cleaning up Shenzhen: were there more than 80,000 dangerous people in the city?

The published facts demand interpretation:

According to reports, as of April 6 in the “One Hundred Days Movement”, municipal police have gone out 284,000 times; they have made over 330,000 inspections of rental housing, 32,000 inspections of internet bars, 60,000 inspections of tourist agencies, 20,000 inspections of clubs, and 40,000 inspections of other spaces. As a result, over 2,300 landlords have been penalized [for infractions] and over 1,180 illegal internet bars, travel agencies, and other spaces have been closed, effectively cleansing areas that have had difficulty insuring public safety.


Like the Special Economic Zone Daily, Jing Bao also celebrated the Municipality’s efforts to rid the city of 80,000 高危人员 (highly dangerous people) as preparation for hosting a safe Universiade. In fact, from April 11 through July 31, on the basis of the “Hundred Days Movement”, Shenzhen’s police force will begin another urban cleansing, this time called “The Universiade Strict Enforcement of the Ten Great Public Safety Problems Movement”. The aim of said movement is to strengthen capacity to investigate and cleanse recalcitrant people; strengthen oversight of rental housing and the floating population; strengthen responses to traffic accidents; strengthen responses to fires; and strengthen construction of  public safety checkpoints.

The target of the current public safety movement are what were once called 流氓 (hooligans) and 三无人员 (three withouts) and now are sometimes referred to as slackers (闲散人). In short, the target of increasing police harassment and surveillance are those without Shenzhen hukou, a job in the formal economy, and legal housing. And this distresses me because the Universiade clean-up reminds us that yes a hukou matters, not by its presence, but in its absence. Shenzhen is not simply putting in the infrastructure to improve public safety, but has built into that network a tendency to target those who are least able to protect themselves.

Now, if published figures are to be believed (and the latest census results have yet to be released), Shenzhen’s official population is 2.59 million, with an actual population estimated between 13 to 15 million. And yes, Shenzhen’s overwhelming immigrant majority is both a source of pride and ongoing anxiety for municipal leaders.

On the one hand, Shenzhen’s open structure means that immigrants do come and prosper in the city. Just yesterday, for example, a Sichuanese cabbie told me that he had worked in Shanghai and other cities before coming to Shenzhen, but Shenzhen was the best because local people didn’t control the economy. In contrast, in Shanghai all the opportunities were given to local people. So he had encouraged family and friends from his hometown to come to Shenzhen and try to improve their lives.

On the other hand, it also means that public safety is difficult precisely because no one really knows how many people are here, where they live, or what they do. In most Chinese cities, the fact of hukou means the police have files on the majority of the population; in Shenzhen, they do not. Moreover, even those with hukou or legal temporary residence in the city move constantly. Individual housing upgrades are common, but even more common is simply the fact that as neighborhoods are razed, folks move. This means that usual Chinese mechanisms to ensure public safety – files at the neighborhood precinct, old women who watch every alley and know the background of each resident, friends who tell your mother what you did even before you finish doing it — don’t work in Shenzhen as they (are thought to) do in neidi, giving rise white-collar anxiety about public safety. And yes, the police do not simply represent government or “official” interests, but also those of Shenzhen’s significant middle class.

I hope that as discussions of Ai Weiwei’s incarceration continue and as necessary attention is directed at the way the Chinese state surveils its white-collar populations of computer hackers and experimental artists, we also keep in mind Shenzhen’s 80,000 unnamed slackers / hooligans / drifters who are suddenly not here. Surveillance at this lowest of levels occurs through door-to-door sweeps that indiscriminately clean out the good, the bad, and the ugly. Indeed, the lack of documentation about three withouts’ lives, their collective lack of hukou, legal income, and fixed housing means that at the end of the movement, all that remains are traces of what may or may not have happened, which assuage white-collar anxiety, but do not make us safer.

13 thoughts on “cleaning up Shenzhen: were there more than 80,000 dangerous people in the city?

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  3. Yes, my question is: where shall these people go?

    For example, one goes to a toilet without sewage. WHERE shall the waste flow to?

    As a Shenzhen native, I’ve seen things as such many many times…. This is Chinese style.

    P.S. I find your blog amazing 😛

  4. Dear Wilson,

    Thank you for joining the conversation. I believe most of the illegals are “sent” back to their hometowns, but I don’t know how that actually happens – this is a good question to follow through on.

    About the question, where do the homeless go to the bathroom if they haven’t a room to live in. Shenzhen has many free public toilets and these are often used. There are also many hidden spaces behind trees and against walls. If you follow the paths into these spaces, you find make-shift bathrooms.

    • Oh, actually that’s just a metaphor. I mean these slackers/hooligans are treated like waste. They are swept out of this city but I don’t know where they go.

      I feel angry about this, but there is nothing I can do about it.

      Recently, as Universiade is around the corner, citizens buy chopping knives shall be registered in real names. Funny government.
      I will try to buy some water pistols then.~~~

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