on shenzhen speed

When I’m free associating about the dovetail between addictions to pharmaceutical and economic speed, the problems of capitalism make uncanny sense.

Deng Xiaoping first used the term “Shenzhen Speed” during his 1984 tour to describe the construction of Shenzhen University, where students designed and built their own campus. During his second tour in 1992, Deng was taken to the revolving restaurant at the top of the the International Trade Building (国贸大厦), which went up one floor every three days. Just recently, the KK 100 Plaza broke that record, going up one floor every two days.

Today, most Shenzhen workers and leaders, in both the public and private sectors need to produce “results” at Shenzhen Speed. In addition to construction times, for example, students are expected to learn more Chinese characters in less time than students in other cities; workers are expected to fill orders as quickly as possibly; and leaders are expected to continue to grow the economy faster than other cities both in China and abroad.

All this speed, of course, is about competative advantage. If a student knows more characters than another, she gets a higher grade and more social status. If workers fill orders faster than in other companies, they get more orders and earn more money for their company. If leaders grow the economy, they get promoted from sub-provincial positions (like mayor) to provincial positions (like minister of transportation, Guangdong Government). And yes, all that social status feels good and is precisely why we push ourselves into the future — we win. If we learn more faster, we become valedictorian. If we make more faster, we get on the Forbes 500 honor roll of largest companies. If we grow the largest economy, we can start interferring in the economies of neighboring countries to our own benefit.

Shenzhen residents are justifiably proud of all they have accomplished in just over thirty years. The Municipality has become not only one of the most important cities in China, but also changed how the developing world thinks about development and how the developed world thinks about China. Sometimes, however, when I think about Shenzhen speed, my mind wanders off the question of rising gross domestic product (GDP) free associates to questions of drug addition and how good a rush can feel, even as it fries our brain.

Speed is the street name of
amphetamine, a psychostimulant drug that produces increased wakefulness and focus in association with decreased fatigue and appetite, which is to say amphetamine makes us feel more awake, happy, and sexy, without giving us the munchies. We feel like we’re moving. Fast. It turns out that Methamphetamine or ice or crystal meth is basically amphetamine squared, which is to say that meth does everything that amphetamine does and then metabolizes into amphetamine and so the body gets to go through the whole process again. Faster and faster and faster and faster. And moving fast can be fun.

One of the earliest uses of methamphetamine was to keep soldiers awake and fighting during WWII. In fact, it went under the names Pilot’s chocolate and tankers’ chocolate. After WW II, Japanese companies used meth to keep workers awake, while the United States and Western European countries imported methaphetamine to treat narcolepsy, Parkinsons, alcoholism, depression, and obesity. Methamphetamine was also marketed for sinus inflammation or for non-medicinal purposes as “pep pills” — and there’s the connection between pharmaceutical and economic speed. “Speeding up” feels good and enables us to achieve what we otherwise couldn’t. Indeed, students and workers take amphetamines to gain momentary competative advantage, while leaders constantly stimulate the economy.

Downside to amphetamine? It’s highly addictive and if we keep taking amphetamine we experience delusions and paranoia that are indistinguishable from a schizophrenic psychotic episodes. The crash and burn that comes from amphetamine abuse happens faster on meth. Unfortunately, the downsides of meth and regular amphetamine addiction can also metaphorically describe the downsides of cram schools, forced overtime, and urban planning that emphasizes real estate development rather than social wellbeing. Students are worried about getting good grades, workers are deluded into thinking that overtime will get them out of debt, and our leaders are paranoid about the aims and intentions of neighboring countries. Meanwhile, environmental deterioration continues accelerate.

Thought du jour: to the extent that profit under global capitalism is a function of time, we are all on speed. Moreover, that rush is about ranking and inequality and ultimately about how we define membership in world organizations. If nothing else, Shenzhen Speed set the pace for development in the Post Cold War order and it would behoove us to think about whose pushing the drug and why.