoughts from kunming


artist area, kunming

Yesterday, I arrived in Kunming to spend some time with my old friend, Sasha. We are staying in a factory area that is being converted into an art area, with studios, restaurants, and cheap overnight housing. Just around the corner is an art center set up by a group of Scandinavians.

When the cab driver dropped me off here he sighed and asked, “What are the workers going to do?”

And that’s part of the question that’s posed by the abrupt transformation of Shenzhen factories into upgraded productive areas, like the creative technologies in Xiasha, design offices in Tianmian, and bohemian art facilities in OCT loft: even if it isn’t the artists’ fault that factories are closing and moving to new areas, what are the workers going to do?

I find this question, along with questions about the salience of a workers’ revolution muted in Shenzhen. Or perhaps its more accurate to say, the questions seemed forced because there’s little (left) in the environment that directly references what gentrification has meant for workers’ quality of life or how the Shenzhen experiment grew out of issues raised by the revolution.

Historical forms of silencing or glossing over the question of working class politics in Shenzhen include:

1. Shenzhen workers are defined by their exclusion from the city. This exclusion is an overdetermined effect of hukou policies, urban design, and Shenzhen social protocols. First, migrant workers do not have Shenzhen hukou and are therefore technically not “Shenzheners”. Second, factories workers either live in dormitories or new villages. This means that they are either unseen (in the case of dormitories) or subsumed under the category of local villager (in the case of new villages). Third, if a migrant worker has earned enough money to move into white collar neighborhoods, that person is considered a Shenzhener. The key here is that, except for local villagers, everyone living in Shenzhen migrated to work. The class distinction between office and factory work is the pivot on which rights to belonging in the city hinge.

2. Shenzhen’s traditional “workers” were Baoan farmers, who have yet to embody either the revolution or reform. For most Chinese and foreigners the classic Chinese worker was defined by socialist industrialization during the 50s and 60s in cities like Harbin, Shenyang, and Dalian; the forms of industrialization that have taken place since 1980, do not fall under the same rubric and therefore have also produced a different understanding of workers. Indeed, post Mao urbanization has entailed transforming rural areas and rural people into cities and urban residents. In this process, the actual class relations defining industrial production get recast as “cultural”.

Specifically, after Liberation, Baoan County was designated for rural production. This meant that during the Mao years, villagers were not factory workers, who represented the socialist vanguard. Under Deng, Baoan county was elevated to the status of Shenzhen Municipality. As such, the ideal Shenzhener has been an urban, white collar worker. In other cities, like Kunming, the shift in social importance from factory to office workers represents a re-valuation of class relations internal to the city itself. Rural migrant workers and traditional factory workers embody different forms of lower class urban possibility. However, in Shenzhen, this contradiction has not actualized as such because there were never factory workers here. Instead, Shenzhen actualizes an intensification of the relative ranking of rural and urban lives. In this sense, Shenzhen’s recent history has been consistent with Maoism in ways that prevent urban residents from reflecting on the injustices that have come along with reform.

3. Shenzhen buildings have a half-life of seven years. It takes active searching to find, photograph, and categorize traces of history, both socialist and local. During the eighties and nineties Shenzhen produced electronics and textiles and toys and shoes and what-not, those factories have since been razed or transformed. In the SEZ itself, the few factories that remain are being upgraded into cultural industries centers like the design center in Tianmian or commercial areas like in Huaqiangbei.

A visit to a city like Kunming where it is still possible to find Stalinist architecture on a main street or still functional factories downtown highlights the Shenzhen impulse to erase all traces of manufacturing, instead projecting an image of already actualized upper middle class city that was never build on production. A city of two classes–white collar workers and their servants and servers. With manufacturing located offsite out of sight and their for out of mind.

The ironies and the difficulties that entangle workers and artists (even before complete capitalization of the Chinese economy) are perhaps represented by “The Materialist (唯物主义者),” a statue by Wang Guangyi (王广义) that stands in front of the Gingko Elite (翠湖会) shopping center. Want Guangyi’s work was once banned in the PRC because it combined socialist and pop cultural symbols. His resistance to the socialist state increased his marketability among Western collectors. That his work is now public culture in Kunming suggests both the extent to which China has changed as well as the need for reminders of why the revolution was and continues to be necessary.

The commodification of culture defines contemporary gentrification in Shenzhen. The difference I am noting is how the process remains built into Kunming’s urban space, while in Shenzhen this process is a glorified municipal policy to create a city in keeping with global standards. Although I could be wrong. However, the presence of the Scandanavians suggests a different kind of reliance on government funding for art.

In addition to manifesting socialist history through remnant buildings, Kunming also has monuments to the revolution. We visited the Yunnan Army Training School, just near Lake Cui. The large compound seems a popular tourist site, and I saw two brides posing for pictures within the compound space. Inside was an installation that wrote Yunnan’s Double Nine (重九) uprising into national history, indeed, an installation that positioned Yunnan at the forefront of the revolution. When I later asked some Chinese friends, they said they new about the War to Save the Nation (护国战), but not the Double Nine, which even had its own flag.

So points of comparison with Shenzhen.

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