This year marks the 30th anniversary of the China Merchants (招商局) Shekou Industrial Zone (possibly park). Shekou was established one year before Shenzhen, which celebrates the city’s thirtieth next year or the following year, depending on whether one counts from the year Guangdong approved the decision to establish Shenzhen (1979), or the Central government (1980). The SEZ border with the rest of the country wasn’t fully in place until 1986… Anyway, all sorts of commemorative events have already begun, including randomly posted pictures of Old Shenzhen, here, here and here, which are worth checking out to get a sense of the scale of change.
(Although the first set are actually from the 25th anniversary. I really do have to write about the ongoing and seemingly compulsive revisions of Shenzhen history. In a city that is constantly referred to as having no history, the historic compulsion is not only alive and well, it also shows up in advertising as “11 years of experience” as if 11 years was a long time, and of course, it is, but only in the context of thirty years, which are considered nothing in the history of 5,000 years of civilization… contradictions, contradictions…)
One of the more famous pictures from the early years is of Deng Xiaoping writing the characters for Seaworld (海上世界), here. His daughter stands to his right and, looking over his shoulder is Yuan Geng, the man who initiated many of the reforms that are today considered central to reform and opening, including: the first industrial park open to foreign investment, directly hiring and firing employees (rather than using centralized work assignments), and introducing market driven management principles (time is money, efficiency is life.
This picture is interesting for what it tells us about the political culture in which Shekou came into being as well as the kind of political and social change that Shekou once symbolized.
1. 1984 was the first time that Deng Xiaoping came to Shenzhen. He visited many places, but the two symbolically most important were Guomao (in Luohu, near the train station) and the Minghua cruise ship in Shekou. He inscribed characters for both the Shenzhen and Shekou governments. Shenzhen received the famous lines: 深圳的发展和经验证明，我们建立经济特区的政策是正确的 (the development and experience of shenzhen proves that the policy to establish an economic special zone was correct, picture of Deng Xiaoping writing inscription.) In contrast, Shekou received four characters: 海上世界 (seaworld).
2. The actual content of the inscriptions points to the differences between the early eighties Shenzhen and Shekou models of reform. Shenzhen was explicitly linked with politics. This is confirmed by the importance of Guomao, which was built as both a shopping center and an office building to house representatives from Chinese provinces, cities, and ministries. In contrast, Shekou was explicitly linked re-orienting everyday life from models of third world mutual support and mass production to capitalist trade and individualized consumption as a brief history of the Minghua and the four characters “Seaworld” shows.
The Minghua was a French cruise ship christened by DeGalle (1962). The Chinese bought it to transport engineering support to Tanzania in 1973 to build railroad in support of villigization—a form of African socialism based on the Chinese model. In 1979, then used as part of relinking Sino-Japanese relations. In 1983, the Minghua was moved to Shekou and refurnished as a floating restaurant and nightclub, where it anchored a westernized club scene.
3. When Deng Xiaoping inscribed the characters for Seaworld, he not only signaled his support of the Shekou model, he made the kinds of reforms that were taking place in Shekou a model for national development. Chinese leaders inscribe (题词) calligraphy to support organizations and policies. As of 1984, reform and opening did not only refer to administrative reorganization (as signaled by the Shenzhen inscription), but also to social and cultural reform. This is important because before 6.4 individual desires and political reform had not yet been brutally separated, so that in pursuing their dreams, young people in Shenzhen also represented a new kind of Chinese future.
4. The fascinating and ongoing politics of the smiling face. Smiling continues to be, like inscribing phrases and words, a way that Chinese leaders publicly express political support. This picture of happy leaders was a metonym for reform society: following this path will lead to a happy future. It ties into traditional paternalism, in which strict fathers only smiled when their children truly did something well.