self governing trade zone, thoughts from

Speculation about what the 自贸区 (self governing trade zone) continues to shape all sorts of conversations. On Monday I participated in a public planning forum for the OCT, where comparisons between China Merchants in Shekou and Overseas Chinese Town in its eponymous neighborhood, the OCT illuminated contours of Shenzhen’s history. Four ideas of note popped up.

First, that China Merchants (in Shekou) and OCT (in the OCT) have been the two state owned enterprises most responsible for creating the Shenzhen image. During the post 1992 era, many of the images of reform (in terms of built environment) were of the OCT and its neighborhoods, tourist industry, and theme parks.

Second, apparently (and this is rumor taken for information) in the original SGTZ plan, there was more Guangzhou and less Shekou. The goal of course is to control Qianhai. The result of black box negotiation was negligible Guangzhou and the inclusion of Shekou. Here’s the point. China Merchants already has a significant holding in Qianhai. With the inclusion of Shekou, China Merchants has become the single largest property administrator in the SGTZ. The interpretation in the planning meeting was that the Center still believes in Shenzhen (“中央看好深圳“).

Third, in addition to thinking about what Shekou’s changing status will mean for OCT in terms of challenges and the changing scale of regional ambition, the conversation also acknowledged Baishizhou as a co-evolutionary neighbor that will become a competitor upon redevelopment. So the OCT is transitinioning from being the dominant State Owned Industry in its neck of the urban woods, to shaping a plan that must exploit relative advantages. And it occurred to me that one way of resolving Baishizhou would be to have the OCT annex it, but not raze it.

Fourth, the conversation also razed the question of corporate responsibility that OCT has for the OCT and territory under its administration. This was a less articulated undercurrent, but was ironically the justification for holding a public conversation. But issues alluded to include the question should OCT run Ecological Park like a mall or like an actual public park?

Associations I’ve made? I’m remembering that the idea for Splendid China (the first of the theme parks) was first proposed in Shekou and when it failed there it was brought to the OCT and launched what is considered the OCT model of real estate development: tourist real estate developments that resemble foreign destinations and include themeparks and museums.

Also, the call for more public participation in Shenzhen society and planning decisions continues. Moreover, society continues to push for progressive change via economic institutions. However, unlike China Merchants, OCT does not have a history of trying to negotiate a society out of its holdings. The fact that China Merchants’ primary holding is still called Shekou and OCT’s primary holding is eponymous clearly distinguishes how early leaders in the competing state owned enterprises interpreted their directives in the early days of the SEZ. I’m curious to see where these conversations lead.

Finally, the conversation ignored two other Shenzhen corporations active in Nanshan, Tengxun of QQ and WeChat is in this district and Vanke is resculpting Liuxiandong into a creative high tech park. Although both companies are private, nevertheless, they are clearly working with government officials to claim large tracks of land and their industry attracts more young people than do either China Merchants or OCT.

So shifting geographies as we step into 2015. May you and yours flourish.

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