Why does the West misread Shenzhen?

Here’s a quote introducing the SEZ’s investment environment. I lifted it directly from the English website of the Shenzhen Municipal Government. I like it because it makes explicit the different ways that the Chinese government and neoliberal Western think tanks evaluate Shenzhen:

Economic Power

Shenzhen is fourth on the Chinese mainland in terms of economic power and one of the cities that has generated the biggest economic returns.

Shenzhen was second in an economic performance listing by the Brookings Institute and the LSE Cities. The Global Metro Monitor report published in November 2010, which examined data on economic output and employment in 150 of the world’s largest metropolitan economies, showed that Shenzhen’s economic performance was second in the world and first in China.

And that’s the point. In China, Shenzhen is fourth, behind Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. China ranks its cities not only in terms of economy, but also political clout. So yes, Shenzhen’s economic success has launched it ahead of other Chinese cities, such as Tianjin, which under Mao was city number three, but no matter what the SEZ’s international economic ranking, politically, Guangzhou is the highest ranking city in Guangdong Province. Full Stop. And of course there is no question about Beijing’s status in the PRC. Beijing is first, and the benefits of being first are legion, most notably the fact that the Capitol’s students have preferential admission to national universities, which in turn, further secures Beijing’s position.

This slippage between political status and economic ranking is important because the conflation of the political and the economic has predicated Shenzhen’s economic success. Downside? First, this leaves little room for non-commercial forms of social life or political activism. Consequently, most Shenzhen social movements take economic form; a boycott on purchasing overpriced houses, for example. Second, most people in Shenzhen fear that at any point what they have earned (so to speak) can be taken from them because in within the political vocabulary of the country, economic earning happens as a result of political favor. How will all these people maintain their relative economic status if they loose their preferential political treatment?

What this quote shows is that in terms of the PRC, Shenzhen not only ranks fourth, but also uses the Brookings’ ranking to affirm Chinese policy. Just like Deng did in the 1984 and 1992 Southern Tours. In other words, by not looking beyond economic indicators, Brookings creates the same type of propagandistic justification for Shenzhen that the Party has — lots of money means all is right with the world. And that’s scary because it demonstrates the convergence between neoliberal economic policy and political repression or “Chinese characteristics” as it is usually glossed in English. (In Mandarin, we usually refer to political repression as 国情). For a sense of how political repression appears in terms of urban planning, I conclude with Shenzhen’s long term goal du jour:

Shenzhen will be a pilot zone for a national comprehensive reform program and will be built into a national economic hub, State-level innovative city, model city with Chinese characteristics and international metropolis.

2 thoughts on “Why does the West misread Shenzhen?

  1. Couldn’t agree more, Shenzhen’s a funny old place and it’s certainly not a high priority inside China any more. Central government have cut the city off from future development funds, and the current provincial experiment is for Shenzhen to drop manufacturing and move to a “creative economy”. Which will be interesting to see if this can happen in what is essentially a social/cultural vacuum of the pre-packaged city life.

  2. Yes, we’re living in some strange time warp; when Shenzhen was the most important experiment in China (the 80s through the mid90s), people actually asked me why I was studying Shenzhen and if in fact it was “global”. Now that China is “been there done that” about the SEZ, the West has discovered it. I’m thinking possibly because Shenzhen looks familiar (with all those American chain stores?)

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