What’s the difference between Shenzhen and a 直辖市?

直辖市 means “directly governed city”. There are four directly governed cities in China — Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing. The difference between a directly governed city and a special zone (特区) like Shenzhen is political ranking. Directly governed cities have the same political rank as a province. This means that directly governed cities have access to resources and policies that other cities do not.

Shenzhen is a sub-provincial city, which means it is subordinate to Guangdong Province. As a Special Zone, Shenzhen has some economic exceptions, however, in terms of political planning and any kind of social innovation, Shenzhen must operate within the purview of Guangzhou. Consequently, the SEZ has repeatedly chosen to frame any kind of social transformation in terms of “economic” reform.

From the outside looking in, Shenzhen seems different, certainly the most neoliberal of China’s large cities. But from the inside, Shenzhen just seems nouveau riche, a better version of the country’s second tier cities, but not a first tier city like Beijing or Shanghai. Or even Guangzhou.

Currently, experiments in Chongqing provide an interesting comparison with Shenzhen; is the independent city model or the Special Zone model a more effective means of stimulating social development, including things economic?

The comparison between Chongqing and Shenzhen is relevant because within contemporary domestic debates about whither China urban, at stake are competing versions of urbanism and not just the speed of economic development. For many educated and urbane Chinese, China has already entered a post Special Zone era, which means economic development is necessary but insufficient to be considered a first tier city. In order to compete, Shenzhen must demonstrate a uniquely urbane culture. In contrast, the directly governed cities don’t have to prove they are unique or urbane, they just need to polish and intensify what they already are.

This is the story I heard: once upon a time, economic exceptionalism was enough to thrust Shenzhen up in China’s urban ranking. However, the economy has taken Shenzhen as far as it can go; for the city to go further it must become a directly governed city. Recognition and authentic “specialness” will come from political rather than economic success. Of course, this whole formulation is antithetical to the SEZ’s raison d’etre, but does explain the Municipality’s impulse to push creative industry. How else are the nouveau riche to solidify their standing if not through culture?

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