These past few days, I have been thinking about new forms of Shen Kong integration. Shen Kong (深港) is an abbreviation of Shenzhen-Hong Kong, which is frequently used as an adjective, but may also refer to the two city area.In fact, these past few years, Shen Kong collaborations have included: a 24-7 border crossing, linking the subway systems of the two cities, loosening the travel restrictions on Shenzhen residents for visiting Hong Kong, the architecture biennial, and planning the Qianhai Cooperation Zone and the Lok Ma Chau Loop. In this post, I give a brief contextualization of Shen Kong history in order to explore how power balances have been shifting in the Pearl River Delta since 1980.
Shenzhen has a special place in the history of Reform and Opening policies, which aimed both to strengthen the country vis-a-vis other countries and to improve the Chinese people’s standard of living. In this sense, Reform and Opening explicitly continued Maoist goals, which in turn were a modern twist on the classical political ideal of “a strong country, a peaceful / settled people (国强民安).” The Dengian twist was to reform collectivism by opening Chinese markets to foreign capital. As we all know, these policies were first tested in Shenzhen and the other SEZs, Zhuhai, Shantou, and Xiamen and later on, Hainan.
It is important to keep our eyes on the dual goal of strengthening the country and providing for the well being of the people when contextualizing recent Shen Kong history. On the one hand, Baoan County was elevated to Shenzhen Municipality precisely because it bordered Hong Kong. At the time, Shenzhen was an important feature of discussions about returning Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. On the other hand, Northern Chinese leaders interpreted Guangdong’s importance in South China Sea trade as being cultural. In other words, it was believed that shared Cantonese culture would enable Shenzhen residents to cooperate with Hong Kong investors. Consequently, early forms of Shen Kong served both to integrate Hong Kong into the larger Chinese system and did so by emphasizing regional economic development.
The most representative form of Shen Kong integration was called “the shop in front, factory in the back (店前厂后)” model of development. In this model, Shenzhen (and other Guangdong cities) were centers of cheap manufacturing, which was then exported to western and east Asian markets by way of Hong Kong arbitrage. However, the City’s success and expansion have not only surpassed expectations, but also positioned Shenzhen to take a more active role in Shen Kong negotiations.
And here’s the rub. Shenzhen’s political function, like Hong Kong has been defined through it’s economic role. Shenzhen’s call for a creative economy is, in part, a call for a more creative economy. Nevertheless, the challenge facing new forms of Shen Kong integration is not simply to renegotiate ratios of profit allocation, but also to think through the political implications of these changes. After all, the shop in front, factory in back model of development succeeded to the extent that Shenzhen salaries and rents were lower than Hong Kong, even as Shenzhen people were prevented from crossing the border in order to take advantage of Hong Kong opportunities, but Hong Kong people were encouraged to take advantage of opportunities in Shenzhen. Arbitrage is, by definition, competitive advantage that arrises out of inequality.
Indeed, new forms of Shen Kong integration worry me because all the negotiating is happening, again, at the level of capital investment, rather than by thinking about what it means politically, socially, culturally, and environmentally to integrate cities of 14 and 7 million, respectively. To continue to limit the political function of Shen Kong to economic productivity will both exacerbate ongoing problems of urban sprawl and also forego the very real opportunity to rethink how we might collaborate in creating a more egalitarian and sustainable world.