public intellectuals we be

Last Friday evening, Yang Qian, Chen Hongjuan (Melon), and I participated in a public talk on “Designing Escapist Experiences”. The event was the first in a four-part series on experience design that is co-produced by the OCT A3+ space and the Baptist University of Hong Kong, Master’s of Visual Arts in Experience Design. As with many talks in currently salon obsessed Shenzhen, the talk quickly exceeded its proscribed limits, this time steering into discussions of whether or not art was by definition “escapist” or if it constituted an opportunity to re-imagine the world, with particular reference to the every changing utopian project of the PRC. Also as with many of these discussions, commerce came in, guns blazing: was it really so horrible to pay for the delights of Disney princesses or to imagine oneself as middle class if only for a few moments? Indeed, it is an exciting time to be in Shenzhen where public debate–especially minjian debate–is enjoyed and well-attended. Young and old, well educated Shenzheners and recently arrived professionals, everyone wants to learn and is eager to share “true thoughts” with receptive interlocutors. After two hours of intense conversation, we took a group photo and went home, refreshed and somewhat hopeful in the lingering delights of conversation.

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… and it ends with Revelations

Yesterday, I heard a rumor and a comment about that rumor, which have me thinking about the importance and fluidity of “reputation” in the absence of any trusted news media and the concomitant rise of weibo as a news source.

The rumor: because the Municipality overspent its universiade budget, this year small businesses will be taxed excessively in order to make up the difference. Apparently, small businesses have been targeted because they are the most vulnerable to government intervention. Private individuals have already been taxed and cannot be taxed again without causing unrest and large, state and/or foreign owned companies all have governmental connections and (in the case of foreign companies) China’s agreements to uphold its tax laws. In contrast, small business owners only have the government connections that they have made through bribes and schmoozing. Moreover, small business owners tend to swim alone, rather than organizing which means that they have neither collective bargaining power, nor use access to public media to air their grievances. Instead, they complain to friends, who in turn, pass the rumor along over tea and snacks with friends.

The comment: It’s difficult to confirm anything in China because important decisions, or rather, the justifications for important decisions aren’t documented and released into the public sphere because anything that can be written down isn’t the total story. My friend then explained that this is why she no longer reads newspapers for news. Instead, she reads newspapers to get a sense of government winds and reads weibo and blogs for news reports. But, when pressed, she also admitted that she doesn’t completely trust weibo or blogs. Instead, she evaluates (based on her experience) the likelihood of a report being true. And she’s aware that different personal experiences will make some people more or less likely to trust a particular report.  Continue reading

What is an election?

This past week, I learned that I didn’t know how Chinese elections are actually organized, a confessional moment that speaks to the heart of how deeply cultural assumptions construct my understanding of Shenzhen. (Oh yes, reader beware!) I thought that as a citizen of the – land of the free, home of relentless election campaigning even when its not an election year – United States, I knew what it meant when a Chinese newspaper printed pictures of Chinese people voting.

What did I think and how did I learn I was wrong? Continue reading

Shenzhen’s neoconfucian movement seeps into official discourse, again

Last night at a bus stop, happened upon Shenzhen’s latest universiade campaign and yes, its Confucian quotes about welcoming guests and behaving in civilized fashion. The neoconfucian quotes are part of a larger campaign that is using the universiade to teach Shenzhen residents how to properly inhabit the city. In the subway, for example, posters show event mascot UU lining up and waiting his turn to get onto the subway. Elementary schools are teaching students to smile openly “in a western way” to great foreign guests in a friendly manners; indeed, in one of my favorite news stories, the Binhe Elementary principal explained the creation of the schools’ Smile Angels and then winning angels analyzed the characteristic that made their smile uniquely welcoming – sweet, like a bow, and so open I end up squinting.

This campaign deepens and expands upon popular neoconfucianism throughout Shenzhen. As mentioned in an earlier post, for example, some schools and many families require children to memorize the three character jing in order to cultivate filial and more intelligent children. The SEZ’s 30th Anniversary was also celebrated with Confucian quotes. I’ve also noticed that recent advertising campaigns have stepped up the filial piety quotient, moving from generalized “care for your parents by using our product” formulae to the following structure – a mother tries to help a son, the son rejects her help, and then discovers his mistake. Product placement underscores the twin moments of maternal care and the son’s enlightenment.

The Confucian Merchant (儒商) has long figured in Shenzhen public discourse about how the newly wealthy should behave, focusing on business ethics and philanthropic responsibility. Then came a grassroots movement among the middle class to teach children Confucian classics. However, the Universiade campaign underscores that the Municipality’s public discourse is growing even more explicitly neoconfucian, which in turn, points to the flexible soft side of municipal ideology and its intersections with culture and commerce – hegemony in the sense of unquestioned common sense.

