going through the motions…unless it’s something else?

Once-every-three-days Covid testing continues in Shenzhen, but we seem to be going through the motions. We are now up to twenty cotton swabs per test and many have noticed that the swabbing isn’t as “sincere 认真” as it used to be. Moreover, although it is possible to go an extra day or two without testing, however, after the fifth day, you have to go to a designated test station. There are, of course, differences between stations depending on location. Some health workers still jab, while others seem more careful. But. Regardless if the hand that pokes the throat is strong or gentle, testing at all the stations that I’ve used seems so cursory. Even when boarding the metro (the buses never checked covid passports), the security guards look at the QR code and just wave a thermometer in one’s general direction, begging the question: what purpose are these tests serving? (Other than the ongoing transfer of wealth to biotech enterprises.)

Dark sci-fi paranoia du jour: All this bio-monitoring has me wondering about the kinds of data that are being collected, how it is being stored, and the reliance on cellphones for this system to work. Indeed, the entire system hinges on the belief of direct link between an individual and a particular phone, which is true in my case. But. Easily hacked, I would think. If that was your goal and/or skillset. It seems to me that if the goal is bio-surveillance, then the logical step would be to chip us all, guaranteeing that the data you’re seeing is linked to a specific body. Although, there are no doubt technologies at play I don’t know about. Kind of like gene-editing cockroaches, we could be gene-edited to transmit selected information. And on dark and rainy nights, these ideas don’t even feel fanciful, but rather inevitable. Sigh.

配合: how do we change the world?

Yesterday, I participated in a day-long conference to promote environmentalism. I think I was invited for some combination of two reasons: I’m a recognized foreign friend of the city and anthropologists tell better stories than scientists do. Although technically, I’m a scientist, too! (Social science for the win–hee!) Anyway, the other guests have been diligently working alongside and via the government apparatus to create green spaces throughout the city. Event host, Nan Zhaoxu 南兆旭, for example, wrote The Shenzhen Natural History Encyclopedia 深圳自然博物百科 and event organizer, Meng Xiangwei 孟祥伟 has been director of the OCT Wetlands Field School since its establishment seven years ago. Their efforts have been instrumental in elevating district-level events to municipal, provincial and even national levels, not only contributing to Shenzhen’s status as China’s greenest first-tier city, but also to getting environmental sustainability on the city’s urban planning laundry list.

So, now you’re wondering: what was my takeaway from the event? Just how sustainable is Shenzhen’s environment? And what can environmentally conscious people do via an apparatus that is structured to sustain a political environment, rather than an economic let alone non-human environment? Unfortunately my thoughts are not so grand. Instead, I ended up thinking about the cultural forms of environmentalism:

Continue reading

just when you thought it was okay to think…

To believe or not to believe? China has a “Big White Earth God Shrine” corona test site. Is it performance art or is it an actual test site? After all, zero-Covid is based on science, not irrational commitment to a political policy, which in practice looks a lot like, well, in practice zero-Covid looks a lot like folk religion:

Continue reading

mayday, mayday!

Labor Day, May 1, 2022: Shenzhen official media celebrated Xi Jinping thought, while many on social media circulated stories of Deng Xiaoping visiting the city in 1984 and 1992. This interests me because it highlights increasing dissatisfaction with the New Era as a return to the problems that caused and exacerbated by the Cultural Revolution. This logical connection has three elements: First, old Shenzheners associate the laissez-faire governance (reform) and porous borders (opening up) with the city’s ‘true’ identity, implicitly emphasizing the city’s role in repairing the damages of the Cultural Revolution. Second, there have been ongoing efforts to make Shenzhen a symbol of Xi Jinping’s new era, and indeed, the city has become a symbol of zero-Covid success during the ongoing campaign to achieve zero-Covid. Third, to the ears of many who were born before 1970, the New Era emphasis on Xi Jinping as the core of the party and the great leader of the nation echoes the rhetoric of the CR, even as zero-Covid mobilization is increasingly likened to the CR.

So there’s this uncanny resonance between Red Guards and Big Whites that hovers at the edges of social media posts, and sometimes becomes explicit when friends chat over drinks. But, Red Guards were populist, organized on-the-ground in response to specific situations. In contrast, Big Whites are bureaucratic, organized through governmental systems that reach from Beijing into homes via subdistrict police stations, public health stations, and community offices.

Thought du jour: ten years ago, during the Bo Xilai–Xi Jinping struggle to secure the position of general party secretary, the country’s leaders choose between two variants of CR–populist and hereditary. The idea was even though Xi Jinping was clearly a product of the CR, nevertheless, he was seen as a ‘party man,’ so to speak, whose platform was to maintain stability while and by rooting out corruption. (Yes, this is the same kind of choice-no choice just that has characterized recent US American elections.) Today, I’m wondering what if? What if China had gone with a populist CR leader, rather than a leader who seems to have incorporated CR methods into everyday politics?

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.

Continue reading

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.