covid-19 schadenfreude

The images circulating on Shenzhen-based WeChat groups are uncannily familiar: people being stopped by guards as the try to sneak across the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border. Only this time, the flight is from Hong Kong to Shenzhen (and/or Hong Kong to Zhuhai). A certain schadenfreude infuses these posts, as if Hong Kong’s current problems demonstrate not only the superiority of the Mainland, but also “just desserts” for implied past actions. There are also reports that the governments of coastal cities are offering rewards to anyone who reports illegal immigrants, and claims that these illegal returnees have “evil intentions 恶意” because as Chinese citizens, they can legally enter the Mainland at designated checkpoints.

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Transformation of Shen Kong Borderlands online

It’s been a while, but I’m back online, thinking the world through Shenzhen. Most recently, Made in China published a forum–Transformation of Shen Kong Borderlands— about the Shen Kong border. Denise Ho, Jonathan Bach and I co-edited the forum, which introduces the border, its history, and new perspectives on how people have lived within and between opportunities it has afforded.

The intro to the forum reads:

In August 1980, the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SEZ) was formally established, along with SEZs in Zhuhai, Shantou and Xiamen. China’s fifth SEZ, Hainan Island, was designated in 1988. Yet this year, the only SEZ to receive national attention on its fortieth anniversary was Shenzhen. Indeed, General Secretary Xi Jinping attended the celebration, reminding the city, the country, and the world not only of Shenzhen’s pioneering contributions to building socialism with Chinese characteristics, but also that “The construction of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area is a major national development strategy, and Shenzhen is an important engine for the construction of the Greater Bay Area (Xi 2020).” Against this larger background, many interpreted the General Secretary’s celebration of Shenzhen to have put Hong Kong in its place, so to speak; Hong Kong may have contributed to the SEZ’s development, but the region’s future is being shaped in and through Shenzhen.

This forum offers historical and ethnographic accounts of the Shenzhen-Hong Kong borderlands as sites where cross-border policies, situations, and aspirations continue to inform and transform everyday life. In political documents, newspaper articles, and the names of businesses Shenzhen-Hong Kong is shortened to 深港 or “Shen Kong,” suturing the cities together as specific, yet diverse socio-technical formations built on complex legacies of colonial occupations and Cold War flare-ups, checkpoints and boundaries, quasi-legal business opportunities and cross-border peregrinations. The following essays show how, set against its changing cultural meanings and sifting of social orders, the border is continuously redeployed and exported as a mobile imaginary while experienced as an everyday materiality. Taken together, the articles compel us to consider how borders and bordering protocols have been critical to Shenzhen’s success over these last forty years. Indeed, we would argue, Shenzhen succeeds to the extent that it remains a liminal space of passage and transformation. As the Greater Bay Area once again remakes the region’s cultural geography, the stories and voices herein provide food for speculative thought about today’s Pearl River Delta betwixt, between and within China’s domestic and international borders.

O’Donnell, Bach, and Ho. 2020. “Transformation of Shen Kong Borderlands.” Made in China Journal 3: 93.

border theory

End of last semester, I attended the review for MArch 1 studio: Inbetweeners taught by Joshua Bolchover, The Department of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong. Six teams offered analysis and plans for the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border. I have found it useful to think through and against the students’ work because when juxtaposed, our respective points of departure highlight critical issues that need to be thought if we are to create a genuine cross-border society. So, thoughts:

1) From the perspective of Hong Kong, the SZ-HK border is peripheral to the city proper or downtown. In contrast, the border was the reason that Shenzhen was established. Two areas in particular — Luohu/Wenjingdu and Huanggang — have been exceptionally important to Shenzhen’s ongoing self-construction and yet remain, on the Hong Kong side relatively marginal to the larger society. Luohu and Wenjingdu were of course the points where respectively people and goods passed during the Mao era and early Reform. In fact, Dongmen refers to the area that used to be Old Shenzhen Market and was the commercial area that thrived once the border reopened as both Chinese and Hong Kong residents went there to purchase goods and services unavailable or unavailable that cheaply back home. Huanggang, of course, is an extension of the new central axis and with the construction of the Lok Ma Chau Loop will become even more important to Shenzhen’s construction of its border-crossing cosmopolitan identity.

2) The disproportional population growth in Shenzhen and Hong Kong complicated by residential densities in the region. Over the past thirty years, Hong Kong has had one of the world’s lowest birthrates, growing from a population of roughly 5 million in 1980 to a little over 7 million in 2010. During that same period, Shenzhen’s official population exploded from 300,000 to over 10 million in 2010. However, I have heard that the Shenzhen’s administrative population (管理人口) is over 17 million, while Hong Kong’s population continues to hover at 7 million. Moreover, even though Hong Kong has one of the highest residential densities in the world (6,420 people per square km), Shenzhen has surpassed it (7,500 people per square km), and continues to grow. How to feed, shelter, and provide for the well-being of this population, which is also concentrated along the border fundamentally shapes and will continue to shape both how we imagine the integration of these two cities as well as the social and environmental forms that integration will take.

3) All this begs the question of the appropriate scale of planning and designing for a cross-border society in the absence of a vision of what that society is and/or might be. Does the border area refer to those who live there? Those who cross through? Or those who benefit from the way the border sustains the international division of labor? We all know that borders are social artifacts, built and maintained for particular ends. And that’s the rub: in order to design and plan a better border, we need a vision of how the border might benefit both Shenzhen and Hong Kong, or maybe a vision of how Shen Kong might be differently lived. A story perhaps of membranes and sutures, rather than borders and exclusions.

Impressions from the review, below:

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hakka borderlands: xiawei and shiyan

On Thursday, I joined a group of architects and students from the Future Cities Laboratory on a rainy guanwai trek along Bulong Road, which parallels the second line. This particular trek interests because it hints at generations of ongoing cultural transformation both as industrial manufacturing has spread and as Cantonese and Hakka urban villages have renegotiated collectives identities over the past 150 years.

We departed from Huaqiangbei and crossed at the former Buji Checkpoint, which today has been partially cleared to make room for the Buji subway station (Longgang Line) although cars still lined up to pass through check booths. Directly north of the erxian boundary, Xiawei Village (吓围村) handshakes huddle tightly, giving the impression of an ordinary new South China village. However, the entry gate and main hall of Xiawei’s ancestral hall remain, suggesting that at some point the village had enough collective funds to erect a substantial building. According to an old worker who was organizing collected paper products in the compound plaza, villagers continue to burn incense for ancestors during the Spring Festival.

We then headed west to the precinct headquarters of Shiyan. During the Mao-era, this area also served as the headquarters of Shiyan Commune. Located between the Kowloon-Canton railroad and Guangzhou Shenzhen corridors, Shiyan has remained relatively poor when compared to precinct headquarters at Buji or Shajing, for example. Nevertheless, it has Mao-era flat housing, Reform era factories, and two generations of single-family homes and handshakes. More to today’s point about Hakka borderlands, Shiyan is also interesting because it is located along Baoan County’s traditional border between Cantonese and Hakka cultural regions. Thus, although the Ye Ancestral Hall boasts Hakka exhortations of Confucian morality, the structure itself, like many of the areas older flat buildings are Cantonese style.


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