refiguring the healthy population

Yesterday, Xinhuashe circulated #动态清零怎么看怎么干# (image below), which translates as #how to understand and implement dynamic zero-Covid. Inside the parentheses, the question is raised: “if so many countries are ‘lying down,’ #why are we persisting with dynamic zero-Covid#? The answer to the question hinges on how population governance works in China. According to the article to which the weibo tweet refers, there are over 50 million elderly Chinese who have not yet been vaccinated. They are all vulnerable to catching and dying from Covid. Anyone who doesn’t comply with current protocols is (implicitly) threatening the health of those 50 million elders. Indeed, the rhetorical power of these tweet hinges on an unspoken assumption: what is more anti-social than threatening the lives of elders? Thus, alternative opinions on how the outbreak should be handled are not simply debates about public health protocols, but also and more importantly pose a serious challenge to social stability because they are intrinsically anti-social behaviors.

In trying to think through the logic behind the connections between public debate about health protocols and social stability, re-reading Susan Greenhalgh‘s work on population governance has proven incredibly useful. Her basic point is that the politics of reproduction is a key feature of modern government, especially how we imagine embodied relationships between past and future. Population governance touches on all aspects of citizen rights and obligations, specifically access to birth control and abortion. However, during the late 20th century, population governance has expanded to include how societies organize access to healthcare, economics (workforce ratios), environmental issues (population densities) and the meaning of human life (gerontology as an expanding field of study, for example). Population governance also shows up how eugenics have shaped modern politics throughout the world. In other words, population governance has become central not only to how we imagine ourselves as belonging (or not) to society, but also to how governments justify which public health programs to pursue and how to implement them.

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where’re you from?

We know that Shenzhen is an immigrant city, but inquiring minds wonder: where do the immigrants come from? Based on the recent release of Shenzhen statistics (for 2015), I’ve come up with the following chart that gives a crude (very, very crude) approximation of where Shenzhen’s residents are from circa 2014. Of note, if Chongqing and Sichuan counted as one place, instead of as a city and province respectively, the area would be roughly tied with Hunan for second most common origin. And yes, this corresponds with my (again vague) impression that Guangdong, Hunan, and Sichuan/Chongqing restaurants dominate the city’s eating!


gentrification with shenzhen characteristics

So hukou remains an ongoing problem. According to Dec 2012 Sanitation Bureau statistics, Shenzhen has a long term resident population of over 10 million and resident (hukou) population of 3.05 million. In order to bring some balance to the demographic, a 2014 regulation has dropped the education requirement from college graduate to associate’s degree. Apparently, they’ve also simplified the process.

The measures come about as both the rates of population growth AND turnover has slowed. It used to be that every Chinese New Year millions left, while after New Year a different batch of more millions returned. Now more and more temporary residents are making Shenzhen their primary home. These new migrants are different from earlier migrants in that they tend to be better educated, and have come to participate in Shenzhen’s new core industries–finance, logistics, culture, and high-tech, as well as the city’s strategic industries–bio-tech, internet, and alternative energy. So they are settling in and raising families without hukou.

In addition, the City’s second generation is starting to participate in Shenzhen society, and many are not actually legal residents. Along with new migrants, they are giving birth to the City’s third generation. In fact, there are so many children in the SEZ, the ongoing Shenzhen baby boom has become something of a marketing niche, despite the fact that young parents must return to their legal residence in order to receive subsidized neonatal care. In fact, Shenzhen has the highest birth rate in the country. The biggest economic beneficiaries of the boom are owners of homes with seats (学位) in the top schools. And real estate websites happily speculate (all puns intended) on the price of those houses over the next decade.

Inquiring minds want to know–what about the illegal floating population? And this is one of the interesting aspects of Shenzhen’s shifting demographic. As factory jobs have been moved elsewhere, we see a corresponding social restructuring–more white collar technocrats, fewer blue collar workers. At the same time, the City seems willing to formally claim these new migrants, even as requirements continue to exclude manual laborers, sanitation workers, and other low-end migrants from transferring their hukou to Shenzhen. Importantly, the social eugenics of this process dovetail with and reinforce the gentrification that the demolition of centrally located urban villages has brought about (Laying Siege to the Villages).

