突破:what is a break through?

Lately, I have been thinking about how each of Shenzhen’s six officially lauded break throughs appears as an instance of slogan warfare. Concomitantly, I have thinking about creative destruction, both Marxist and neo-liberal variants. Roughly speaking, Marx defined creative destruction as the necessary destruction of property and means of production (including social relations) so that new wealth could be generated. In contrast, neo-liberal economists like Joseph Schumpeter have tended to define creative destruction in terms of innovation. A question of emphasis that also beats at the heart of moral value: Marx witnessed destruction and its fallout; Schumpeter saw innovation and its benefits.

So below, a brief survey of Shenzhen breakthroughs to track the shift from socialist to neoliberal political morality. As Marx and Schumpeter indicate, none of these break throughs have been morally neutral, legitimating both new forms of inequality and opportunity.

The first Shenzhen break through was separating political and economic functions within work units. This is usually referred to as system reform (体制改革) and has also entailed some form of management and personnel reform (管理和聘用制改革). The moral-political debate is over the relationship between the government and the governed.

The second breakthrough was economic and entailed a double shift of property rights. The first moment was decentralizing property rights away from the central plan to lower ranking units, including individuals. The second moment was how this shift took place, according to economic principals rather than political needs. In its earliest form, this break through was called the household responsibility system (家庭联产承包责任制), but now appears in discussions about upholding the law in a given situation (以法…). Again, at heart a debate over the rights of the governed relative to the government, but this time a stipulation that one of the functions of government is to protect property rights.

The third breakthrough has been the ongoing privatization of social benefits, including education, medical, unemployment, and cultural development. Today, this usually appears in discussions about “socialist harmonious society (社会主义和谐社会),” but was once known as “breaking the iron rice bowl (迫害铁饭碗)”.

The fourth break through came with innovations to the system that was being dismantled. In this respect, Shenzhen was the first to experiment with hiring and firing employees, making government administration about serving social (i.e. business) needs, and enforcing property – including intellectual – property rights. Presently, these discussions have been focusing on the relationship between government and the development of creative industries.

The fifth break through was integrating Hong Kong into the Mainland political economy. Previously, Baoan/Shenzhen had supplied Hong Kong with water, electricity, and food. There was also a time, before the Asian Financial Crisis, when Hong Kong dollars circulated throughout Shenzhen. Presently, cooperation includes developing a port (at Qianhai) and the Luomazhou environmental area.

The sixth break through has been Shenzhen’s lauded (although not completely apparent) efforts to construct an environmentally sustainable city. This shows up in Municipal boosterism, but also in popular culture movements to stop eating dogs.

In both English and Mandarin, the expression break through / 突破 brings with it a sense of relief as if once trapped, we have escaped an oppressive situation. Unfortunately, as Shenzhen’s experience shows, what often gets left out of these discussions (and I’m also thinking about current protests on Wall Street) is that simply calling for “Not this” may only intensify contradictions. We truly need to figure out patterns of mutual support that all of us can live with, rather than simply breaking out of our own personal situation.

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