June 7-9, 51,200 senior three students are scheduled to sit the gaokao in 49 ordinary and 31 special test centers throughout Shenzhen. Years past, organizing the gaokao would have been given many more pixels on social media, but Covid. In fact, Gaokao cheating stories have long been some of my favorite urban myths. But this year. Covid. And ongoing prevention. (Although I heard a rumor that as of July medical insurance funds can no longer be tapped for mass testing, so it may end in July? Fingers crossed.) Thus, this year all the gaokaotrauma drama I have to report is that we have been notified that phone signals will be blocked near testing stations to prevent cheating. Residents who have to report emergencies have been instructed to use landline phones or move out of range. There was also the odd article about how cheating on the gaokao is a criminal offense that carries severe (not quite explicit) penalties. But these scare tactics are just part and parcel of moral standards that hold teenagers accountable for minor mistakes, but allows powerful adults to make fortunes from unsavory business practices, such as a fraudulent Covid testing. Sigh.
So, on Friday, May 27, the People’s Education Edition of forth grade textbooks set the internet ablaze. Seriously, despite everything else that was going on in the country–bank failures and Covid-crazy, rumors of upper level infighting and a tanking economy–the entire country was united in outrage over textbook illustrations. And frankly, the disgust is understandable. It’s as if some cynical artist whose work deconstructs authoritarian childhood was asked to draw the illustrations for books aimed at ten-year olds. There’s a whole level of critique going on that may not be accessible to children, even as their parents moan about aesthetic standards. “Ugly, ugly, ugly,” the crowd screams. And from where I sit that seems to be the point of the images. Just not the place? Or audience?
Yesterday I spoke with a cabbie about the future. He was excited to learn that I hold a US American passport, and quickly reassured me that even if many Chinese people dislike the USA and its residents, he felt otherwise. He wants China to become more democratic and for more voices to be heard in political conversations. He emphasized that presently China only has one voice, making everybody else what we in the US would call “sock puppets” and in China are sometimes called “marionettes” or 傀儡. He also felt that Shenzhen’s housing market made it impossible for anyone not rich to purchase a house and make a life for themselves, so why not “lay down” 躺平. If you have a place to lay your head and enough to eat, why bother with marriage and children?
So, those who can afford to leave Shenzhen and escape the crazy, have. Many are hanging out in second homes in Dali, but others are young parents, who are enrolling their children in kindergartens in Dali.
When I first came to Shenzhen in 1995, the idea was to find a group of people who were willing to be interviewed, fill spiral notebooks with handwritten notes, and return to Rice to write-up said notes in 1996, or at the very latest, 1997 and then writing my way into an academic position. That didn’t happen. Instead, I stayed in Shenzhen until 1998, finished the dissertation in 1999, held a post-doc for one year, and then began the transition from trying to secure a tenure-track offer at a US university to figuring out what an American ex-pat might do in Shenzhen, which was itself transitioning from being a manufacturing hub into an innovation city. Continue reading →
The first week in ancient Heshun (腾冲市和顺古镇) was a rush to the senses. Clean air and clear skies set off renovated homes and fields of rape flowers, while at night it was possible to count stars. We ate bean porridge seasoned with local chili sauce and stood in line to eat bean cake rolls, and as we left the restaurant we brushed our hands against the cool surface of volcanic stone. Although roads now thread through protected forest areas, nevertheless tourism has transformed Heshun’s “scenic area,” which costs 55 yuan to visit. The ticket includes entry to the town’s main historic attractions. Consequently, “scenic” Heshun is as modern as anywhere else in China: within its narrow allies, tourists navigate a smorgasbord of imported goods and plastic containers, fluffy kittens and easy-going golden retrievers, as well as stores selling luxury items such as Myanmar jade, “southern red” jade, silver jewelry, and local ceramics.
The second station on the Chinese side of the Kowloon-Canton Railway, Buji was an important Hakka market town that during the early years of reform was a center of manufacturing. Today, Buji is a street office (办事处) with an estimated population of over one million. Most Buji families live in an urban village and their children attend minban (民办) schools. A minban school is owned and operated by private companies, filling educational needs that are not met by the public school system. Elite minbans tend to be international and position graduates for university abroad. However, the most common type of minban school in Shenzhen is the urban village minban, which has been set up to educate children who are ineligible for a public education. The most common reason for being ineligible for a public education are hukou related; often families are not long-term residents of the city, which means their children are only eligible for public education back home, or the child was born outside the family planning policy and the parents cannot afford the fines to send the child to public school.
Here’s the thing about the retreat of manufacturing from the townships and villages of the Pearl River Delta; these areas have urbanized, migrants have settled in and are raising families, but as the low-end jobs and shops that once sustained local and migrant communities follow the factories elsewhere, these neighborhoods are withering. Consider, for example, the older section of Dongguan–莞城, which only twenty years ago was a vibrant community and today is an abandoned reminder of the area’s complicated history with Ming pirates and British opium, its deep relationships with the late Qing Chinese diaspora, and the Pearl River Delta’s urban village origins. Old Dongguan has become a focus of concern for urban planners and concerned citizens: how to revitalize an “old street” that is no longer viable, but sits on prime real estate, or more precisely, inquiring minds want to know: to raze or not to raze historic areas and landmark buildings? Continue reading →
The two-day event was called “Only Connect.” We emphasized the infrastructure that makes neighborhoods out of houses and buildings. Yes, every building had an electrical light, water tubes, sewage tubes and access to the main road. And yes It’s also true, every time that Handshake 302 holds an event at the P+V Gallery, the kids rock our world. Take a look at the smiles that creativity brings! More about Handshake 302 here and here.
Yesterday I participated in the 蓝海生态艺术巡游 (Make Our Seas Come BLUE) parade, which was organized by CULTaMAP‘s indomitable Tracy Lee. We marched from Statue Square to the Hong Kong Maritime Museum via Victoria Harbor. The march culminated a cross-border Hong Kong-Shenzhen pedagogical collaboration to draw attention to garbage in the oceans, children’s ability to speak to issues that will shape their future possibilities, and the responsibilities of their adults to facilitate uncomfortable conversations in safe environments. Continue reading →