The threat of Wuhan coronavirus, notwithstanding, chez Shenzhen it’s been a strangely low-key beginning to the year of the rat or mouse or any other kind of rodentia that floats your boat. Squirrels and hamsters, moles and chinchillas with their long, long whiskers–any and all can appear on a happy new years card, although most are ordinary brown or white mice, and some are wearing breathing masks. Most public spaces have emptied out, events have been cancelled, and we’re at home eating dried persimmons, roasted chestnuts, and dumplings. Someone mentions that the night before they (and who are they?) locked down Wuhan, four million people departed the city. Some must have had advanced knowledge of the shutdown, but others must have been traveling for the New Year. After all, Wuhan is one of the four most important railway transit hubs in China; anyone on the Beijing-Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong high speed train went through Wuhan on their way north. We’ll see how (and when) they make their way back.
The first week in ancient Heshun (腾冲市和顺古镇) was a rush to the senses. Clean air and clear skies set off renovated homes and fields of rape flowers, while at night it was possible to count stars. We ate bean porridge seasoned with local chili sauce and stood in line to eat bean cake rolls, and as we left the restaurant we brushed our hands against the cool surface of volcanic stone. Although roads now thread through protected forest areas, nevertheless tourism has transformed Heshun’s “scenic area,” which costs 55 yuan to visit. The ticket includes entry to the town’s main historic attractions. Consequently, “scenic” Heshun is as modern as anywhere else in China: within its narrow allies, tourists navigate a smorgasbord of imported goods and plastic containers, fluffy kittens and easy-going golden retrievers, as well as stores selling luxury items such as Myanmar jade, “southern red” jade, silver jewelry, and local ceramics.
Heshun is a township located in Tengchong, which these past few years has been heavily promoted by the Yunnan Tourist industry. Heshun is indeed a fun place to stop off and explore for a day or two. In addition to enjoying great local food, jade, hot springs, and Bai ethnicity architecture, tourists can learn about the role of Han Chinese in the history of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and the mainland territory of Malaysia. In Heshun, specifically, Han families tell multiple stories of cross-border family ties with settlements in Myanmar. In fact, in the Cun Ancestral Hall, the jeweled portraits of important ancestors were produced in Myanmar, while last year the wood for renovating the ancestral hall was imported from Myanmar. According to the tour guide, the wood cost over 5 million rmb.
So here’s a story about a young Chinese man in Angola. I heard it from a 30-something deliveryman, who currently makes his living delivering express letters and packages in and around Shenzhen. He is dissatisfied with this job because although he is the number one deliveryman in his unit, he feels that his potential is being wasted. He said that after facing down gunmen three (!) times in the streets of Luanda, delivering packages in a rainstorm, which many other deliverymen refuse to do is child’s play, implying, of course, that what he really wants to do is play with the big boys. Continue reading
I came to Shenzhen by way of Houston circa 1995. It was a time when the boom had fizzled and young developers were just rediscovering the downtown. The city I inhabited was proud to live like a suburb with its lamentable public transportation, its ethnic strip malls and its destination malls like the Galleria. For street life, most of us bypassed the Montrose area, choosing instead to drive to Austin or San Antonio, which were further along in their urban renewals.
Here’s the thing about the retreat of manufacturing from the townships and villages of the Pearl River Delta; these areas have urbanized, migrants have settled in and are raising families, but as the low-end jobs and shops that once sustained local and migrant communities follow the factories elsewhere, these neighborhoods are withering. Consider, for example, the older section of Dongguan–莞城, which only twenty years ago was a vibrant community and today is an abandoned reminder of the area’s complicated history with Ming pirates and British opium, its deep relationships with the late Qing Chinese diaspora, and the Pearl River Delta’s urban village origins. Old Dongguan has become a focus of concern for urban planners and concerned citizens: how to revitalize an “old street” that is no longer viable, but sits on prime real estate, or more precisely, inquiring minds want to know: to raze or not to raze historic areas and landmark buildings? Continue reading
As I watch the US president scream and shout and justify his socio-pathologies, as I engage low-ranking officials who change their minds and force their subordinates to work unnecessary overtime everyday, and as I argue with parents who think that their children are not “strong enough (不够厉害)” to take what they want in life, I’ve been thinking a lot about bullies and institutional forms of bullying that are misrecognized as education or leadership or honor and virtue. Like many in the United States, a significant number of Chinese people accept social Darwinism as an accurate description of “the real world,” rather than recognizing social Darwinism for the self-serving misreading of evolutionary theory that it is.
Then, after a grumble about the normalization of bullying in everyday life, I continue reading E. J. Eitel’s Europe in China: the History of Hongkong from the beginning to the Year 1882, which compounds my frustration with righteous bullies and their inability to empathize with anyone’s pain, including their own. I manage three sentences before the arrogance, misogyny and general smugness of Eitel’s text force me to consider if I really want to read over 600 pages of what must have been considered “edifying” reading material. The text does make clear is the extent to which imperial bureaucracies, colonialism and some misplaced yearning for civilization continue to overdetermine the hierarchies and injustices that characterize contemporary societies. Continue reading
Like many late 19th century Britons, E. J. Eitel saw the East India Company (EIC) as the economic equivalent of the Qing Dynasty, asserting, “However galling this stolid assertion of self-adequacy and supremacy, and this persistent exclusivism of the Chinese Government, must have been to the East India Company’s officers and to the Ambassadors specially commissioned to bolster up the position of the East India Company in China, it must not be forgotten that the East India Company was, within its own sphere, just as haughty, domineering and exclusive a potentate, as any Emperor of China (19).”
Its difficult when looking at a map of the proposed Belt and Road and not associate the maritime road with British colonialism, albeit in reverse and more than a century after the fact. But that’s what’s so distressing. When the British parliament dissolved the East India Company (EIC), it did not dismantle the systems of unjust and unjustifiable extraction that EIC had put in place over roughly four centuries of occupation, exploitation, and forced participation in the system. Instead, independence movements saw the rise of local elites who were determined to benefit from the system, justifying their profits with respect to local values and structures of oppression. In other words, it was never just the Brits, but also the Brits and their local running dogs (to use Mao Zedong’s felicitous phrase) and even after Independence, the dogs kept yapping, securing military support from the US and elsewhere (for the distressing tale of the fate of the Third World as a revolutionary ideal, check out The Darker Nations by Vijay Prashad).
The problem, of course, was that the profitability of the British system depended on opium; where would surplus profits (to fund industrialization, for example) come from without monopoly, forced labor, and addiction? Certainly, once India regained control of the Bihar plantations and China retook its ports, both countries were faced with the problem of “surpassing England and catching up with the United States” in the absence of captive markets and a drug monopoly to finance their industrial revolutions. And this may be why Europeans and US Americans fear the Belt and Road: if you’re not a running dog with Chinese characteristics, just what are your options in the new world dis/order (and yes, I’m looking at you, midwestern farmer)?
Map from an early analysis of Belt and Road, eurasia review.
In a series of responses to E.J. Eitel’s Europe in China: The History of Hongkong from the Beginning to the Year 1882, I read within and against the emergence of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. I am not so much interested in providing a comprehensive history of the SEZ as I am in tracking Shen Kong, a form post-Mao post-coloniality that is one of the roots of the Belt and Road initiative. As I read, I note associations that link contemporary Shenzhen and colonial Hong Kong. In those flashes of awareness, the norms and forms of contemporary global restructuring make uncanny and distressing sense. Page citations are noted in parentheses and refer to the 1895 edition of Europe in China.
Sex in the Chasm Continue reading