getting things done in shenzhen

This past year, I have increasingly collaborated with foreign artists, filmmakers, and scholars to create projects in Shenzhen. Often at stake in these projects is the form and breadth of necessary support. For example, to do any kind of project in a public site (performance, filming, showing an art film), you do and do not need papers to show guards. What does this mean?

If the project looks like a group of friends just talking or filming, or if you’re performing / filming in a private house or shop, no one will ask questions. Hence, the proliferation of coffee shop and bar events with sympathetic owners. However, if you set up a large set, have many people involved, and a crowd gathers to watch, then any local guard can stop you and ask to see your papers. And every building has employed guards, so you will encounter them. In urban villages, where there might not be building guards, there are neighborhood civil police, who will know you are in the area within about five minutes and show up (or at least that was Fat Bird’s experience when we did guerilla performances in Huangbeiling and Dongmen 1 and 2).

If you don’t produce performance permits, the guards will send you away. Sometimes, even when you have papers, if the area has a special event going on, the guards will work to send you away. This happened several times during the 6 > 60 bus film screenings, when guards who knew us and were used to our project became nervous because a leader was visiting that day and thus asked us to leave as a favor to them. This indicates how seriously onsite guards take enforcement because 6 > 60 was part of the Biennale and therefore a municipal level project. Nevertheless, guards took the attitude “one less concern is better than one more  (多一事不如少一事)”. Likewise, at a recent Shenzhen University event, a dormitory guard tried to shut down an approved project because approval had only taken the form of spoken agreement. When the project organizer went to confront the approving official, he denied that he had ever heard of the project.

When organizing a project in China, it bears remembering that upper level officials may agree to help (and often support a project in principle), but if they do not write a letter of support, sign papers or issue permits, their support is practically useless because enforcement takes place onsite. Moreover, in most cases the leaders that can approve a project and the offices that issue permits are separate. This means, of course, that what needs to happen is project directors need to work with leaders who are willing to call the people who do issue permits on their behalf.

The whole question of corruption happens at this overlap between needing political support to obtain permits and the fact that enforcement happens elsewhere. After all, why should an official make a phone call or pursue permit issuing officials for you? What’s in it for them? Likewise, permit issuing officials sometimes become a third site of obstruction, depending on the relative status of the caller — immediate leaders are very helpful in pushing permits through, but their office is usually not high enough to approve a project.

And so point du jour: getting things done in Shenzhen means being able to network as many levels as possible to get the permits necessary to make an onsite intervention. That done, you need to then work with or against onsite guards. One time events can usually be accomplished by arguing with guards, however long term projects require onsite negotiations with guards, and often their leaders, who are responsible to a different chain-of-command than the one that pushed through the permits, which in turn requires another round of explaining and securing agreement.

That said, sometimes bravado will get the same or better results, but it’s a gamble.

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