wither the future? some anecdotes from shenzhen under normalized grid management

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?

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mapping Chinese creativity–shenzhen vis-a-vis beijing

Several weeks ago, Shenzhen hosted the Maker Faire, bringing tech savvy makers together to explore, discuss and extend hardwire creativity and innovation. This past week, Beijing has hosted Social Innovation Week, bringing changemakers together to explore, discuss and extend social creativity and innovation. In Chinese one character separated the two events. The Shenzhen hosted 创客 or “maker guests” while in Beijing the guest list comprised 创变客 or “make change guests”.

Inquiring minds might paraphrase Gregory Bateson and ask: is this a difference that marks an important cultural difference between the two cities?

As in English, the Chinese shift from the vocabulary of “hacker” to “maker” has signaled the increasing respectability of the techno-nerds. The Chinese is even more explicit in this respect. To my knowledge, the earliest translation of “hacker” was 黑客, literally “black guest”. The term highlighted the outlaw romance of hacking at (at least) two levels. First the obvious 黑 which describes renegades and their possibly illegal activities as in the expressions “mafia (黑社会)”, “no hukou child (黑户)”, and “black heart (黑心)”. Second, 客 refers not only to guests in the modern sense of the term, but also clients in the medieval sense of the term, the dependents on a lord who would provide service in return for protection. Unlike, the English, however, the expression “changemaker” is more obviously related to the hacker movement because the word is made (!) by inserting the character 变 or change into the net-popularized expression 创客.

The more pertinent question, however, seems to be: Almost a decade after China began promoting creative industries, do the respective localizations of these two events tell us anything interesting about how Beijing and Shenzhen function within the Chinese cognitive mapping of creativity and innovation?

The pomp and circumstances of the two events did not differ radically–both were located in marginal spaces (Anhuili and Shekou, respectively) that are nevertheless within the city center, broadly defined. The demographic of the organizers was similar, with generations 80 and 90 running the show, and a shared emphasis on networking nationally and globally. The staging of talks was different. Beijing opted for TED style talks, with speakers having 15 minutes to share their projects. This was supplemented by round table discussions. In contrast, Shenzhen opted for more traditional keynotes, with salon style question and answer sessions.

The important difference seems to coalesce around funding sources and industry support. Beijing garnered support from not-for-profits and international foundations. In contrast, Shenzhen had industry support, generally through China Merchants, which is rebranding Shekou and specifically through Shenzhen based companies and international think tanks that focus on techno innovation. In other words, while young people of both cities deployed creativity to claim a space for and to legitimate the status of Generations 80 and 90, the Beijing event constituted itself with respect to society broadly defined, while Shenzhen defined society with respect to entrepreneurship narrowly defined.

Impressions from opening events, below.

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可怜天下父母心: generation 80 and 90 go abroad

I tend to think that middle class Chinese parents have it good. Grandparents take care of young children, elementary school children go to school and can generally be pressured into doing several hours of homework a night, and older children hang out with their parents, not only out of respect, but also because they acknowledge that being with children makes parents happy. In fact, a visit to any park or mall, or even an ordinary bus commute suggests how well behaved Chinese infants are. One or two fuss, but most sit calmly on their grandparents’ laps or play with a water bottle. School age children get themselves to and from campus, attend cram sessions, and organize their homework.

Even after graduating from college, middle class children take care of their parents’ well-being. I know more than one member of Generation 80, for example, who returns home for weekly meals. Working Chinese children also arrange for their parents and parental-in laws to live with or near them in order to attend to parental needs. So common is the assumption of parental care that throughout Shenzhen, hospitals and shopping malls market themselves as places where children can express care for parents — arranging a mother’s dental appointment or family dinner, for example. Certainly, facilitating migrant remittances from Shenzhen to neidi and family network phone plans are huge sections of the financial and service industries. In other words, my experience has shown me the extent to which middle class Chinese children — even members of Generation 80 and 90 —  remain remarkably filial. Or certainly seem so when compared with their age cohorts in the United States.

I realize that mine is a minority position. Commentators in both China and the West have focused on how China’s middle-class parents work exceedingly hard to provide the material conditions for their only child to live well. These parents sacrifice all sorts of ambitions and desires so that their child can go a famous university. They also point out that since promulgation in 1980, China’s one-child policy has produced not a few “little Emperors (小皇帝)”, who in common English are simply “spoilt brats”. Now it may be that when two sets of grandparents and often a nanny orbit the lone descendent, some children become unreasonable. But not all. And certainly not the majority, who study hours as long or longer than their parents work to achieve academic results that will make their elders proud. Indeed, I am still impressed by the number of young Chinese people who make their parents’ dreams (rather than their own) their lodestar.

