New Book — ‘Learning from Shenzhen’
A clever critique of China’s mega-modern megapolis.
Shenzhen is the spark that ignited China’s rollicking reforms; it is where the circuits of exchange produce a wondrous pastiche — a polyglot bazaar of juxtapositions and fabulations fused into a hallucination made real.
“Exceptional spaces”, author Jonathan Bach argues, “embody disruptive processes of disembedding and inverting socioeconomic relations.” In this erudite and sweeping exegesis, Professor Bach, Mary Ann O’Donnell, Winnie Wong and other China pros show how, beginning in the early 80s, “Shenzheners” were able to convert a local yokel fishing village into a real deal urban Eden in just a few decades by playing capitalism in a socialist sandbox.
This bang-up book, hot off the press, unites into an integrated whole some streetwise sinology centered on Shenzhen, China’s most frontline city, and the surrounding Pearl River Delta’s gangbuster growth. It shows that decentralized, local spatial processes can produce complex patterns of rural mutation, urban evolution and the chaotic qualities of capitalist environments that are socially valuable, economically compelling and architecturally enriching.
Discussing concepts of financial reform, property rights, joint ventures, spontaneous order, and phase transitions in the context of China’s spatial politics and the elite’s ideological switch-over circa 1979 (Deng Xiaoping famously said “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice”), the authors show that for “boundaries to function as value-adding mechanisms” they must be places offering “vertical accumulation” and “technologies of differentiation.” The writers analyze the intersections of economic and moral value, showing how Shenzhen came to function as an emblematic economic frontier of Chinese globalization, underpinned by idiosyncratic “zonal logics” that “suture together disparate ethnographic narratives with urban-rural kinship communities.”
From Deng’s skitzo yet supremely pragmatic “to get rich is glorious” pivot to today’s authoritarian capitalist growth model embodied in Xi’s “China Dream“/OBOR initiative, the book teaches us how experiments with SEZs, laissez faire policies and ‘neo-liberal logic’ led to a radical re-orienting of Chinese life, starting in the southern paddy fields of Shenzhen. These disquisitions demonstrate how a handful of semi-feudal townships and informal institutions triggered social change through cases of public health, labor, architecture, gender, politics, education, and “ideological and spiritual transgressions.” Shenzhen’s unprecedented, frenetic growth path — the most parabolic and palpable the world has ever seen — has paved the way not just for China but for all economic players and policy makers who aspire to kindle ‘exceptional spaces’ with a focus on economic development and wealth generation.
The best bit about the book is that it brilliantly blends anthropology, sinology, complexity theory and heterodox economics, making it of interest to anyone concerned with spatial exceptionalism, wealth creation and China’s chaotic and kurtotic economic contours — environmental scientists, hedge funders, economists, geographers, international relations aficionados, architectural planners and policy specialists. More broadly, the book will be a definitive addition to the emerging field of “Shenzhen studies” and serves as a discursive yet pioneering interpretation of China’s rip-roaring reforms in the post-Mao era. We especially loved Winnie Wong’s section on “Shenzhen’s Model Bohemia and the Creative China Dream” and Eric Florence’s “How to be a Shenzhener.”
“Architecture without architects” and a “spatial synthesis of culture and economy” are some of the book’s standout concepts, with careful attention given to how a bunch of backwater country bumpkins, rural collectives and TVEs transformed a Cold War border town near Hong Kong into a dynamic ‘city upon a hill-cum-mega-metropolis’ — indeed, “a Potemkin village made very real.”
Purchase the book Learning from Shenzhen here and get up to scratch on all things Shenzhen + Pearl River Delta here (read an excellent special report from The Economist here). Also, click on this presentation to watch the authors talk high-level China concepts with a cool Q+A. And be sure to peep this amazing doc from Wired Mag on Shenzhen’s full-tilt tech sector.
Images Wikimedia Commons China
Words Eileen Lannon + CR
VIVISXN – Art + Economics + 深圳 中国