大望: Culture Highland

Yesterday, I visited the Dawang Culture Highland (大望文化高地). This is the second year that Dawang has been part of the Cultural Industries Fair; like Dafen, Dawang is using art and international art markets to urbanize. Unlike Dafen, however, Dawang is located at the foot of Wutong Mountain and is promoting a more natural and original art experience.

Dawang refers both to a particular village and the cluster of villages that nestle against the foot of Wutong Mountain and so development in the area tends to be village by village, leading to both unexpected convergences and contradictions. Importantly, the spatial layout of the area suggests interesting (if familiar) transitions between rural and urbane Shenzhen as well as the integration of neidi migrants and artists into the city. On the one hand, Maizai, for example, is the village closest to mountain footpaths and has developed a cobblestone pedestrian street for Shenzhen urbanites looking for weekend relaxation and local Hakka cuisine. Other villages specialize in selling lychee honey. There is limited, small scale production and commerce. On the other hand, transportation to the area is inconvenient, which means that land is cheap. Consequently, both artists and squatters have nestled into the edges of Dawang lychee orchards.

This layout highlights the important social function of urban villages in incubating new kinds of Shenzheners: locals as a new kind of renter class, artists as the up and coming middle class, and squatters as the lowest of the city’s urban proletariat. Importantly, the area’s distance from the city center means that its one marketable asset is precisely the feature it wants to destroy – its rural and undeveloped nature (in all senses of the world).

Dawang and its Culture Highland are featured in That’s PRD’s introduction to new artspaces in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Pictures of the lay of the land, below.

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Face Engineering Projects – 面子工程

I’ve learned a new expression, face engineering projects (面子工程), which I understand to mean large scale social mobilization that is just for show and will vanish with the project’s intended audience. Continue reading

mirror, mirror – thoughts for the new year

I have been a curious lightening rod for Sino-American perceptions of each other, especially with respect to the meaning and importance of Shenzhen in all this global restructuring. I have confounded gendered stereotypes because my body signifies an elite position within global hierarchies. As a white, upper middle class American woman, I have been expected to enjoy and choose from the best that the world offers, which is apparently not to be found in Shenzhen. Or if in Shenzhen, I have been expected to stay only for the time it would take to complete a project and then return to where I belong. This past trip to the US, I discovered that my life choices had become mainstream in profound and (often) distressing ways.

The first time I went to China (1995), I stayed three years before I returned to the US. My ability to speak Chinese and decision to study cultural transformation in Shenzhen (rather than Beijing or perhaps Shanghai) shocked most inhabitants. Indeed, they consistently urged me to head north to conduct valuable research. More tellingly, when I went shopping or stopped at a telephone kiosk, venders and recent migrants (even from Beijing and Shanghai) frequently mistook me for either (a) English by way of Hong Kong or (b) Russian by way Window of the World. Once they realized that I was actually American, the same vendors immediately proposed that Yang Qian was (in order of plausibility): Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Singaporean, and Hong Kongese. Only with great reluctance (and then disturbingly cheerful surprise), they said, “You’re Mainland Chinese!!!” At which point, they asked where we had met in America. 

Once I started making annual trips back to the US, however, I realized that my decisions to live and study in Shenzhen were equally shocking to mainstream Americans, who had not heard of the SEZ, its importance in reforming Chinese society, or the scale of what was happening just north of Hong Kong. When I was in West Lafayette, IN, pursuing a Master’s at Purdue (circa 1990), an undergraduate student asked me what the point of studying Chinese was if I couldn’t use it to find a job. Indeed, as late as Spring 2000, members of a job selection committee at a liberal arts college asked me, “What’s so international about Shenzhen?” and then hired someone who studied urban life in Beijing.

The past five years, I have noted how more and more young international professionals are coming to Shenzhen – to work, to invest, to conduct research, and to create art. In Shenzhen, I am no longer strange, but an expected feature of the urban fabric: the foreign investor / English teacher, and also the foreign intellectual, who now appears regularly in Shenzhen’s many international events. Only in conversation, do I still manage to surprise Chinese interlocutors. Likewise, this trip, several incidents suggest how deeply aware not only of China, but also Shenzhen my U.S. family and friends have become. In Seattle, Natasha’s five-year old daughter, Roman is studying Chinese in an immersion program and could speak and write some Chinese. Meanwhile, Natasha and I brainstormed possible collaborations in Shenzhen. On the plane from Seattle to Houston, we met a young college graduate, who chatted in Beijing accented Mandarin and was constructing a multi-national life.  In Southern Pines, NC, my two-year old nephew, Emanuelle watches Nihao Kailan and enjoys saying xiexie

