remembered origins

For those who haven’t visited the Shekou Museum of Reform and Opening, it’s worth a trip if only to check out where the story begins. All stories of the Special Economic Zone begin with Deng Xiaoping, however, the historical problems that Deng Xiaoping is said to have solve differ from museum to museum. At the Shenzhen Museum of History, for example, Deng Xiaoping solves the historic problem of colonialism. In contrast, at the Shekou Museum of Reform and Opening, he solves the social problems that were caused by political mistakes–famine during the Great Leap Forward and relative poverty during the Cultural Revolution.

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This simple backstory (and it is told in three brief installations) explains Cold War migration from Bao’an County to Hong Kong (roughly 1958 through 1978) through the logic of push and pull economics; there is no larger political narrative. Or if there is a larger political narrative, it is the traditional Chinese assertion that good governments feed the people, bad governments do not. The story then segues into the achievements of the Shekou Industrial Zone, which resulted in more and better food for Chinese people.

The contrast between the bad government of the Mao-era and the good non-government of Shekou administration is implicit. It appears because of the narrative assumes that history is a result of solving historical problems, rather than a straight-forward story of the inevitable march of progress. Or perhaps the assumption is that “normal” history is one of progress, while a history that does not progress has failed?

I’ve heard many Shenzheners express a similar idea: the economy is the expression of social morality and consequently a government is judged by the relative prosperity of its residents. In a nutshell: poor people = bad government; prosperous people = good government. Of course (the logic holds), during the Cold War Bao’an people fled to Hong Kong, where there were jobs and electricity and running water. And of course, (by the same logic) those who stayed loved the country more than their personal comfort. By remaking the socialist economy, the Shekou Industrial Zone was seen to express political change and moreover, this change was interpreted as evidence that Deng Xiaoping cared for the Chinese people.

Throughout this narrative, it is worth noting that Hong Kong was offered as a model society because the model offered economic prosperity and not actual political reform. After all, Hong Kong was a British colony and not an independent state with a democratically elected government. From the perspective of rural Bao’an, the difference between local government and Hong Kong government was one of economic rather than political opportunity. When people ran across the border, they were running jobs in factories and construction sites and the possibility of eating well in a modern home.

Point du jour is simple:  even if the Party continues to present itself as the one and only savior of China, nevertheless the Shekou narrative itches and squeaks because it demonstrates that there are alternatives and more socially liberal possibilities within a Party-led Chinese state. It is a minor irritation. After all, China Merchants is a state-owned enterprise and Shekou has been brought into the Shenzhen Municipal apparatus. What’s more, Xi Jinping has put forward the Shenzhen model (in 2012) for all of China and former Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang is now a member of the Standing Committee (in part for his ongoing support of economic liberalization and expansion). So there is ample room to rewrite Shekou origins within current discussions about China’s future. And yet. The differences between Shekou and Shenzhen were important and profound. Squeak!

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