Dongguan is passing similar laws to manage its disproportionately large floating population, and one assumes its highly visible sex industry.

What is a boomtown?

Many readers are no doubt aware that Shenzhen’s sister cities are all (more or less) boomtowns. Two of the most famous are Brisbane, Australia and Houston, Texas. Both Brisbane and Houston, like Shenzhen have seen major demographic changes over the past thirty years, both have also profited from restructuring to the global economy.

To get a sense of the scale of Shenzhen’s population boom, I created the following chart, which compares census statistics from Brisbane, Houston and Shenzhen from 1980 through 2010.

What this simple chart clarifies is the extent to which we (westerners) need to reconceptualize “booms” in order to think about the kinds of demographic, social, and political change that is happening not only in Shenzhen, but throughout China. In a smaller nutshell than even an excell chart, what we see is that Shenzhen blew past Brisbane in 10 years and then past Houston in under 20. Final tally: Brisbane – 1,779,000; Houston (metropolitan area) – 5,946,800, and; Shenzhen – 10,357,900 (plus undocumented inhabitants), begging the question: how do we, who share the planet and this worldwide political economic system talk about and across disparate experiences of urbanization without giving over to either Chinese exceptionalism (as in, that’s just China) or ethnocentrism (as in, why is China acting like us?)

And yes, for practical purposes I’m still using 1 = 10,000 to count.

春运: Where’s home?

From Jan 19 through Feb 27, 2011 we float through the happy daze of 春运 or “Spring [Festival] Movement.” Indeed, the scale of Spring Movement merits its own website. Possibly of more interest to anthropologists, the scale of movement provides another opportunity to wonder about how the tension between hometown feelings and making oneself at home shapes Shenzhen identity.

The Municipalitaty estimates that during Spring Movement, Shenzhen’s land, sea, and air borders will be crossed over 9.4 million times, an increase of 700,000 from 2010’s official Spring Movement stats. However, folks have already started travelling and some, like me will leave during Spring Movement, but return after. Or leave before and return during? So again, shakey figures. Should we go with an estimated 10 million holiday related border crossings?

Other facts shed interesting light on the scale of Shenzhen’s Spring Movement. During these five weeks, the city guarantees that everyday, 9,000 buses will be leaving and returning to the city; in addition to the City’s 1,640 chartered buses, another 2,000 charted buses have been loaned to the City; the downtown and west railway stations will fill 960,000 seats before Feb 3; the airport guarantees 500 flights per day.

The point is that Spring Movement is not simply important, but also one of the events that the government takes very, very seriously. Indeed, going home for the holidays is, among my friends, a self-evident good and therefore a necessarily political event; for officials, problems during Spring Movement can be carreer ending. For many migrants to Shenzhen, Spring Festival makes immigration meaningful. Some may have come to try something new and find new opportunities, but most understand (and endure) the process of migrating to Shenzhen in terms of families elsewhere.

A friend explained to me the feeling of eating with her family.

“I used to think it was really annoying to be with my parents because they nag and stick their noses where they don’t belong. However, once in Shenzhen I had to eat by myself. Everytime, I eat alone, I really miss the feeling of being with my parents. As soon as I get home, they rush down five flights of stairs, carry my suitcase for me, and bring me into a warm room with a big table of food. It’s so comfortable and I’m not lonely, not like in Shenzhen.”

And then she sighed because after the holiday, she’ll return to Shenzhen, alone, to continue working at a job she doesn’t really like so that she can continue to send remitances to her parents, who in turn, will save the money for the next Spring Festival reunion.

population updates (of a sort)

third day back in shenzhen and i chanced upon one of my favorite conversations: speculation about shenzhen’s actual population and how these figures are generated.

based on conversations with real estate developers and housing agents, as well as published reports and blog postings, i’ve been guestimating shenzhen’s population at around 14 million. recent articles also place shenzhen’s population at 14 million, with 2 million residents with hukou and 12 million without.

according to yesterday’s cabbie, he heard a china mobile advertisement that claimed they had an audience of 16 million. to his way of thinking, this meant that shenzhen had a population of at least 16 million. he then mused that it was likely that shenzhen had “more” than 16 million. he figured: (a) anyone without hukou registration wouldn’t come to the door to respond to the census; (b) only people working at tax-paing work units can be properly counted; (c) many people have more than one child, and the extra (超生) children may be registered in other cities; (d) censors can’t actually make it to every single residence in shenzhen, so they have to depend on what people say, which means there’s error built into the system even before they begin counting; and thus (e) for the sake of a more reliable estimate, they should pad their figures by “several (几)” million.

