I have been used to thinking of the Cultural Revolution as the immediate backdrop to the ideological transformations initiated by the establishment of Shenzhen. However, as I was reacquainting myself with the cultural geography of Huaqiangbei I came across the Zhenhua Industries sign on Zhenxing Road. The logo is a throwback to Third Front industrialization, when futurist aesthetics still informed nationalist dreams. But what actually caught my eye was Jiang Zenmin’s calligraphy; by providing the calligraphy (题词) for this enterprise, the former General Secretary showed explicit support for the manufacturing company. After all, the most famous example of Jiang Zemin’s calligraphy in Shenzhen was written for Window of the World in 1994, as part of Overseas Chinese Town’s transition to leisure and tourism. So I was curious: when and how did he actively support Zhen Hua specifically and the construction of the Shangbu Industrial Zone more generally?
For the curious, a series of posts on Ghanian entrepreneur, Desmond Koney’s visit to Shenzhen.
View story at Medium.com
Yesterday I walked the Huaqiangbei pedestrian street, from Shennan Road through the Jiufang (九方) Mall and then deeper into the area, which nearly forty years ago was known as the Shangbu Industrial Park. Yes, come November, we’ll be celebrating (or not) the fortieth anniversary of Reform and Opening. That’s ten years longer than the Mao era. Indeed, for many in Shenzhen the reference that many have of “long ago” is now the 1980s. Impressions from my walk: traces of early manufacturing are scattered between the malls and towers, as is evidence of the shift from textiles and electronics to a focus on cell phones and IT.
If memory serves (and it tends to serve some agenda), I first visited Huaqiangbei (formerly the Shangbu Industrial Park) in 1995, when it was still primarily a manufacturing and residential area, but didn’t know what I was looking at. The big ideas in my head had to with workers rights and feminism, and so I was aware of the factories, the state sponsored housing, the few department stores, including the then still operative Friendship store, and the iconic Shanghai Hotel with its surprisingly good Cantonese dim sum. I noticed that neighboring Gangxia and Tianmian were under construction, but glossed this new urban morphology as a “new village.” I didn’t realize that the scale of immigration and construction that happened during the 90s and defined “Shenzhen” for me would be different enough from the 1980s that friends who arrived during the Special Zone’s first decade laughing asserted that Shenzhen was changing so quickly that if they didn’t visit a neighborhood for several years it was easy to get lost; Shenzhen in 1989 and 1999 were two different cities. And that was almost two decades ago.
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.