are there any shenzheners?

The Shenzhen Volunteer Association claims that “If you come, you are a Shenzhener (来了,就是深圳人). The claim itself is fascinating because it not only flies in the face of traditional hometown identities, but also because it implies that those who were already here aren’t Shenzheners.

There are three main labels for people in Shenzhen: 深圳人 (Shenzhener),本地人 (local),and 外地人 (outsider). As a general rule of thumb, Shenzheners are as much a construction of ongoing municipal campaigns to generate identification with the city as they are the rich second generation who grew up here. The point is that in addition to refering to an individual’s hukou status, the label “Shenzhener” also and importantly refers to a recognizable lifestyle and aesthetic that in the US we would call “middle class consumer”.

In contrast, locals and outsiders refer to the hometowns of people who live in Shenzhen. Locals have traditional roots here (through a historic village), while outsiders came from elsewhere to live and work in Shenzhen. Technically, everyone in Shenzhen is either a local or an outsider. However, as indicated above, the category of “Shenzhener” is an ongoing social construction that transvalues local and outsider identities, usually by smoothing out differences in the second generation. Thus, the children of both locals and outsiders frequently identify as Shenzheners, even when their parents have Shenzhen household residency but continue to identify with their hometown.

The distinction between Shenzheners, locals, and outsiders points to the overlap between traditional Chinese hometown identities and the reform policies that created Shenzhen. On the one hand, Chinese people identify with their hometowns, creating identity out shared language, food, and customs, such as Shanghai or Hakka people. On the other hand, Shenzhen identity has been constructed out of the transformation of Bao’an, environmentally, socially, politically, and culturally. Shenzheners are the people who have participated in and/or benefited from that process. In contrast, locals remain identified with their natal villages, while outsiders continue to identify with theirs.

The symbols through which individuals craft Shenzhener identities are vexed by contradiction and uncertainties for three reasons. First, less than 3 million people (or 1/6) of the total population have Shenzhen hukou, which means legally most inhabitants are not Shenzheners. Second, if locals are not considered Shenzheners, it is because identity remains rooted in policy, rather than history. And third, even second generation Shenzhen residents remain emotionally embedded in hometown relationships elsewhere because their were raised by outsider grandparents.

Of course, therein lays the rub. The debate about who is a Shenzhener not only raises the question of who has rights to the city, but also the question of who is willing to be responsible for the city. To date, these questions have not been explicitly addressed, begging the question: is it enough to define a Shenzhener through how an individual has used the city (to achieve political and/or economic goals), or do we need to re-imagine the Shenzhener identity in terms of contributions to society?