two points: first, we don’t know how many people live in shenzhen and the rate at which people are coming to live in the city. should urban planners be aiming for 30 million by 2020 (based on the idea that the population has been doubling every decade)? second, where can we go for reliable information? is estimated audience size more or less reliable than published accounts?

reliable population data matters because it is thet basis for decisions about how many roads to build, how much water and electricity to supply, where to build schools and hospitals. in other words, a working definition of urban quality of life is at stake in this data. perhaps more importantly, there seems to be little consensus on how one might usefully guestimate all the people living outside tax-paying channels. this is an acute problem in shenzhen (and much of guangdong, more generally), where a significant majority of the population is self-employed. consequently, even as it is difficult to make informed decisions about the scale of public services in shenzhen, urban planning is made even more difficult by the fact that there has been little accounting of / for those outside the system, which leads to questions about public policy and welfare.

all this to say, urban planning questions are questions about who has rights to the city and the level of responsibility a city government has to provide a minimum quality of life for all residents; questions, that is, of what it means to be a citizen. so yes, the production of reliable population data is a question of citizenship and urban justice because equitable planning is the political expression of our commitment to each other.

go figure.

p.s. for a sense of how shenzhen’s population is represented on the english language web, i popped over to wikipedia. shenzhen was not listed in the article on chinese population and demographics. this information was based on the 2005 census, which estimated shanghai’s population at a mere 10 million! in the list of most populous cities worldwide (2009 data), shanghai had burgeoned to almost 14 million, while beijing came in at slightly over 10 million. shenzhen was again conspicuously absent from the list. nevertheless, in the article about shenzhen (once again in wikipedia), according to shenzhen’s official population (including people without hukou, but apparently not including the homeless and squatters, who have occupied shenzhen’s edges, including the areas under bridges) is listed at 14 million.

news briefs

shenzhen gears up for the high school entrance exam (中考). the competition is fierce. according department of education statistics, 50,699 students will test for only 34,017 places in 709 homerooms. of this, there are only 24,358 places in public schools. this means that less than half of shenzhen’s middle school graduates can go to public school in the city. the rest will go to private high schools and vocational schools. many will leave the city to go to school in neidi hometowns.

while reading up on the middle school exam, i discovered that shenzhen had redistricted. the seventh district, guangming new district consists of guangming (光明) and gongming (公明) streets (街道), formerly of baoan district. the redistricting resembles the establishment of yantian district in 1998, when the government intended to use the new administrative district to stimulate the local economy, but didn’t actually advertise the action. or maybe they did, and i just didn’t notice. sigh. at any rate, today, i will ask around to see how many people know about the new district or if i was the only one who hadn’t noticed.

the major difference between the two new districts is location: yantian has been built up and around the largest section of the port of shenzhen, while guangming is still relatively underdeveloped. during the recent storms, guangming new district’s 325,000 people suffered economic losses of 286 million rmb, story and pictures here.

also: american cities grew through annexing the surrounding area. shenzhen’s sister city, houston is an interesting case in point. however, shenzhen’s administrative growth has been a result of internal density. at certain thresholds the city redistricts, creating more levels of administration to handle the social complexity that comes with a kind of population implosion. i’m not yet sure how to think this.

p.s. in an admittedly unscientific survey of 15 people, only 3 could name all seven districts. of the three, two were involved in academic administration, i.e. they regularly attend citywide meetings, and one was a real estate developer. of the 12 who didn’t know, responses ranged from laughter to “you know even more than we chinese…” not really. the point is that the city re-organized itself and we didn’t notice. so maybe its not the case, as many claim, that shenzhen doesn’t have history, but rather that no one notices that we’re making history as we go along. thus, whatever remains at the end of a decade, or given commemorative timeframe (return of hong kong; 30th anniversary) is “history”. and if nothing remains, which given the level of razing and reconstruction currently under way is highly possible, there’ll be no history, just a perpetual present that figures an unreachable future…