talk of a global future (revised june 25, 2008)

Over the past few years, Shenzhen has emerged on the American public’s map of China and all sorts of people have been using the municipality to talk about globalization. Just recently, Rolling Stone published Naomi Klein’s articleAll Seeing Eye (sz fieldnote here), and on June 8, 2008 the New York Times Magazine architecture issue published The New, New City by Nicolai Ouroussoff. Indeed, these articles constitute part of a growing public literature on Shenzhen, which includes The Power of Migrants, Wall-Mart Nation, In Chinese Boomtown, Middle Class Pushes Back, and the more general, China’s Instant Cities. In tone, these articles are slightly less sensationalist than Newsweek’s 1999 article Wasted Youth, in which Mahlon Meyer commemorated the tenth anniversary of 6.4 by visiting Shenzhen and suggesting “For Those On The Fringe, Post-Tiananmen China Is A World Of Disaffected Punks And Casual Sex. This May Be Good.”

The diversity of topics, notwithstanding, these articles all use urbanization in Shenzhen to ask: What will the global future be? Who’s creating it? Where is it taking shape? When did it first appear? Why is like this? How can we participate in it? The architects in Ouroussoff’s article are clearly aware of this.

“The old contextual model is not very relevant anymore,” Jesse Reiser, an American architect working in Dubai, told [Ouroussoff] recently. “What context are we talking about in a city that’s a few decades old? The problem is that we are only beginning to figure out where to go from here.”

“The irony is that we still don’t know if postmodernism was the end of Modernism or just an interruption,” Koolhaas told [Ouroussoff] recently. “Was it a brief hiatus, and now we are returning to something that has been going on for a long time, or is it something radically different? We are in a condition we don’t understand yet.”

Indeed, more than any other group (in English), architects have been debating the shape, form, and meaning of the municipality. See, for example, In Shenzhen: City of Expiration and Regeneration.

Lately I wonder if Americans have difficulty thinking Shenzhen because the “suddenness” that we are experiencing is an effect of journalism. Unquestionably, journalists’ discovery of Shenzhen has been abrupt. However the city has been under construction for thirty years and China has been pursuing industrial urbanization projects since 1949. Much of what is happening today in Shenzhen grows out of those past years, and in within the context of local and national history, Shenzhen’s urban growth begins to make sense.

For example, urban villages (城中村) and handshake buildings (握手楼) are neither recent, nor original to the city. Indeed, what are now called urban villages were once called new villages (新村). The early Shenzhen administration, which at the time was not a municipal government annexed village land for urban construction and assigned villages land for pursuing their own livelihood. At the time planners imagined that the villagers would provision the new industrial zone with food. New villages were thus first constructed within this model of urban-rural co-dependency. Consequently, the first generation of new village housing were two to three story private homes. However, villagers immediately realized there was more to be made through smuggling, small businesses, and rental property. The so-called handshake buildings are second generation buildings, which were built on plats determined through a re-negotiation of new village lands and actualize more fully the transformation of village residential housing into rental property. At the same time, urban growth meant that residential and commercial areas soon surrounded, but did not annex the villages, resulting in the effect today of urban-within-villages (the literal translation of 城中村).

In addition, most Americans are unfamiliar with levels of population density in Chinese cities. We are not accustomed to thinking at a scale beyond baby cities of a couple hundred thousand. China’s population (1.3 billion) is roughly 4 times that of the US (300 million). When using that crude, very crude formula all sorts of things come into perspective. Houston (estimated population 4 million), for example, would have an adjusted population of 16 million, falling between Shenzhen (estimated population of 10-12) and Shanghai, China’s largest city (estimated population of 20-odd million). NYC (pop 8 mil.) would have an adjusted population of 32 million. Chongqing–now an independent city and fasted growing urban complex on the planet–has an estimated population of 30-odd million. Yet most Americans have never heard of Chongqing, which has been characterized in the western press as “invisible“.

In the Fall of 1999, I had several job interviews at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association. One of my interviewers asked, “What’s global about Shenzhen?” That question flummoxed me. After five years of living and working in Shenzhen, I took it as self-evident that Shenzhen had always been global. For me the more interesting question was—what isn’t global here? I spent several critical moments trying to ascertain if the question had been asked ironically, and then began to explain that the SEZ had been established in 1980 to reform and open the Chinese socialist political-economy. Reform entailed dismantling the structures of urban work units and rural communes; opening meant allowing foreign capital to fund and profit from this process. Of course, the Chinese government hoped to control how investment occurred, but foreign capital came with all sorts of price tags, some expected others not. The process actualized both the direction and context of Shenzhen’s construction. On the one hand, the goal was to become an international city. On the other hand, the investors, architects, and workers who came to Shenzhen had diverse ideas of what it meant to be international. Of course, what has been built and is under construction exceeds all of that. Exponentially.

In retrospect, it seems clear that I misunderstood the point of the question, which I now understand to be—what do we [scholars of rural Latin America] have in common with Shenzhen? I wanted to talk about Shenzhen with respect to Chinese history since 1949; they wanted to talk about Shenzhen in ways that illuminated and could be enriched by their research on indigenous Andean societies. We could have found common ground to accommodate all concerns, but it would have meant shifting our perspectives, decentering our cognitive maps, and listening more than we were accustomed to doing. Consequently, taking globalization as a topic of conversation didn’t enable us to accommodate international diversity, let alone find a topic that was mutually interesting. Instead, talking about globalization ironically confirmed the borders of our conversational homelands, reproducing the intellectual provincialism that often shapes discourse—academic and otherwise.

The conversations that Americans are having about Shenzhen now constitute an important component of our understanding, evaluation, and realization of globalization. Yet, at present the discourse has yet to leave familiar territory: distopian futurism and exultant capitalism. I think the reason for the impasse is, in part, that we’re still talking about the future of American cities, rather than what might be a truly international future. We have not yet created the perspective necessary to imagine, discuss, and evaluate what it means to live in cities that are simultaneously diverse and co-dependent.

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