Why is Shenzhen not taken?: A preliminary report from an uncertain field

Jonathan BACH opened our three-day workshop “Informal Plans, Planned Informality: Shenzhen as Model and Field” with the observation that our goal is not to map the borders between the proper city and its others, but rather to track the (slightly inflammatory, a bit delirious) algorithms that constantly produce those borders, which in turn keep re-producing the city. What does it mean, we ask, to document uncertainty?

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“Informal Plans, Planned Informality” was part of the seventh edition of the Shenzhen Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism \ Architecture (UABB). Curated by MENG Yan, LIU Xiaodu, and HOU Hairu, the theme of the UABB’s seventh edition was “cities grow in difference” and it foregrounded the importance of urban villages to Shenzhen. The main venue was Nantou, with four sub-venues and multiple satellite venues throughout the city. Indeed, the selection of sites indicated the extent to which in Shenzhen the term “urban village” does not only refer to urbanized rural settlements, but also (and more importantly) to informal settlements and appropriations of urban space. We held the workshop on the second floor of pop-up building B-4, which was constructed next to the basketball court on a site which had been previously occupied by sixteen quasi-legal businesses. Mary Ann O’Donnell (Handshake 302, Shenzhen), Jonathan Bach (The New School, New York), and Mukta Naik (Centre for Policy Research, Delhi) organized the event with the support and participation of the India China Institute’s Urban Equity Research Group. The workshop itself was held on Jan 12-14, 2018.

Our exploration of the city’s deliberately blurred edges began when KIM Do Dom described with the word “intense” the city’s struggle to “banzheng,” which not only means to process documents, but more literally “to process evidence.” Her discussion reminded us that the production of formal and informal statuses is itself a relentlessly quotidian activity. CAI Yifan followed with a discussion of the city’s shanzhai ecology—intellectual property rights violations, profits that come from export tax rebates rather than trade, and decisions to copy Huawei because unlike Apple “they won’t come after us.” FU Na rounded out the morning with a presentation on informal commercial establishments throughout the city. These mom & pops and pop up shops are informal but not disorganized with rules for congregation or dispersal depending on wares and services. Second hand furniture vendors have created dedicated streets, for example, while dry cleaners and muslim noodle shops maintain a distance of three hundred meters precisely to maintain good relations.

Lunch was eaten under the makeshift roof of a backyard Duck Blood Congee restaurant. Like many shops hugging the main street of Nantou, the restaurant had a proper five-meter storefront and an informal alley extension. The restaurant owners (who of course are not the building owners) used bamboo poles and sheets of plastic to more than double the size of their usable property. We sat on plastic stools at hand-me-down tables and began the gentle work of turning individuals into a group.

After lunch Shaun TEO took us on a tour of the biennial, focusing on those elements that he felt best illustrated the exhibition’s aspirations and its failures. We noted, for example, although curators intended to use the UABB to strengthen the social fabric of Nantou, nevertheless security guards and cordons maintained the border between exhibitors and residents. We also observed how well Nantou cleaned up. Previously street vendors and improvised kiosks had competed with motorbikes and carts for control of the street; for the biennial, the main streets had been upgraded with bookstores and coffeeshops. In the repurposed factory, we thought about the meaning of other urban villages—Hubei and Baishizhou in Shenzhen, favelas in Sao Paolo and slums in Nairobi. The persistence of informal settlements worldwide begs the question of how the informal–and urban poverty–have come to stand for the authentic and the everyday within and against the juggernaut of modernization.

On the second day of the workshop, Director of the India-China Center, Mark FRAZIER moderated a session that encouraged Shenzhen and its scholars to learn from the subcontinent. The Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, Partha MUKHOPADHYAY and CPR senior researcher Mukta NAIK started the conversation by suggesting how Shenzhen does and does not map onto four Indian cities. The creative potential of the informal has meant that Indian planned cities and economic zones have not achieved anything like Shenzhen’s economic success, while the unruly hodgepodge that is Gurgaon feels remarkably Shenzhen-esque. Vamsi VAKULABHARANAM introduced us to the idea of urban “grayness,” which does not only refer to “mixed use” sites, but also and more importantly to quarters shared by different classes, castes, and religious groups. In turn, he suggested, residential heterogeneity created safer conditions than did the class and race segregations of US American cities. Rohit NEGI followed up with a discussion of air, “smog events,” and concomitant data rights precisely because dust and particulates travel. Juan DU concluded the session by introducing her work with twenty low-income Hong Kong families to create mobile home improvements that created value for the renters rather than the landlords and their representatives.

