Juan Du, The Shenzhen Experiment: The Story of China’s Instant City, Harvard University Press, 2020. 384 pgs.
In 2005, Juan Du had missed the last flight out of Shenzhen and found herself strolling outside her hotel in a trendy part of the city. The evening weather was perfect for a leisurely walk around the neighbourhood. But as she turned back toward her hotel, she came across something she didn’t know existed in Shenzhen: a thriving night market like one would find in across the border in Hong Kong.
All sorts of edibles were on display, from watermelon balls, cantaloupe slices, and caramel-covered tangerines and strawberries to egg noodles, pork dumplings, scallion pancakes, shrimp shaomai, and vegetable and meat buns. However, the greatest variety seemed to be offered on the open-flame grills: corn on the cob, eggplant slices, stuffed peppers, mini sausages, half chickens, while fish, shelled orange mussels, small clams, and heaps of large succulent oysters. (4)
Du had never seen such a thing in Shenzhen, and she hadn’t seen any children on her many trips there. But now “dozens of young children played in groups.” (4) This trip inspired her to look more closely at Shenzhen, known in China and internationally as an “instant city” that had been a fishing village thirty years earlier.
The Shenzhen Experiment is her testament to this thriving area that has been known for different things at different times. As the Associate Dean of the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong, she not only provides a detailed history of the Shenzhen architectural boom, but also breaks down these myths and presents a deep historical analysis going back millennia.
Reading The Shenzhen Experiment is like opening a treasure chest of gems one didn’t know existed. Du jumps around in chronology in the early chapters of her book, but it works so brilliantly because she first brings the reader to the time Shenzhen was supposedly transformed from a fishing village into a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), one of four designated by Beijing in 1979. It is said that Shenzhen at the time was home to only 30,000 residents, but Du shows that this was erroneous. In fact, what is now known as Shenzhen City had a population of over 300,000 in 1979.
One of the main reasons Shenzhen was designated as an SEZ wasn’t because it was a fishing village with plenty of undeveloped land, but rather to curtail the influx of people escaping China for Hong Kong. The main conduit for these escapes was Shenzhen. The government’s thinking was that if Shenzhen were allowed certain economic privileges and became an attractive place to live, fewer people would flee to Hong Kong. “Deng [Xiaoping] came to agree with local Guangdong leaders that alleviating poverty was the only hope for stemming the flow of people across the border to Hong Kong.” (51)
Deng Xiaoping only made two trips to the city, which at first seems astonishing since so much of China’s success rested on whether or not the Shenzhen experiment would work. When Deng made his famous Southern Tour in 1992, it was under wraps from even before he left Beijing. “As the train pulled out of Beijing Station, anyone watching would have seen that the destination display on the green train was blank.” (80)
But as Du shows in her book, there wasn’t as much top-down management of Shenzhen from Beijing as there was a bottom-up administration with local Shenzhen leadership paving the way for the city’s success.
It’s no surprise that Hong Kong money contributed greatly to Shenzhen’s growth as an SEZ. Du writes that the new Shenzhen government made known its new policy to allow foreign investment in the SEZ in late 1979. “The day after this informal notice, Alan Lau arrived at the government’s temporary office on a borrowed bicycle—there were still no taxis or bus services beyond the Luohu Bridge border. He would become Shenzhen’s first Hong Kong investor.” (165)
The early history of the Shenzhen region is also a fascinating story, and Du is a masterful storyteller. She demonstrates the importance of this area and how it and Hong Kong were not just a barren area inhabited by pirates before the Opium Wars, but that the region was China’s most important salt depository going back millennia. Shenzhen was also home for centuries to China’s main oyster farms. And even today, there are more than three hundred long-standing villages in the city. “There are urban villages in almost all Chinese cities today; however, Shenzhen’s urban villages have far greater building and population densities than those in other cities, and they are home to a much larger proportion of the city’s total population.” (5) Du estimates that half of Shenzhen’s twenty million reside in these villages.
Du devotes one chapter each to two of these villages, one of which has provided its residents with dividends from real estate ventures (Caiwuwei) and another which has struggled more with poverty and other problems typical of slums (Baishizhou). She also addresses the ernai cun, or second-wives villages, that popped up in Shenzhen in the 1990s when Hong Kong men starting crossing the border en masse for work.
One of the most intriguing thoughts Du leaves the reader with at the end of the book is the notion that the Shenzhen experiment has yet to run its course. Although Shenzhen’s architectural and economic development have been a model for other cities and smaller municipalities in China and around the world, Du writes that it’s still too early to make definite conclusions. “The full impacts of the transformational changes from the 1979 reforms to the current times, especially pertaining to national governance and local community actions, are still being played out in Shenzhen today and elsewhere in the world.” (317)
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Her writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)