On the face of it, this text message jokes about China’s cultural diversity:
To Beijing, the rest of the country is grassroots; to Shanghai, the rest of the country is countryside; to Guangdong, the rest of the country is poor; to Henan the rest of the country is inconsiderate; from Shandong, the rest of the country is unfair; to Jiangsu, the rest of the country is underdeveloped; to Zhejiang, the rest of the country is waiting to be developed; to Shaanxi, the rest of the country has no culture; to Xinjiang, the rest of the country is overcrowded; to Tibet, the rest of the country lacks belief.
The message, however, also suggests the geography of unequal value that structures migration to and opportunity in Shenzhen, where a migrant’s background (背景) increasingly determines opportunity. What happens, then, when instead of joking about the explicit other (grassroots, countryside, poor…), we make explicit the implied value hierarchy? Arguably, we feel the sting of a punchline:
Power is located in Beijing; sophistication is located in Shanghai; economic opportunity is located in Guangdong; traditional courtesy is located in Henan; a sense of fairness is located in Shandong; fast development is located in Jiangsu; fast development is located in Zhejiang; traditional culture is located in Shaanxi; low density population is located in Xinjiang; and belief (buddhism) is located in Tibet.
Indeed, as a straightforward list of values, the organization of the joke reproduces China’s territorial hierarchy: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou-Shenzhen (“Guangdong”), before turning to neidi (the rest of the country), where traditional values are located. In the context of the Beijing-Shanghai-Guangzhou-Shenzhen rivalry, what catches my attention is the mediating position of sophistication (“Shanghai”) between power and wealth (“Beijing” and “Guangdong”). It’s not enough to be rich, but one must also be sophisticated in order to gain a certain legitimacy. In contrast, naked power still works.
With respect to neidi, the ongoing marginalization of tradition, non-economic values, and religious belief within and against Beijing-Shanghai-Guangzhou-Shenzhen is obvious. Also of note — this marginalization is simultaneously a ruralization and a racialization of the country. We might also see these “lesser” neidi values as weapons of weak, which James C. Scott defined as those tactics available to peasants within and against urban States. The important Chinese supplement to that story is not the insight that strong States produce peasants. But rather that current patterns of modernization and development continuously reproduce “peasants” even when people no longer live agrarian lives.
Thought du jour: In Shenzhen, of course, migrants have different access to power, sophistication, and wealth. Not unexpectedly, relative access to these values determine scope and scale of a migrant’s success. However, the role of “sophistication” as mediating between “power” and “money” means that many of Shenzhen’s second generation (officials and wealthy) are pursuing educations and careers that will (in theory) position them to transcend Shenzhen’s fourth position and bootstrap into China’s higher eschalons.
So yes, the Shenzhen Dream remains remarkably “American”.