Shenzhen Speed has been taken up as a metaphor to describe the pace of life in the city, including the velocity at which buses race through the city. According to friends, Shenzhen buses cover more ground in less time than do buses in their hometowns, where apparently they meander from stop to stop and can take hours to cross an entire city. In contrast, in Shenzhen, crosstown buses make several loops in a day. However, as metaphor “Shenzhen Speed” may distort more than it illuminates the history of the city.
Roughly a decade after Shenzhen was up and running, David Harvey introduced the idea of space-time compression to explain The Condition of Post Modernity. In retrospect, its clear that many of the effects that he noticed were effects of containerization; what had actually speeded up was delivery time from factory to shop. Other masculinist social theorists, such as Paul Virilio have focused on technological advances to explain the acceleration of urban life. From Virilio:
“Today we are entering a space which is speed-space … This new other time is that of electronic transmission, of high-tech machines, and therefore, man is present in this sort of time, not via his physical presence, but via programming”
Yet when we listen to feminist theorists like Doreen Massey about what A Global Sense of Place might be, we realize again, that we are talking about how people–who have unequal access to resources, including high-tech machines and bits of territory–use space to create lives.
In 1980, there were roughly 2,000 villages in Shenzhen with an estimated population of 300,000 people. The villages were evenly spread out over the territory of Bao’an County. When the call to Reform and Open came, all of them simultaneously began to reconstruct their environment to take advantage of the new policy. At the same time, the State sent several thousands to the newly designated SEZ to start constructing a city. Millions followed. In this sense,”Shenzhen Speed” referred not to space-time compression through technology or even neoliberal ideologies (as John Agnew has argued), but rather to the cumulative effects of many, many, many people doing the same thing (constructing low-tech buildings) simultaneously.
In its earliest incarnation, for example, Shenzhen Speed referred to the speed at which students designed and oversaw the construction of Shenzhen University, while attending classes. In 1992, when Deng Xiaoping toured the South in order to jump-start floundering reforms, Shenzhen Speed was used to refer to the International Trade building (国贸). Importantly, Shenzhen Speed in its two earliest instances referred to construction.
Shenzhen Speed did not refer to the speed of manufacturing or even the growth of the economy until after the 1992 tour. This is important: during the early 80s, Shenzhen was building the infrastructure to support manufacturing, only after 1984 did economic growth accelerate. However, manufacturing was still assembly line production and it took time to make things. Factories did not pop out shipping containers full of goods everyday, in large part because they were manufacturing small electronics and toys.
Yes, Shenzhen popped up in less than ten years and yes again in the years since the 1992 Souther Tour, Shenzhen has undergone several massive facelifts. However, this is not the work of a mere 500,000, or a million or even two million people, but of millions of people. In other words, what is often thought of as Shenzhen Speed might be more accurately thought of as the effects of demographics and densities. Shenzhen Speed was generated through the simultaneity of actions across an unregulated territory, rather than through speeded up actions.
To the extent that “speed” has become an important resource within globalization, it makes sense that control over the fastest technologies has become an important element of geopolitics. It also makes sense that in places like Shenzhen, which bootstrapped from rudimentary agricultural technologies through manufacturing technologies to biotech and finance, speed is of the essence because they were not only speeding up, but rather and more importantly, inventing new forms of speed in order to catch up with an accelerating world economy.
One of the effects of simultaneity was the compression of the distance between spaces (through containerization among other technologies) and it felt (and still feels) very, very fast. But there’s a Weberian rub to all this velocity: Shenzhen didn’t make speed an attribute of capitalism, but it created a new way of speeding up industrial urbanization through demographics, which in turn is shaping how manufacturing and urbanization occur throughout the urbanizing world.