semi-formality in shenzhen

One would think, and one would not be wrong, that I spend much time thinking about urban villages and glass towers, or the differences between informal and formal settlements. That said, however, it is probably more to the point is that semi-formality allows Shenzhen to function as well as it does.

“Semi-formality,” Mehran Kamrava argues in his analysis of The Politics of Weak Control: State Capacity and Economic Informality in the Middle East,

Is not simply the result of entrepreneurs’ natural impulse to evade state regulations. It is, more fundamentally, a function of the state’s own limited capacities to fulfill the regulative tasks it sets for itself. The state’s uneven enforcement of regulative policies—uneven over time or in relation to different economic actors—allows nonstate economic actors, whether overwhelmingly in the formal sector or in the informal sector of the economy, to slip in and out of semi-formality.

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dining at mao’s homestyle restaurant

Mao’s style food is barbaric spicy Hunan food. At an eponymous restaurant (毛家菜), he and his red handkerchief occupy the entryway. There is a God of wealth in the corner. My interest in Mao’s godhead caused a bit of awkwardness with a friend, who is anti-superstition and often finds things anthropological condescending. She let me know in no uncertain terms, it would be inappropriate for me to use this image as a WeChat avatar. And then she softened the blow, “You like to use your art work. Keep doing that, everyone likes it.”

the right to depend on one’s son

In Xintang, Baishizhou, this 60-year old gentleman has been protesting for a month. His demand? He wants the right to depend on his son for his old age care.

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In Shenzhen, parents can transfer their hukou from hometowns to the SEZ based on their children’s hukou status. Once they have this hukou, they can take advantage of subsidized medical care from their 65th birthday. The problem? This gentleman’s son does not have a Shenzhen hukou. In addition, he does not own a house and is facing eviction upon the completion of negotiations to raze Baishizhou (admittedly at least two or three years in the future). At such time, he will loose his shop, and without equity in the building, will not receive compensation. So he is facing a perilous retirement.

The wording of the protest is of interest. 投靠 (tóu kào) literally means “throw oneself to depend upon”. It can also be translated as “become a retainer of”. Within the rhetoric of this protest, this gentleman is demanding the right to become his son’s retainer.

The form of his demand is similarly coached in feudal language; indeed his banners function as petitions to leaders rather than as social demands. He asks Xi Jinping, for example, if the General Secretary realizes that although in Beijing old people have welfare, the old people in Shenzhen have a different situation. He then asks Xi Jinping to visit Shenzhen and see the situation. Likewise, he asks Shenzhen Secretary Wang Rong and Shenzhen Mayor Xu Qin where the Communist Party is.

The moral economy of noblesse oblige gives these questions their oppositional force. The question put to Xi Jinping implies that if the General Secretary understood the true situation in Shenzhen, he would rectify it. The question put to Wang Rong is even more pointed: has the Communist Party abandoned its responsibility to take care of the people?

In order to make this moral claim, the gentleman also demonstrates that he has upheld his end of the moral contract between government and the future. First, he followed the one child policy and only gave birth to a son. Second, he came to Shenzhen twenty-three years ago to make a better life for himself and his family. During that time, his son was back in his hometown to go to school. Third, he never broke any other laws.

Shenzhen has been at the forefront of reforming its pension system. In practice, this has been the commodification of services. For those with Shenzhen hukou, there are still some benefits. However, as this gentleman reminds us, in the present real security comes through family ties and home ownership.

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life lessons

Yesterday, my friend told me a story about how her sixth grade lost the role of Maria in a short skit based on The Sound of Music.

The sixth grade is preparing a graduation celebration that includes skits, songs, speaches, and food. Parents are organizing these events, including an English teacher who wrote the Sound of Music skit. Apparently, the English teacher intended that her daughter would play Maria. However, when the daughter declined, my friend’s daughter said, “Yes!” and started preparing.

Soon after, the English teacher’s daughter sought out my friend’s daughter and said that she wanted to play the role of Maria. My friend’s daughter asked what to do. On her interpretation, she had several options: (1) cede the role to her classmate; (2) ask the teacher to decide, or; (3) audition before the class and let their classmates decide. What my friend’s daughter understood clearly, was that if a teacher’s daughter wanted the role, then their homeroom teacher would take the role away from her and reassign it to the teacher’s daughter.

My friend comforted her daughter, saying that there would be many other opportunities to perform. However, her daughter was sad and so my friend asked me what I thought. I didn’t have to think. I said that it was perfectly natural for her daughter to be upset at such blatent injustice. My friend agreed, but added that in China this was how things happened. Sometimes you could spend more time and energy only to have your work denied or the glory taken away. I concurred, but asked if it was really necessary to learn such a lesson in elementary school.

And there’s the culturally interesting question: when and how do children learn the politics of everyday life?

I remember in high school having a teacher who took a dislike to me. Once when I was not in class (I don’t actually remember the reason), said teacher held a vote, asking students to decide whether or not I should be allowed to remain in class. I was voted out of the class. So, I went to the vice principal to mediate. When I sat down with that teacher, he chronicled what a horrible student I had been — talking in class, passing notes, and not attending. All true. Thus, when he finished speaking, he stood up to leave; clearly, he thought that sitting down with me was enough to demonstrate his good faith in the process.

I actually needed the vice principal to call that teacher back to the conversation, when I had a chance to mention that this teacher made inappropriate remarks about the girls in the class. I had started making snide comments and when he addressed me, I spoke back. Once I said this, the vice principal asked the teacher if their was any truth to my story. The teacher shrugged and then offered the following compromise: I could take a study hall during history class, but receive an “A” for my work. And what did I know? I didn’t turn to my parents, but accepted the deal, leaving the vice principal and history teacher to figure out their relationship, which had suddenly been complicated.

After I told how I was bought off, my friend nodded. She said that she would advocate for her daughter to keep her role. After all, these moments of injustice — in Chinese elementary schools and US American high schools — are learning moments. Unfortunately, we more often than not first learn and then unconciously teach the unequal politics of everyday life.