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:
The caption to the comic reads, “Comrade, wake up, you still have overtime to work.”
There is much talk of neijuan (内卷) or involution in Shenzhen and indeed throughout China. The conversation is so robust, it even made the New Yorker (Yi-Ling LIU, May 14, 2021). Liu explains that China’s “involuted” generation is overworked, burned out, and despairing that life will get any better. Instead, of seeing rewards at the end of their hard work, they’re seeing just more pointless work. Indeed, as the comic suggests, crashing is often the result of neijuan. In popular culture, many young people have expressed their discontent through tangping (躺平), which translates as “laying down” but resonates with what US Americans would call getting out of the rat race. The expression is so popular, Alibaba even came up with a tangping app, which promotes making money through a relaxed, enjoyable lifestyle.
Of course, the tangping app is itself a symptom of involution…
—- 国民党税多，共产党会多 (“The KMT has high taxes and the CPC has many meetings” was popular description of the difference between the Nationalists and the Communists during the War Against Japan. )
On the morning of September 27, 2018, I attended the ten (!) keynote addresses of the International Think Tank Forum in Commemoration of the 40th Anniversary of China’s Reform and Opening-up (and yes, as far as I can tell, Shenzhen has shifted its translation of “reform and opening” to “reform and opening-up”). The Counsellor’s Office of the State Council and the Shenzhen Municipal Committee of the CPC and the Shenzhen Municipal People’s Government hosted the event, which was organized by the Development Research Center of the Shenzhen Municipal People’s Government. So a big deal. And there I was in the midst of all those policy advisors wondering, what’s actually going on here? Continue reading
So here’s a story about a young Chinese man in Angola. I heard it from a 30-something deliveryman, who currently makes his living delivering express letters and packages in and around Shenzhen. He is dissatisfied with this job because although he is the number one deliveryman in his unit, he feels that his potential is being wasted. He said that after facing down gunmen three (!) times in the streets of Luanda, delivering packages in a rainstorm, which many other deliverymen refuse to do is child’s play, implying, of course, that what he really wants to do is play with the big boys. Continue reading
This year I was in the Chinese northland during the first week of the Trump presidency, a fact which had me thinking about national geographies of opportunity and despair. (Honestly, how could I resist when we were celebrating the Year of the Cock?!) Of note? The pride and resentment, wellbeing and jealousy that I encountered in the Chinese interior resonated with my experience of the American heartland, where my parents were born, even as the valuation of Shenzhen and other southern cities seemed much like American valuations of the progressive northeast, where I was raised.
100 rmb notes and US C notes go together like boy and girl, like modernity and tradition, like Mao Zedong and Benjamin Franklin, like officialdom (guanfang) and society (minjian), like yang and yin. I was thinking about how in Shenzhen du jour tradition is being (re)constituted through economic reform–specifically, I was thinking about how tradition has become the vehicle that naturalizes the demolition of (unnatural) urbanized villages in a city long described as “lacking history,” and this matched New Years set shows up on the entrance to my apartment building. As with many symbols of Chimerica, gender suggests the multiple forms of power that create particular subject positions, especially in the figuring of ideal relationships, where even if the male, head-of-house holds money that is ostensibly worth less than the female, nevertheless, in Chimerica East the primacy of renminbi makes sense (cents) precisely because “tradition” keeps us in place.
In 2010, when many of the 90s kids where applying for college, they were encouraged to become economically independent. Shame was also deployed, and recent college graduates who couldn’t find a job and continued to live at home were accused of “gnawing on the old folks (啃老)”. Of course, these were the same kids who were also accused of “being too rich for their own good (富二代)”. Continue reading
This afternoon I had the pleasure of attending the opening of the Digging a Hole in China (事件的地貌) exhibition, curated by Venus Lau. the exhibition features a range of works that were produced from the mid-1990s forward, roughly a decade after the idea of land art had been picked up by Chinese artists and only a few years after Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour, where he confirmed that China would continue to liberalize its economy. The stated goal of the exhibition, which positions itself between China and the West is,
[T]o expose and analyze the discrepancies between this genre of work and ‘conventional’ land art understood in the Western-centric art historical context, thereby probing the potential of ‘land’–as a cultural and political concept–in artistic practice.
For the third year, Group+ has ranked its top-30 online communities, which is interesting as it is part of a model of disseminating information about not-for-profit, non-governmental organizing. Over 1,500 groups use Group+, a Shenzhen-based online platform to organize real time “community” events. Fat Bird ranked 3rd, even above the Shenzhen Reading Federation (#5) and Green Mango (#13), which have much broader audiences than does experimental theater. What do these rankings tell us about the possibilities of imagining outside the state in Shenzhen specifically and China more generally? Continue reading