And yet. All this mainstreaming seems to be quickly congealing into stereotypes that perpetuate the kinds of ignorance that shaped early perceptions of my presence in Shenzhen. Most Chinese and Americans continue to believe that (a) the US offers a better life than China and that (b) the only reason one would go to and remain in Shenzhen is to become rich. The most glaring example of this kind of thinking is that those in positions to deny visas (to me in Shenzhen) and entry into the US (YQ when we come back) continue to suspect that there is something not quite right about a mixed couple, who have chosen to live in Shenzhen (rather than, for example, West Lafayette, IN). And yes, they act on these impressions. I am still not eligible for a Chinese green card because eligibility is based on investment or Chinese blood, rather than marriage. Immigration officers still bully YQ when we enter the US because we have chosen to create a life in Shenzhen.

All this to say that China and Shenzhen seem to have been mainstreamed in ways that conform low expectations – get in, make a buck, get out, rather than in ways that might encourage new ways of being global citizens. Moreover, all these bucks continue to sustain illusions of American supremacy, not only because more and more of China’s young elites bring their dreams, talents, and money to the US, but also because many who go to Shenzhen do so looking (and therefore) only finding economic opportunity. Thus, both US and Chinese officials continue to read YS and my lack of visible economic progress as suspicious activity.

I’m happy my nephew can say xiexie. I wish he was also being taught that the appropriate form of courtesy is to jiaoren – to call older people ayi and shushu, or nainai and yeye and that too many xiexies often seem overly formal (at best) or sarcastic in Mandarin contexts. Such are my thoughts as we enter the Year of the Tiger.

Hear me roar.

shenzheners search for happiness…

happy endings?

The Shenzhen Civilization Office (文明办) is currently sponsoring the “Search for the Happy Person in My Life Video Contest (寻找身边快了幸福的人DV大赛)”.

At first, I was simply curious about how to interpret their posters – a canoe, floating on a dock, seperated from an idealized Shenzhen skyline by a vast expance of water. Am I supposed to understand the happy ones as those who have left the city or those who are heading toward the city? The image of Shenzhen rising fully formed from white fluffy clouds strikes me as oddly oz-like, and this has me wondering if perhaps those who don’t live in actually existing Shenzhen are the happy ones?

To assauge my curiosity, I googled 文明办 and, in addition to a national level office of civilization, I also discovered a provincial office. However, Shenzhen’s office was not online. A few more clicks and I found out that

中央文明办全名叫中央精神文明建设指导委员会办公室,是中央精神文明建设指导委员会的办事机构。而中央精神文明建设指导委员会最主要的职责就是督促检查各 地、各部门贯彻落实党的十四届六中全会精神和中央关于精神文明建设的一系列方针、政策的情况,协调解决精神文明建设主要是思想道德和文化建设方面的有关问 题。总结推广交流先进经验。深入调查研究,为中央决策提供建议。

(The full name of the Central Civilization Office is the Central Spiritual Civilization Establishment Oversight Committee Office, and is the managing agency of the Central government’s establishment of spiritual civilization. The main directive of the Central Spiritualization Establishment Oversight Committee is to  promote and supervise each region and bureau to implement the spiritual policies of the 14th meeting of the sixth plenary session and related questions of cultural construction.  In brief, to popularize and exchange avante guard experience. To conduct reseaerch into the process and provide suggestions for central policy making.)

Which begs the question: how do videos of happy people satisfy the Office’s mission?

A friend once told me that if you want to know what Chinese leaders think Chinese society lacks, all you have to do is find out what they’re currently promoting. For example, a “harmonious society” lacks harmony. By extension, a city searching for happy people would then lack happy people. Hmm…

Nevertheless, it seems wonderful to open the question of happiness to social debate. And to frame happiness as a question of spirituality? Again, yes! I’m all for making happiness part of national profiles and a condition for evaluating good government. However, instead of talking about what the conditions of happiness are and how we might extend them to more people, the videos by and large talk about how individuals are happy in their very private lives. Thus, in the videos I’ve seen, the definitions of happiness are so stereotypical (going to school, falling in love) and so individualized (family life, working hard) that its hard to see this competition as anything but more sugar-coating a decided lack of harmony chez Shenzhen.

And that’s the painfully irony: Shenzhen did begin in the dream of happiness or xiaokang, as it was once called.

More videos online at the official website.