As I have begun to gather stories about generations 80 and 90 abroad, however, my perspective has shifted. I am beginning to realize the extent to which their parents have made these young people their life’s purpose. It is not simply that middle class parents bask in the glory of their child’s accomplishments, but also and more importantly, that they have crafted lives out of raising this child. These parents often confuse high grades with success and low grades with failure, or interpret independent thinking as “rebellion” and “intransigence”. Nevertheless, once their child successfully matriculates in an overseas high school or college, these parents suffer acute ” empty nest” syndrome, as we call it in the States not only because they realize that they will no longer be able to direct their children’s development, but also because they finally understand, no matter what and how they dream for their child, ultimately they cannot give their child a smooth and carefree life.

Yesterday, I helped a mother read and understand US insurance documents. Her daughter is in California and was in a car accident. The other party has filed for damages, and the daughter’s insurance company has begun to negotiate with the claimant’s lawyer. Ironically, the mother sold her own car so that the daughter could purchase a car, which she explained, “is more necessary in California than Shenzhen.” The daughter whose English is fine, but not strong enough to feel confident about her understanding of documents in legal English sent her mother digital copies, asking for guidance. The mother does not read English and used half a day to find a connection to me to make an appointment. After I explained the content to her, we came up with a plan of action and contacted the daughter, who is no doubt figuring out what needs to be done and doing it. Her mother, however, is in Shenzhen managing the anxiety of helplessness; she deeply wants to help her daughter, but cannot.

All this to say that I am hearing the expression “take pity on the hearts of the world’s parents (可怜天下父母心)” differently, and perhaps more accurately. I used to hear it as spoilt parent moaning about a child’s attempt to establish a bit of independence. Today, I am better able to pity parents, not because their child received poor grades or has a stubborn streak, but rather because they would do anything to make their child’s life smooth and happy. Of course, that is precisely what they cannot do, and so they suffer.

Interesting cultural postscript: in Chinese, empty nests refer to lonely grandparents and the phrase “empty nester” is translated as 孤寡老人. Thus, when their children go and remain abroad, Chinese parents not only become empty nesters in the US sense of “children have moved out”, but also potentially in the Chinese sense of “old person without a grandchild”.

lament of generation 80

Opportunity in the post-Mao era — like all opportunity — has been a question of being in the right place at the right time. Below, I have translated a blog post, lamenting the fact that even if Shenzhen is the right place, it is no longer the right time; the opportunities are going, going, gone and if what remains are wage labor and education, even they are not enough for the poor.

Of note, the author uses the expression “poor second generation (穷二代)”, the direct opposite of the “rich second generation (富二代)”. More interestingly, he refers to “second generation farmers (农二代)”, as if the transition from farmer to urban resident was a natural progression. However, there have been generations of Chinese farmers — in fact, this is one definition of traditional Chinese culture. What then, we might wonder, is it about Shenzhen that gives rise to the expectation that each generation must do economically better than the last?

Shenzhen: Unfortunate Generation 80, Unhappy Workers, and the Hopeless Poor Second Generation

First of all, let me explain that my title refers to me. Perhaps you, who are reading this heading are one of the lucky Generation 80, the happy office workers. Or, maybe you’re one of the poor second generation or a second generation farmer but aren’t hopeless. If so, congratulations. My opinion isn’t going to be yours, its only representative of my thoughts.

Why is Generation 80 unfortunate? Continue reading

Meilin: historic footnotes

Located between Lianhua Mountain and the ridge of low-lying mountains that once marked the second line, Meilin interests for several reasons.

First, Meilin completes the central axis in the same way that Hong Kong does – as an historic footnote. Meilin and Hong Kong are the implicit extensions of Shenzhen’s ideologically charged central axis, which announced the SEZ’s transition from an industrial manufacturing economy to a financial service and high-tech research and development economy. However, Meilin was built for functionaries in the 80s and 90s, and realizes the scale and type of residential area to which SZ once aspired. Likewise, Hong Kong was the orientation of SEZ globalization throughout the 80s and 90s, but like Meilin, it was globalization on a different scale. Shenzhen’s post axis global aims have long since reached beyond Hong Kong.

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Second, the integration of Shang Meilin and Xia Meilin New Villages is neat because handshake building scale was the scale of 80s and 90s neighborhoods. Continue reading

choices, choices

I enjoy hanging with Daomei because he lives the unexpected life. To support his nascent acting career, he recently decided to become a lifeguard and is now completing a series of trainings, including Red Cross training to recognize and respond to heart attack symptoms and pulling dead weight through cold waves.

