Yesterday, I participated in a day-long conference to promote environmentalism. I think I was invited for some combination of two reasons: I’m a recognized foreign friend of the city and anthropologists tell better stories than scientists do. Although technically, I’m a scientist, too! (Social science for the win–hee!) Anyway, the other guests have been diligently working alongside and via the government apparatus to create green spaces throughout the city. Event host, Nan Zhaoxu 南兆旭, for example, wrote The Shenzhen Natural History Encyclopedia 深圳自然博物百科 and event organizer, Meng Xiangwei 孟祥伟 has been director of the OCT Wetlands Field School since its establishment seven years ago. Their efforts have been instrumental in elevating district-level events to municipal, provincial and even national levels, not only contributing to Shenzhen’s status as China’s greenest first-tier city, but also to getting environmental sustainability on the city’s urban planning laundry list.
So, now you’re wondering: what was my takeaway from the event? Just how sustainable is Shenzhen’s environment? And what can environmentally conscious people do via an apparatus that is structured to sustain a political environment, rather than an economic let alone non-human environment? Unfortunately my thoughts are not so grand. Instead, I ended up thinking about the cultural forms of environmentalism:
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?
I recently downloaded this sheet of Covid stickers and emoticons. I really like them because they reference specific features of Shenzhen’s experience during the February and March 2022 Omicron outbreak. However, I haven’t yet used any of them because I’m feeling nervous about being called out for cultural incompetence if I misuse them. Or even more scary is that I won’t be called out and I’ll just continue making the same mistake over and over again. That said, I don’t actually want to use emoticons enough that I am willing to learn how to use them by stumbling along and making mistakes. And there’s the rub: emoticons don’t actually resonate with me. They’re just part of a dialect that I recognize has overtaken me, but even so, I haven’t really put in any effort to learn.
So why don’t I emote-icon with confidence? What am I missing when chosen family and friends insert emoticons into a dialog? And why do I feel more comfortable writing in 普通话 than I do texting in either English or Mandarin?
人才是第一资源。古往今来，人才都是富国之本、兴邦大计。我说过，要把我们的事业发展好，就要聚天下英才而用之。要干一番大事业，就要有这种眼界、这种魄力、这种气度。Talent is the first resource. Through the ages, talented people have been the foundation of a country's wealth as well as great plans to rejuvenate the country. I have said that to develop our cause, we should gather talents from all over the world and use them. To realize a great cause, we must have this vision, this courage and this bearing. -- Xi Jinping, 2018
In some of my more fanciful moments, I imagine Confucius and Ignatius Loyola sitting down together to talk education, “Just how,” they muse, “do we cultivate the kinds of people we need to properly govern/ shepherd our people?” They agree to disagree about just how the will of god/ heaven should–and they enjoy a frisson of pleasure as they impose their shoulds on young bodies–manifest locally, but they share the supremely feudal idea that the purpose of education is to cultivate talents who will be of use to god/ heaven and the king/ emperor. And yes, the idea of education as a means of cultivating particular kinds of ideological subjects is feudal, directly contradicting the modern idea that the purpose of education is to cultivate enlightened and independent thinkers. (How feudal our minds are is topic for another post. Maybe.) Anyway, this is why it makes sense that before the protestant evangelicals sailed into Victoria Harbor, HK on the ships of predatory traders, Jesuits enjoyed over two hundred years of pleasant chats with Confucian scholars about grandiose topics, such as wither the world? (Check out The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire by Thomas Reilly for an insightful account of why Matteo Ricci and his Jesuit brethren received warm welcome in Beijing, whereas the protestant mission was criminalized because it informed rebellion.)