Bringing Indian urban experiences into conversations with and about Shenzhen also highlighted how postcolonial scholars such as Gayatri Spivak, Arjun Appadarai, and Ananya Royacademic have shaped discussions about (post) modern civil society. In other words, while theories developed in and around the Indian experience are traveling  across disciplines and continents, it is more difficult to find theories developed in and around the Chinese experience being deployed to understand the global condition, let alone theorization from Shenzhen, which has remained something of an anomaly even in China studies. The absence of Shenzhen from current academic discussions about globalization, urbanization, and the possibilities of informality is particularly glaring because China’s most successful Special Economic Zone has become the poster child for global development projects, even as CEOs of multinational companies increasingly point to Shenzhen-based tech companies as the new model of how to succeed in business. In its most recent three year action plan, for example, the Government of India’s premier think tank NITI Aayog has called for India to replicate Shenzhen’s success in creating export-oriented growth.

After lunch, the members of the ICI urban equity group departed for Guangzhou, while those who remained joined ZHOU Ximin for a tour of Shennan Road. Shennan Road runs parallel to both Shenzhen Bay and the now defunct Second Line. Indeed, all iterations of the Shenzhen Master Plan have assumed that the city would develop along an east-west axis that began in Luohuo and expanded west through key landmarks—Huaqiangbei, the Civic Center, Honey Lake, Chegongmiao, Overseas Chinese Town, Baishizhou, and then the Nantou Checkpoint, where Shennan Road connects with Guangzhou and Beijing via National Highway 107. Ximin’s tour allowed us to consider the political geographies and poetics of infrastructure of Shenzhen’s most important road. As infrastructure, Shennan Road facilitated the expansion of the SEZ from its epicenter at Luohu. As a site, traveling east to west on Shennan Road reproduces the city’s historic development, even as traveling west to east reveals how the region’s historic political center at Nantou was displaced. As symbol, Shennan Road has asserted the city’s evolving ambitions.

On the final day of the workshop, Mary Ann led a writing workshop, providing an opportunity to be inspired by the creative and reflect together on the past few days. In fact, the italicized lines in this post were generated by our collaborative writing about a city that is compelled to prove that it is special. What became clear is that as we enter the fifth decade of reform and opening, we are just beginning to understand the possibilities that had been latent in repurposing Maoist institutions within and against global capitalism. Shenzhen allows us to think through topics that range from alternate possibilities to Gurgaon villages to the aftermath of the 19th National People’s Congress. Simultaneously national and global, high-end and messy, Shenzhen’s once informal experiments have given rise to a model of development that cannot in practice be modeled.

The impossibility of reproducing the Shenzhen experience became clear that afternoon when we toured the Shekou Museum of Reform and Opening. Housed in the same building as Shenzhen’s V&A Design Gallery, the Shekou Museum highlights all the “firsts” that occurred in the industrial zone. Commodification of housing, joint ventures, and life insurance are only three of the first efforts to dismantle institutional Maoism and create something new took place in an underpopulated and sporadically regulated space, where the phrase “special methods to address special problems (特事特办)” justified all sorts of informal adaptations. Arguably, since 2010 Shenzhen has been regulating more and more of the economy, banishing the informal to urban villages, even though once-upon-a-time (a golden age?) over 50% of the city and its economy operated alongside state institutions. No other city in China had the same scope for informal experimentation. As Yifan reminded us during her discussion of shanzhai—all of Shenzhen’s hi-tech firms (including state-owned enterprises) were nourished in and by the state’s selective absences from the market and society. There was infrastructure and investment, and there was also organized appropriation of these instruments to allow entrepreneurs to invest in unproven sectors, even as informal settlements flourished on the footprints of the city’s historical villages.

We know that formal modernization projects generate all sorts of informal responses. The Shenzhen experience suggests the extent to which latecomers to modernization rely upon informality to support formal projects to achieve formal goals. Moreover, the human scale of this informality dwarfs the formal, even as resources are consolidated by formal actors. Unless we have formal protections in place—rights to housing, education, and medical care, for example—the informal will increasingly become a site of “making do.” The Shenzhen experience suggests how creative the informal is, but also how insecure and vulnerable. And here perhaps, we might begin to generalize from Shenzhen to think about informal and formal institutions within and against accelerating political and economic polarization.

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