直辖市 means “directly governed city”. There are four directly governed cities in China — Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing. The difference between a directly governed city and a special zone (特区) like Shenzhen is political ranking. Directly governed cities have the same political rank as a province. This means that directly governed cities have access to resources and policies that other cities do not.
Shenzhen is a sub-provincial city, which means it is subordinate to Guangdong Province. As a Special Zone, Shenzhen has some economic exceptions, however, in terms of political planning and any kind of social innovation, Shenzhen must operate within the purview of Guangzhou. Consequently, the SEZ has repeatedly chosen to frame any kind of social transformation in terms of “economic” reform.
From the outside looking in, Shenzhen seems different, certainly the most neoliberal of China’s large cities. But from the inside, Shenzhen just seems nouveau riche, a better version of the country’s second tier cities, but not a first tier city like Beijing or Shanghai. Or even Guangzhou. Continue reading