To believe or not to believe? China has a “Big White Earth God Shrine” corona test site. Is it performance art or is it an actual test site? After all, zero-Covid is based on science, not irrational commitment to a political policy, which in practice looks a lot like, well, in practice zero-Covid looks a lot like folk religion:
A few months ago, I published an essay that periodizes the development of urban villages in Shenzhen. It provides a more nuanced context of how we arrived at the public shaming of Shatou during the recent Covid outbreak. It also contextualizes Baishizhou as an important landmark in Shenzhen’s cultural geography, speculating on what the demolition of Baishizhou means and might mean for the city. Published in Made in China, Archaeologies of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Labor Day, May 1, 2022: Shenzhen official media celebrated Xi Jinping thought, while many on social media circulated stories of Deng Xiaoping visiting the city in 1984 and 1992. This interests me because it highlights increasing dissatisfaction with the New Era as a return to the problems that caused and exacerbated by the Cultural Revolution. This logical connection has three elements: First, old Shenzheners associate the laissez-faire governance (reform) and porous borders (opening up) with the city’s ‘true’ identity, implicitly emphasizing the city’s role in repairing the damages of the Cultural Revolution. Second, there have been ongoing efforts to make Shenzhen a symbol of Xi Jinping’s new era, and indeed, the city has become a symbol of zero-Covid success during the ongoing campaign to achieve zero-Covid. Third, to the ears of many who were born before 1970, the New Era emphasis on Xi Jinping as the core of the party and the great leader of the nation echoes the rhetoric of the CR, even as zero-Covid mobilization is increasingly likened to the CR.
So there’s this uncanny resonance between Red Guards and Big Whites that hovers at the edges of social media posts, and sometimes becomes explicit when friends chat over drinks. But, Red Guards were populist, organized on-the-ground in response to specific situations. In contrast, Big Whites are bureaucratic, organized through governmental systems that reach from Beijing into homes via subdistrict police stations, public health stations, and community offices.
Thought du jour: ten years ago, during the Bo Xilai–Xi Jinping struggle to secure the position of general party secretary, the country’s leaders choose between two variants of CR–populist and hereditary. The idea was even though Xi Jinping was clearly a product of the CR, nevertheless, he was seen as a ‘party man,’ so to speak, whose platform was to maintain stability while and by rooting out corruption. (Yes, this is the same kind of choice-no choice just that has characterized recent US American elections.) Today, I’m wondering what if? What if China had gone with a populist CR leader, rather than a leader who seems to have incorporated CR methods into everyday politics?
Yesterday evening between 7 to 9, depending on the housing estate, Shanghai people took to their balconies and clanged on pots and pans to demand food. The event, “Music Party” seems to have been widespread, with organizers making and circulating individualized posters, telling neighborhood participants when their group would be playing. “Music Party” allowed Shanghai residents to tactically fill the city with alternative sounds–sounds that were meaningful to them, rather than the sounds of impersonal management.
As Jing Wang observed, sound has become a critical feature of locked-down Shanghai. Robotic dogs and drones carry loudspeakers through neighborhoods, instructions blaring. On repeat. Everyday. In a city where isolation has become the new normal and cell phones mediate intimacy, the materiality of a common voice (or clamor) shared across time and space allows for the mutual recognition that makes us human. Videos of the clanging and robotic dog (and yes the ‘bitch’ speaks with a female voice) as well as some of the posters, below.
It turns out that Covid-19 is good to think if your goal is to understand ‘China’ as imagined, perceived and, of course, enforced. (Winning?) After all, even if there are no countries outside are heads, nevertheless, there are test stations, checkpoints, police, and all sorts of social monitoring. Moreover, how different groups–both at home and abroad–are responding to the lockdown shows up interesting aspects of my experience in Shenzhen. So, I’m providing a round-up of some of the Covid related blogs, essays and books that I’ve been reading to embed Shenzhen’s experience into national and international discourses about biological governance, moral geography and new forms of self expression. And yes, they’re all over the place because we don’t really know how the ground has shifted. Moreover, I find comparison and contrast both necessary and useful because the intellectual and political challenge is to provide rich, on the ground accounts of lived experience within and against political-economic systems that are (to use a harsh neologism) always already glocal–the suffering caused by Covid-19 is universal, but responses to and cultural expressions of pain have been highly specific.
The cartoon caption which comes via the 2022 Shanghai lockdown reads, “Who dares call a meal with pig feet and bear’s claw anything less than a feast? You can’t hide that we’re living in a flourishing age.”