wither the future? some anecdotes from shenzhen under normalized grid management

Yesterday I spoke with a cabbie about the future. He was excited to learn that I hold a US American passport, and quickly reassured me that even if many Chinese people dislike the USA and its residents, he felt otherwise. He wants China to become more democratic and for more voices to be heard in political conversations. He emphasized that presently China only has one voice, making everybody else what we in the US would call “sock puppets” and in China are sometimes called “marionettes” or 傀儡. He also felt that Shenzhen’s housing market made it impossible for anyone not rich to purchase a house and make a life for themselves, so why not “lay down” 躺平. If you have a place to lay your head and enough to eat, why bother with marriage and children?

In present-day Shenzhen, grid management (and its deployment to contain Covid) have changed how the future is imagined because social control is increasingly envisioned through corona testing, making individualized human bodies the new frontier of policing and law enforcement. Moreover, the mobilization of resources to conduct ongoing mass corona testing has resulted in the further centralization of economic resources. The major beneficiaries of the pandemic have been state-owned enterprises, large online companies, such as Tencent, and delivery services such as Hema, Meituan and Taobao. In turn, many urban residents are rethinking where they want to be in the future. Like the aforementioned cabbie, they are looking around and trying to figure out if there is no place for them in Shenzhen, where should the go? And if they know where to go, is it possible to get there?

Several days previously, for example, I met up with friends that I haven’t seen since the pandemic began in 2020. One was saying goodby to friends, preparing to leave the region and set up a new home elsewhere, possibly New Zealand. Another explained that she would also be leaving after her children finished the school year. I commented that it sounds like rich people are deserting the ship like gilded rats. (And yes, my jokes sound even lamer in Mandarin. Sigh.) They didn’t accept the description of themselves as “rich,” but neither did they challenge the rats and sinking ship metaphor. Instead, they emphasized that they had “conditions” 条件 to leave, with the implication that anyone who could get out of China was.

My friends made an important distinction between people who weren’t part of the political apparatus, but who nevertheless had enough clout and connections to launch a new life elsewhere. Indeed, I have been accumulating similar stories online and off that suggest proliferating anxieties about where one might inhabit the future. The fact that the government is no longer issuing new passports, for example, is now common knowledge among those who have regularly traveled abroad, and many are scrambling to leave before their passports expire. Those who do not have passports are scrambling to secure them, even as stories about people with valid passports and visas being denied exit from China circulate, suggesting that the net has already closed.

These immigration stories are most intensely told and retold by millennials. Older millennials (generation 1980) are the parents of young children and younger millennials (generation 1990) are well aware that their futures are at stake in the current reshuffling. If the disruption extends for five or even ten years, they say, then children, teens and twenty-somethings could easily become “lost generations,” which is how red guards (红卫兵) and rustificated youth (下乡青年) often describe themselves. Thus, older millennials (late 30s and early 40s) feel the threat of a lost future most acutely because they have already put in a decade establishing conditions for raising a family and pursuing their career. Their future is curtailed in two forms. If they leave, they will be starting over after at the cusp of middle age, which sucks. However, if they don’t leave, there’s no guarantee that their children will receive international (rather than ideological) educations. This is because many public elementary schools are no longer teaching English, but instead emphasizing Chinese language and science.

Meanwhile, China’s youngest boomers (red guards and rusticated youth) and the country’s Xers (those born during the late CR and early Reform) are figuring out when and how to retire, looking at the best options for avoiding bio-political control because regular corona testing not only produces a persistent low-grade anxiety, but is also an annoying waste of time, which is hard on aging bodies. Indeed, images of elders (who are precisely the same age as boomer parents) being forcibly relocated to Shanghai’s covid camps suggest that there are no exemptions from the rigors of bio-governance. It also means, that boomers are reluctant to leave aging parents who are physically unable to leave their homes.

But. Truth be told boomers and millennials who have been abroad and returned to China aren’t really impressed by their immigration options. They returned to China from north America and western Europe for reasons that range from culinary homesickness to blatant racism and feelings of alienation from the dominant culture. After all, they were trained abroad in order to contribute to China’s modernization effort and they have. These returnees understandably feel deep connections to the city where they gave their most productive years. Personally, I feel their reluctance to abandon the city. After all, I’ve been in Shenzhen since 1995, and leaving now would mean giving up almost thirty years of friendships and projects, not to mention cats. This sucks, yes. But. In Shenzhen, I’m going through the crazy with chosen family who can’t return with me to the US.

Thought du jour: There seems to be a rejection of Shenzhen’s future as it was spatialized before Covid-19. Previously, the city was imagined as a destination where dreams could be realized; Shenzhen wasn’t simply the city of the future–Shenzhen was the future. To arrive in Shenzhen was to jump on the train to the future. In contrast, chez Shenzhen-aujourd’hui, migrant stories to and from the city are shifting, challenging taken for granted assumptions about where the future is. On the one hand, rural migrants are increasingly and audibly questioning the value of migrating to Shenzhen because they don’t see viable ways of settling here. On the other hand, urban residents are increasingly and audibly question the value of remaining in Shenzhen because they question whether or not they realize their dreams here.

All this to say, if modernization can be likened to a high-speed train trip, it’s almost as if we’ve already passed “the Future” and are heading elsewhere. One possible track is back to either “Neo-feudalism” or “Neo-CR.” Another possibility is we’ve shifted tracks and are still heading forward, but now our destination is “Dystopia,” rather than “Small Happiness” 小康. It’s hard to say. But, my take is that everyone seems to be wondering: if the future is elsewhere, where can I exchange my ticket?

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