formalizing boundaries within the city

One of the results of grid management (see Covid Among Us for details) has been the hardening of the city’s informal boundaries. However, this process has been ongoing for several decades in part via the imposition of a second traffic grid on top of the original traffic grid. In practice, this has meant re-purposing earlier, narrow roads as the internal roads of a cordoned off housing estates 小区 and laying a wider, more extensive network around the newly isolated gated community. In other words, what was initially planned as an open city, was incrementally partitioned and closed off even before grid management came online. In some sense, 2022 zero-Covid protocols merely accelerated a process that was already underway. Once you understand the logic of how the traffic grid was re-inscribed, its possible to see how boundaries were hardened through urban expansion.

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90s nostalgia

I walked Nanshan Road, from Daxin to the Shekou suburbs via one or two side roads. Below, impressions of “Old Nanshan,” which was built during the late 80s and early 90s, now appears highly nostalgic–the narrow roads, the shade trees, and mom and pop shops.

passing of a hero

The first party secretary and second president of Shenzhen University, Luo Zhengqi 罗征启 was one of the main figures of public life during the early Special Zone years. His vision for a post-CR intellectual culture and new roles for intellectuals not only shaped the city’s public culture and its urban form, but has also educated many of the city’s important figures. Graduates from the Shenzhen University School of Architecture have, quite literally, contributed to the design and construction of the city’s built environment, while more generally Shenzhen University graduates have played important roles in the city’s government, its companies and civil life, including its not-for-profits, volunteer organizations, and vibrant salon culture. Luo Zhengqi passed away yesterday, three months after his wife, Professor Liang Hongwen left us. Both were 88 years old. Both lived and worked in Shenzhen from 1983 to their passing this year.

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a special zone avant la lettre: old shajing

If you’ve had the privilege of walking Old Shajing with anthropologist Cheng Jian (程建), you know that the Chens settled the area during the Southern Song (960-1127). You also know that the Chen family network stretched throughout Dongguan and Xin’an Counties and that when most of Xin’an was abandoned during the Qing Dynasty relocation order (迁海令1644—1661), significant sections of Shajing remained settled despite the fact that it fell squarely within an area controlled and/or influenced by Koxinga (an honorific from 國姓爺; pinyin: Guóxìngyé; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Kok-sèng-iâ, his name was 郑成功). Clan members also received special dispensation that allowed them to travel into the coastal no-man’s land to harvest sea salt. That’s right: administrative borders, cross border exceptions, and concomitant territorial reorganization have a deep history in the area.


Map of coastal areas either occupied by (red) or under the influence of (orange) Koxinga.

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return to [human] nature: nostalgia at and around shenzhen university

Yesterday, I participated in an organizational meeting for a public talk on Shenzhen University. The meeting was held at the Qinghua Park (清华苑), the design firm headed by Luo Zhengqi former SZU president and members of the original SZU design team that left the University when he did (in post June 4th restructuring).

The planning of the SZU campus interests because it represents a unique moment in the Municipality’s history. Members of the Architecture Department as well as students in the first graduating classes actively participated in the design and construction of the campus. Indeed, Teacher Luo held on campus competitions to design dormitories and other buildings on campus.

According to Teacher Liang, who was in charge of the project, the animating principle of the design was a “return to nature (回到自然)”. She defined this return to nature in terms of freedom of spirit . For Teacher Liang, “nature” meant “human nature” as an extension of natural order.

Teacher Luo joked that the reason the design of the SZU campus had succeed was because they hadn’t done anything, a reference to the Daoist value of “no action (无为)”. On Teacher Liang’s understanding, freedom allows human beings to express and recognize human nature or art through the creation of material objects and the modification of the environment. She emphasized that neither economic nor social limits determined the form and meaning of an object or space, but rather human intention and the liberation of the human spirit.

Eyes sparkling, Teacher Liang illustrated her understanding of the kind of freedom at SZU with a joke, “There was no summer vacation at SZU.” Everyone was busy at one of the many construction projects, none of which were landmark buildings. Instead the campus layout reflected the ethos of communal construction toward a common goal — education for a new kind of citizen, one who made creative break throughs rather than repeated standardized forms.

For example, the main gate was set at an oblique angle, rather than along a cardinal axis, which was and remains a standard design practice for a university. In addition, early SZU was not walled off to create links between the campus and society. Moreover, the library held pride of place in the university commons, rather than a Ceremonial Hall for university meetings. In this sense, Teacher Liang defined freedom not as “freedom to do whatever I want (自由放肆)”, but rather a self-regulating freedom that creatively responded to community needs (自由自律).”

The second planning value that Teacher Liang emphasized was humility (谦卑). Humility took two explicit forms. First, layout emphasized users’ convenience, rather than centralization. Thus, staff offices and classrooms were located on either side of the central library, while student dormitories were placed adjacent to classrooms and within a 10-minute walk to the library. Staff housing and facilities were located furthest from the central commons. To further promote cross disciplinary conversations, students were not housed by major, but by year.

Second, large swathes of land were left open for future use. This open land, which included a large section of Mangrove forrest along pre-landfilled Shenzhen Bay, included extant Lychee orchards (and yes, students and teachers participated in early harvests) as well as planting garden areas and an artificial lake. According to SZU architectural student, from the outside the campus looked like waves of trees and low-lying buildings, while inside one could leisurely walk on shaded paths without the oppressive sense of skyscrapers or the disorientation caused by too many landmark buildings that stood apart from an integrated urban whole.

