So by now you’re aware that the so-called “fortieth anniversary” of reform and opening is, in fact, a celebration of the third plenary session of the eleventh central committee of the communist party of china, which was held from December 18-22, 1978. This meeting, we are told, changed China and the world. Shenzhen is held up as the proof in the post cold war / era of reform and opening pudding. And yet,
here in Shenzhen, we remember that the Shekou Industrial Zone was approved on January 31, 1979 and the first blast (改革开放第一炮) occurred on July 8, 1979. Shenzhen City was established on March 5, 1979 and the SEZ was not established until August 1980 and the SEZ’s birthday is celebrated on August 26. What’s more, the second line was drawn in June 1982 and built over the next year. And, of course, the confirmation of the Shenzhen / Shekou experience was confirmed in January 24-25, when Deng Xiaoping visited Shenzhen, Shekou, and Fishing Village.
If you visit the Shenzhen Museum of Reform and Opening Up and the Shekou Museum of China’s Reform and Opening Up, you will discover complexity and divergence, the importance of local politics, global trade, and regional cultures. Consider, for example, that the Shenzhen Museum emphasizes the construction of a city, defining “Shenzhen Speed” with respect to architecture, while the Shekou Museum commemorates the construction of civil society, including a watchdog press and local elections. The Shenzhen Museum commemorates generations of national leaders–Deng, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping, while Shekou remains loyal to Yuan Geng. Shenzhen holds up the corps of civil engineers as the typical “migrant,” in contrast to the “working girls” of Shekou’s Kaida and Sanyo factories.
This is not an argument to exclude the Party and its control over China’s government from analyses of the history of Reform and Opening, but a reminder to look for complexity and regional divergence in order to understand all that has transpired. When we only celebrate 1978, we overlook how much work–situated and ordinary, unexpected and transformative–went into Reform and Opening as not simply a national project, but also the fabric of everyday lives.
On December 25, 2018, the Shekou Museum of China’s Reform and Opening closed. Impressions from the Shenzhen exhibition of Reform and Opening Up.