handshake 302 in nyc: describing the economic effects of political decisions

Yesterday I participated in an afternoon workshop and gave an evening lecture on our work at Handshake 302. I learned how “Chinese” my English has become, especially when speaking of Shenzhen society!

Yesterday’s events confirmed that more and more US-based scholars and students are interested in learning about Shenzhen in general and the urban villages in particular, especially Baishizhou. After the workshop, for example, an urban planning professor from Columbia took out a virtual copy of a student’s research on Baishizhou to discuss its content. Then, after the talk, two of her students approached me about participating in projects this summer, as did students from the New School and NYU.

These conversations helped me to become more precise in how I use certain words and their implied histories when speaking about Shenzhen. Of note: society (社会) and planning (规划). For example, I tend to use “society” or “social” to include both economic and political processes. In Shenzhen, when we speak of “social improvement [change] (改善社会)” the implicit subject is political-economy, even when (or especially when) the explicit topic is the economy. After all, Shenzhen was made a Special Economic Zone through a political political decision, usually represented through the figure of Deng Xiaoping drawing a circle.

This logic also informs how different audiences understand what is meant by “planning”. Yesterday, it seemed that planning was a technocratic discourse that was being increasingly opened to different political processes. However, in Shenzhen, planning is also embedded in “the transition from a planned to a market economy”. In other words, planning has been one of the tools through which the Center has exerted political control/ influence over economic processes. In turn, this suggests that it might be fruitful to think of urban planning discourse in Shenzhen as a site where society and leaders negotiate the allocation of power to shape society.

The difference I sensed between “planning” and “规划” may be one of degree rather than kind, but my sense was that there was a difference that made a difference at stake.

When speaking of “planned” and “unplanned” communities, my interlocutor stated that plans were necessarily incomplete–points of departure for possibility. In contrast, when I referred Baishizhou as unplanned, I meant that the neighborhood is not formally recognized by the government. On urban plans, for example, Baishizhou exists as a black hole, returning us to the relentlessly political status of Shenzhen society. Indeed, the quasi-legal status of property rights in Baishizhou have had profound economic effects. In turn, many of us use those effects as evidence that this quasi-legal status is desirable and should be recognized as such, arguing that a change in status (from quasi- to fully legal) should not require the demolition and reconstitution of Baishizhou.

All this to say, yesterday during the Q&A session, I realized that my highly politicized and often rudely straight-forward Mandarin might have produced a vaguely neo-liberal English. Sigh.

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