Participants agreed that early Shenzhen University reflected larger social goals to reform and open the Maoist system. They had been proud that SZU was not like Beida or Qinghua, they wanted to educated students who learned through doing, and they believed that universities had an important place in leading post Mao China. Indeed, they were not simply nostalgic for early SZU, but also and more profoundly, nostalgic for the Special Zone, when Shenzhen was a synonym with “experimentation” and “difference”, and “freedom” defined as a “return to [human] nature”. To this end, Teacher Liang made a point of quoting Liang Qichao’s Confucian motto for Qinghua University, “Strengthen the self without stopping, hold the world with virtue (自强不息厚德载物)”.

Early SZU’s socialist /Daoist / neo-Confucian hybrid culture stands in marked contrast to the Municipality’s ongoing campaign to promote neo-Confucian harmony. The meeting ended with further comparisons to then and now; SZU, one of the participants maintained, had represented an architectural expression of educational values. Indeed, he lamented a fundamental change in attitude. Previously, SZU administration, teachers, and students had taken it as a point of pride that early reports criticized SZU as “not conforming to the standard (不和规矩)”. In contrast, today’s SZU was so busy trying to play catch-up that it had lost what made it special.

The comparison was explicit; just as SZU had become second-rate by relinquishing its experimental and creative mandate, so too had Shenzhen lost what once made it the epicenter of reform and opening a moribund system and thus a special zone.

This organizational meeting was part of the Shenzhen Design Center‘s (深圳市城市设计促进中心) series of public talks, Design & Life (设计与生活). The format begins with an architect led tour of an interesting Shenzhen building or site. This tour is open to the public, and then edited into a short film. The film is shown at a two-hour public talk, which includes a viewing of the short film and talks by three or four guests, concluding with a question and answer session.

The first two sites were the Nanshan Marriage Registration Hall (南山婚礼堂 by Urbanus) and the Shenzhen Music Hall (深圳音乐厅 by Irata Isozaki). Architect Meng Yan led the tour of the Registration Hall and Hu Qian, a Chinese architect who studied in Japan led the Music Hall Tour. The SZU talk will take place on August 25 at the Civic Center Book City.

Luo Zhengqi will be the guest of honor.

Rumors, Rumors: What’s Bugging Guagua?

Two days ago, an open letter allegedly from a member of Bo Xilai’s family popped up on the internet, expressing the desire for a public hearing (“此信来自薄家亲戚, 希望公开发表”). Epoch Times – the media arm of Fa Lun Gong – broke the “story” saying that Bo’s son, Guagua may have written the letter. Maybe. Maybe not. Whatever else it may be, I believe that the letter is interesting for four reasons. First, in the absence of political opposition, satire formulates an alternative position. Second, the level of moral outrage that compelled the implied author to write seems genuine. Third, the fact that this letter is circulating as “news” reveals the extent to which the sentiments reflect popular dissatisfaction with the Center and its melodramatic backbiting political infighting Two Meetings. Fourth and relevant to Shenzhen, is the call that Chongqing might have been a Special Zone, like Yan’an and implicitly not like Shenzhen.

Translation of the Guagua letter below.


In my last open letter to my father, I urged him to return the Chongqing Sing Red, Attack the Black back to the Yan’an years, making Chongqing the flag bearer for a democratic Party and the living spirit of Yan’an; to truly become a Special Zone for political reform. Unfortunately, my father has been too-long educated by the Party, ultimately prioritizing the Party and national power. I had hoped that through reflection and regret, the negative effects of the Chongqing model could be ameliorated. I had hoped that by sacrificing your political future, my Father could have restored the Party and the Country’s stability and harmony. Continue reading

The Shenzhen Model, 20 years after Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour

Reading a Shenzhen newspaper requires a sense of the absurd, a sense of the city’s history, and awareness of what’s up in Beijing. The front page of today’s Jing Bao (晶报2012年2月24日), for example, proclaims, “If the Special Zone doesn’t reform, it will soon disappear (特区不改革很快就消失).” The next headline is “In 2025, Shenzhen’s GDP will be the 11th largest in the world (2025年深圳GDP全球第11名)”, asserting that “The Shenzhen Model has Great Significance for the Country (深圳模式对中国意义重大).”

Inquiring minds want to know, well, which is it? Is Shenzhen not reforming fast enough to avoid extinction or is the Shenzhen Model stable enough to become the  world’s 11th largest urban economy over the next 13 years? Continue reading

What’s the difference between Shenzhen and a 直辖市?

直辖市 means “directly governed city”. There are four directly governed cities in China — Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing. The difference between a directly governed city and a special zone (特区) like Shenzhen is political ranking. Directly governed cities have the same political rank as a province. This means that directly governed cities have access to resources and policies that other cities do not.

Shenzhen is a sub-provincial city, which means it is subordinate to Guangdong Province. As a Special Zone, Shenzhen has some economic exceptions, however, in terms of political planning and any kind of social innovation, Shenzhen must operate within the purview of Guangzhou. Consequently, the SEZ has repeatedly chosen to frame any kind of social transformation in terms of “economic” reform.

From the outside looking in, Shenzhen seems different, certainly the most neoliberal of China’s large cities. But from the inside, Shenzhen just seems nouveau riche, a better version of the country’s second tier cities, but not a first tier city like Beijing or Shanghai. Or even Guangzhou. Continue reading