cultural economics 101: how do you find reliable workers in shenzhen?

The expression “a friend is a means of getting something done (一个朋友一条路)” is a concise description of the Shenzhen labor market. It is, of course, also a description of “relationship-ology (关系学), the social art of making full use of one’s relatives, friends and acquaintances. Given the importance of relationships to getting things done in China generally and Shenzhen specifically, relationship-ology manifests in some ugly ways. Nepotism is classic relationship-ology as is the art of making friends through wining, dining and bribing. Nevertheless, having friends help get things done isn’t as coldly instrumental as it sounds. Continue reading

the shenzhen-guangdong model is xi jinping’s road to recovery!

.. and it’s official! Xi Jinping’s road to recovery is the neoliberal policies of Shenzhen and Guangdong.Yes, the first signal of whither Xi Jinping is pointing to Shekou, by way of the second of Shenzhen’s top ten concepts.

If CCTV is to believed everyone is enthusiastically studying the spirit of the 18th national people’s congress. Xi Jinping and friends have charted a road to recovery that sounds exactly like Yuan Geng, 1992, except of course in English, where the translations have missed the historical citation.

Xi Jinping, 2012: 空谈误国,实干兴邦 (Empty talk is useless, only hard work can achieve the revival of a nation).

Yuan Geng, 1992: 空谈误国,实干兴邦 (Empty talk endangers the nation, practical work brings prosperity).

Not surprisingly, Xi Jinping’s “it’s the economy” moment parallels Yuan Geng’s. Yuan Geng first decried empty talk in response to Beijing educators who claimed that Shekou youth were gold diggers (Shekou Storm 1988). First time round, empty talk actually supported alternative voices. However, Yuan Geng made empty talk an official Shekou slogan response as part of Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour in an effort to silence critics about the June 4th Incident, returning the focus of reform to economic growth. Second time round, empty talk seemed to mean “suck it up and get back to work”.

So here we are. Again. And inquiring minds want to know: is Xi JInping talking the talk of 1988 or the talk of 1992?

Personally, I’m thinking we’re still caught in the post 6.4 quagmire. Xi Jinping’s less talk, more action comes in the aftermath of the Bo Xilai incident and the demise of the Chongqing Model, which included the call for a return to collectivist economic policies a la Mao Zedong. Speculation du jour: Xi Jinping’s road to recovery is probably the continued silencing of progressive voices for social liberalization in favor of rising GDP, or the “steady at 7 (经济保7)” policy, a reference to China’s decision to continue to grow the GDP at 7% annually.

top ten concepts of shenzhen

On November 28, I participated in a symposium to celebrate the English language edition of Top Ten Concepts of Shenzhen (深圳十大观念 for Chinese i-pad version).

The production, organization and publication of the Top Ten have been very Shenzhen, so to speak. The Publishing House of Shenzhen Press Group (深圳报业集团出版社) created an online website, where people could vote for the slogans and campaigns that they though best represent the city’s history. These slogans and campaigns were then re-presented (re-issued?) as concepts that epitomize Shenzhen’s values and way of thinking. Thus, in his preface, Guangdong Provincial Committee Standing Member and Shenzhen Party Secretary, Wang Rong, “[T]he top 10 concepts are the concrete manifestation of the era’s zeitgeist and a vivid imprint of the reform and opening-up program.”

The ideological slippage from political slogans and campaigns to civic values and zeitgeist interests me because it points to Shenzhen’s simultaneously fraught and co-dependent relationship with Beijing. On the one hand, experimentation in Shekou and early Shenzhen legitimated ongoing policy debates in the Chinese capital. On the other hand, the Shenzhen model, specifically and the Guangdong model more generally continue to be at slight odds with the rest of the country. Specifically, Shenzhen continues to advocate a managerial approach to governance, promoting not simply business, but also entrepreneurship and a vibrant grassroots economy.

Two of the slogans did, in fact, challenge prevailing political currents and concomitant power structure. Yuan Geng provided the two most obvious examples — “Time is money, efficiency is life” (1981) and “Empty talk endangers the nation, practical work brings prosperity” (1992). The first was a clear challenge to the Maoist planned economy. The second not only expressed Shekou’s ongoing support of Reform policies, but also the industrial zone’s continued advocacy of talented young people with alternative ideas. The Top Ten discussion of “Empty talk” introduces the history of the Shekou Storm. At the time, Yuan Geng emphasized that while Beijing officials blathered on about ideology, Shekou youth were building the future. The decision to erect the “Empty talk” billboard in the aftermath of the June 4th Incident was especially telling because Shekou actively hired transferred hukou of intellectuals who had been sidelined for their support of students.

Nevertheless, thirty years later, those same slogans uncannily echo neo-liberal values throughout the world. “Time is money” quickly looses its oppositional potential when we remember that in Shenzhen, workers’ wages have not kept up with the price of housing; many white-collar workers are also unable to purchase homes. Likewise, “Empty talk” no longer seems  an effort to protect those with alternative ideas as it does the instruction to “suck it up”. It is therefore unsurprising that concepts 3-10 express the municipality’s ongoing efforts to promote neo-liberal neo-confucianism. More to the point, these concepts clearly resonate with Wang Yang’s call to deepen and extend neo-liberalism not only in Guangdong, but also throughout the rest of China.

I’m thinking that it is thus best to read the Top Ten as a list of double-edged swords. As political campaigns and slogans, the concepts reflect contemporaneous power games. “Shenzhen embraces the world”, for example, was a blatant attempt to justify outrageous spending on the 2011 Universiade, while “You’re a Shenzhener once you come” is the self-serving motto of the Shenzhen Volunteer Association; what exactly does it mean that everyone is a Shenzhener when less than 1/5 of the population has a Shenzhen hukou? However, when understood as exemplars of civic values and a city’s zeitgeist, the concepts illuminate cracks within the power structure and spaces for alternative practices, both in business and everyday life. Indeed, it would be wonderful if these slogans/values might in turn reshape Shenzhen’s neo-liberal juggernaut, creating spaces for legitimate political opposition and open debate on whither the next thirty years of reform.

The top ten concepts are: Time is money, efficiency is life; Empty talk endangers the nation, practical work brings prosperity; Dare to become the world’s first; Reform and innovation are the root and soul of Shenzhen; Let Shenzhen be respected for its enthusiasm for reading; Innovation encouraged and failure tolerated; Fulfilling the cultural rights of citizens; The fragrance of the rose lingers on the hand that gives; Shenzhen embraces the world; and You’re a Shenzhener once you come here.

China Daily and Shenzhen Daily coverage of the symposium online.