are there any shenzheners?

The Shenzhen Volunteer Association claims that “If you come, you are a Shenzhener (来了,就是深圳人). The claim itself is fascinating because it not only flies in the face of traditional hometown identities, but also because it implies that those who were already here aren’t Shenzheners.

There are three main labels for people in Shenzhen: 深圳人 (Shenzhener),本地人 (local),and 外地人 (outsider). As a general rule of thumb, Shenzheners are as much a construction of ongoing municipal campaigns to generate identification with the city as they are the rich second generation who grew up here. The point is that in addition to refering to an individual’s hukou status, the label “Shenzhener” also and importantly refers to a recognizable lifestyle and aesthetic that in the US we would call “middle class consumer”.

In contrast, locals and outsiders refer to the hometowns of people who live in Shenzhen. Locals have traditional roots here (through a historic village), while outsiders came from elsewhere to live and work in Shenzhen. Technically, everyone in Shenzhen is either a local or an outsider. However, as indicated above, the category of “Shenzhener” is an ongoing social construction that transvalues local and outsider identities, usually by smoothing out differences in the second generation. Thus, the children of both locals and outsiders frequently identify as Shenzheners, even when their parents have Shenzhen household residency but continue to identify with their hometown.

The distinction between Shenzheners, locals, and outsiders points to the overlap between traditional Chinese hometown identities and the reform policies that created Shenzhen. On the one hand, Chinese people identify with their hometowns, creating identity out shared language, food, and customs, such as Shanghai or Hakka people. On the other hand, Shenzhen identity has been constructed out of the transformation of Bao’an, environmentally, socially, politically, and culturally. Shenzheners are the people who have participated in and/or benefited from that process. In contrast, locals remain identified with their natal villages, while outsiders continue to identify with theirs.

The symbols through which individuals craft Shenzhener identities are vexed by contradiction and uncertainties for three reasons. First, less than 3 million people (or 1/6) of the total population have Shenzhen hukou, which means legally most inhabitants are not Shenzheners. Second, if locals are not considered Shenzheners, it is because identity remains rooted in policy, rather than history. And third, even second generation Shenzhen residents remain emotionally embedded in hometown relationships elsewhere because their were raised by outsider grandparents.

Of course, therein lays the rub. The debate about who is a Shenzhener not only raises the question of who has rights to the city, but also the question of who is willing to be responsible for the city. To date, these questions have not been explicitly addressed, begging the question: is it enough to define a Shenzhener through how an individual has used the city (to achieve political and/or economic goals), or do we need to re-imagine the Shenzhener identity in terms of contributions to society?

5 thoughts on “are there any shenzheners?

  1. I have also been wondering about the meaning of this slogan. But I wouldn’t say that “来了,就是深圳人” does imply that people who have been living here before are not Shenzheners. I’m still not really sure what they are trying to say with this slogan, eg. can people let their kids go to public schools here although they just came here and don’t have a Shenzhen Hukou? I doubt it, but IMO the slogan seems to suggest something like this.

  2. And yet the real “town identity” (or a “megacity identity”, if it is really possible) is, in my opinion, something difficult to build on porpouse, and even more complicated to create out of a political iniatitive. I think we share this thought. There is time needed and probably some political changes needed too, but those that aim the integration and the social differences vanishing, rather than those that try to achieve an instant superficial identity. Then, no matter what the slogan means, but it will make no difference at all. Don’t you think?. Wonderful post again, thank you.

    • Hi Baumlab, thank you for mentioning the challengs posed by scale. I think that common identities grow in intimate settlements — families, friend cohorts, villages, streets, and neighborhoods. Ideology or larger collective identities that are created through mass media and propaganda campaigns seem parasitic on this more visceral sense of self. I wonder, however, with our current addiction to virtual communities how much more vulnerable we are to mass campaigns.

  3. Exactly! I totally agree with you. I find myself infected, vulnerable to media. In my opinion, both scales contaminate each other… the image of the city is part of the city itself and, even beyond, the perception of what we are is probably predesigned by obscure tools. Both of them are real, image and the initial reality it comes from. Both of them irreversibly distorted. Baudrillard already said something about it. In extreme capitalism, it turned out to be that personalities are built by the accumulation of objects, items by which we feel strangely attracted because of commercial campaigns. When citizenship becomes a profitable product, something worth selling, then urban identity may not be studied as an intimate exponential process anymore, but as an economic dynamic.

    • Yes: if profit is the highest value in our society, then it makes sense that our social lives would be expressed in terms of economic dynamics. For me the interesting question has become: how do transvalue our current lives?

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