Shenzhen’s most recent Party Secretary, Ma Xingrui (马兴瑞) infamously told Shenzhen and its boosters to get over the jubilation for its recent rise in international prestige. On the one hand, there is something snarky and mean spirited about Party Secretary Ma’s scolding. After all, Shenzhen’s raison d’etre has been to make a place for itself in the emergent world order and for most of its existence, Shenzhen has been ignored by Beijing-centric views of China (both in and outside China). On the other had, many agree with his assessment that Shenzhen is not yet a first rank world city.
The new Party Secretary’s surname—Ma—is a homophone with the character for “scold / tell off” (骂)”. In that spirit, the OCT Lifestyle website put out an article in which Shenzhen clearly comes in second behind world class cities such as Beijing, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore. With Beijing the comparison is about the internet. Hong Kong stands for level of globalization, Taiwan a sense of well-being, Japan for professionalism, and Singapore for the ability to attract and keep talent. In other words, Shenzhen wants to be best at all of that, which may in fact be its charm—composite rather than first rank across categories.
Be that as it may, this article was picked up and circulated by the Free Trade Zone website, which is of course located in Shekou. Thus, I stumbled upon the following critique via Shekou connections. Of note, first and foremost the obvious “centering” of globalization on Asia, and also the comparisons is a material sense of prosperity, while the idea of civil society hovers in the background. More importantly, however, the comparisons focus on the formal rather than the informal economy. The reasons that Beijing, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore are superior to Shenzhen all have to do with the relative strength of their formal economies with respect to the informal economy.
This distinction matters.
Shenzhen has thrived on the strength of its informal economy and its openness to outsiders. It is a place where migrants and immigrants have self-selected to start up and start over because they were, for whatever reasons, excluded from the formal economy. Indeed, has others have noted about the informal economy elsewhere, strong informal economies allow people to survive the brutal exclusions on which the formal economy rests.
Its worth thinking about what Ma Xingrui’s arrival means in terms of ongoing efforts to standardize the city’s informal economy. Indeed, with the visit of Li Keqiang, suddenly Shenzhen’s maker culture has been placed front and center of efforts to formalize the fluid relationships on which Huaqiangbei in particular, but most every other industry in the city as well as its urban villages. The new Party Secretary was in charge of one of the largest, most centralized technological endeavors—China’s attempt to get to the moon.
And there’s question du jour: Just how will the continuing corralling of Shenzhen’s wide open spaces—and I use the metaphor deliberately—not only transform the formal economy, but also limit or enhance the slippery uncertainties that allowed so many ordinary folks to transform their individual lives.