Daomei’s career swerves and occupational dabbling may seem familiar to Americans, but in Shenzhen, it sparkles. Moreover, it reveals a crack in what is often perceived (in China and abroad) as Shenzhener’s relentless pursuit of economic prosperity. Although it is true that many of Daomei’s classmates have settled for more mundane career tracks, nevertheless it is also true that for the tens of students who have taken paths opened by their parents or slipped into more cynical careers such as corporate drinking buddy, there is one who has left Shenzhen to roam Yunnan and another who pursued yoga. All this to say, Daomei is probably an extreme case, but he is no lone ranger — Shenzhen’s thirty somethings are grappling with the choices and individualistic possibilities that the city’s wealth has created for a small, but active middle class.

I can’t wait to see Daomei at the beach!


Yang Qian, our florist and his son.

Much happiness throughout Shenzhen. Children play, families stroll, and friends meet for dinners and laughter. Our florist has been exceptionally busy, bringing in orchids, daffodils, and lucky orange trees. Indeed, his sidewalk stand has grown several times its usual size as people purchase New Year’s flowers.

All this bustle is a sign both of how settled Shenzhen has become and how commercialized Spring Festival. On the one hand, many families are not only staying for the Spring Festival, but also bringing in relatives from neidi. In this sense, Shenzhen has become a “hometown”. On the other hand, businesses are staying open, especially restaurants, themeparks, and supermarkets. The malls hum, the parks sparkle, and department stores offer great deals. In other words, consumption is a key element of the celebration and thus, many migrant aren’t going home for the festival because, well, they’re still working.

Of note: the themes of Shenzhen identity, holiday spirit, and consumption all come together in Zhou Bichang’s (周笔畅) version of “The God of Wealth Arrives (财神到),” which was released in 2008, but is still played throughout the city.  Zhou Bichang (笔笔 to her fans) was the city’s representative and runner-up (to Li Yuchun) in the first Super Girl contest and she both appeals to and represents the city’s generation 80; she’s cute, fashionable, and comfortable moving between Cantonese and Mandarin. Moreover, the values she represents are unabashedly neo-liberal or possibly even protestant (pace Weber):

财神到财神到     好心得好报  God of wealth arrives, god of wealth arrives, good hearts get good rewards.
财神话财神话 揾钱依正路  God of wealth says, god of wealth says, earn money on the proper road.
财神到财神到 好走快两步  God of wealth arrives, god of wealth arrives, walk a little faster.

To be rich may or may not be glorious, but come New Year’s in Shenzhen, it’s definitely a good time.

wedding high…

yesterday evening i enjoyed myself at a chinese wedding, really enjoyed myself in an almost american let’s dance and party at the reception kind of way. why is this worth noting?

other shenzhen weddings that i have attended have been more formal, staging important relationships through explicit ritual. for example, the last wedding i attended included two sets of tables (bride and groom’s sides) for parents and elders, brothers and sisters and their families, including in-laws, bosses and colleagues, business associates, friends of parents and elders, friends of bride and groom. in short, a crystallization of the relationships – formal and emotional – that had made up the lives of the bride and groom. toasting (who went to which table to drink with whom) allowed guests to formally acknowledge these relationships even as they deepened the affection both for the couple and between guests. importantly, monetary gifts to the bride and groom were correspondingly classified with the closer and higher ranking guests giving more and the more distant and lower-ranking giving less.

(so yes, i always ask a knowledgeable friend how much i should put in a red envelop before i go to wedding. and yes, i am as frequently told, “put in what you feel.” to which i reply, “i don’t know what i’m supposed to feel.” my ignorance about the monetary expression of my feeling occurs because giving either too much or not enough means i have misinterpretted the nature of my relationship with either the bride or groom and thus can lead to awkwardness, misunderstanding, and even hurt feelings. sigh.)

slight detour through my anxieties aside, the point is that yesterday’s wedding had a much stronger emphasis on being happy than on making social relationships explicit. yes, parents and grandparents came and yes, bosses and colleagues showed, but the majority of the guests were friends of the bride and groom, who as generation 80 kids were only children (thus no siblings and all those relationships), as under-30 years of age not very well established socially (thus not many business associates), and also most had grown up in Shenzhen with party habits. moreover, the bride is young, almost generation 80 young and so many of her friends did come to party.

perhaps more importantly to the general high high high of the evening, the bride and groom were theatre people. this meant that when a guest stood up to congratulate the couple, it was a performance and not the usual blah blah of more formal weddings. there were solo songs, chair dances, a cross-talk routine, a magic show, humorous impromptu speeches, and videos that spoofed the happy couple in a good natured way. indeed, even throwing the bouquet became a chance for telling jokes and performing; the group was on in the most satisfying way.