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China’s Wild West gets tamed

In 1848, Charles Dickens vividly described in Dombey and Son the hordes of men and women streaming into London from the countryside, “footsore and weary, and gazing fearfully at the huge town before them, as if foreboding that their misery there would be but as a drop of water in the sea.” Nearly two centuries later, a similar migration is occurring in the Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen. The poor are lured from the country by the promise of a better life, only to be swallowed up in the city’s immensity.

Those with enough luck and fortitude to make the trip — for many are too old or too poor to even attempt it — end up toiling brutally long hours in Shenzhen’s bleak factories and on construction sites. Many live in temporary housing next to where they work. In the district of Bao’an, thousands of laborers live in a makeshift city of prefabricated dormitories beside the hulking, mile-long steel shell of what will soon be the city’s newest airline terminal. The standardized aluminum-panel houses, held together on steel frames, stand precariously on dirt tracts and are splattered with mud when it rains. Nearby, workers have constructed a makeshift shed out of salvaged materials — corrugated metal, canvas tarps, and leftover scaffolding — where they cook and eat at grimy plastic tables in front of an old TV. A sign painted on a discarded piece of insulation board advertises a bowl of noodles for five yuan, about eighty cents. Job sites operate around the clock, so the workers sleep in shifts, taking turns on the beds.

There are other forms of housing available for the restaurant employees and house cleaners who make up the city’s growing service class; they for the most part live in dilapidated dormitory-type buildings in the inner city — the kind of anonymous, poorly built concrete structures that became symbols of the numbing uniformity of life in the postwar Soviet Union. But 40 percent of the city’s estimated 10 million migrant workers live in “urban villages.” These gritty neighborhoods are run by the area’s original peasant farmers. Over the past two decades, as Shenzhen’s population soared, many of the farmers demolished and rebuilt their properties three or even four times, replacing modest structures with taller and taller tenement-like buildings, in the process becoming billionaires. In the densest of these areas, some buildings reach eleven or twelve stories and are so closely packed that you can reach out from an upper-floor window and grasp the hand of someone in an apartment across the street: these are the so-called handshake buildings. As in the dormitories, people might live four, five, six to a room in apartments with minimal amenities — a hot plate perhaps, and a shared bathroom. Many of the buildings’ occupants are single men. Those with families commonly leave wives and children behind in the countryside, sending them whatever wages they can spare. They are lucky to see their children once a year.

With virtually no privacy at home, most life takes place in the streets. In Dongmen, a commercial neighborhood of the larger district of Luohu, only a few slivers of light find their way between the concrete façades to the congested streets below, which are lined with hundreds of tiny shops and vendors’ stalls. Workers eat at plastic tables at the street’s edge or play ping-pong in back alleys. Not far away, in a plaza flanked by a McDonald’s and a Dairy Queen, elderly couples dance to traditional Chinese music blasting on a boom box. Men sit along a low wall smoking silently; a few women practice tai chi in a corner.

At night, people crowd the avenue sidewalks, milling past megamalls, boutiques, and hair salons, their exhausted faces lit by the glow of electronic billboards. The swarm of people — the main train station that serves as an entry point for many of the city’s migrant workers is only a short walk away — has become so thick that the police have thrown up metal barricades to stop them from spilling into the streets and being run over by cars. The scenes have less in common with the slums of Mumbai or São Paulo than with Paris’s nineteenth-century boulevards — for Shenzhen in the twenty-first century is the city as spectacle.

To the extent that we in the West have thought about Shenzhen, we have mostly been aware of the horrible working conditions in many of the city’s factories: here is where the iPhone, the Kindle, the Xbox, and a dozen other totems of consumerism are made by the millions. Yet the city is no less notable for its steroidal, zigzagging patterns of growth: an odd mix of communist central planning and free-market capitalism has produced one of the most extraordinary urban environments in recent history. And it has done so with alarming speed. In a mere thirty years, Shenzhen has been transformed from a rural backwater into one of the world’s most vital industrial metropolises — a process that for the major industrial cities of the West took centuries. And unlike other huge modern cities, Shenzhen actually laid the foundations on which a more humane city could be built. That possibility is now on the verge of being lost.

Shenzhen is largely the creation of one man: Deng Xiaoping. Sixteen years after his death, in 1997, his bronze statue looms over the city from the top of Lianhua Mountain Park, frozen in midstride, as if confidently stepping into the future. Unlike Mao, who made his first trip abroad as the country’s supreme ruler at the relatively late age of fifty-six, Deng was a cosmopolitan at heart. The child of well-to-do landowners, he began shaping his revolutionary values in Paris in the early 1920s while on a student work program arranged by the Chinese government. From there he made his way to Russia, where he witnessed the tumultuous early years of the Soviet Union, when Lenin was experimenting with his own version of state capitalism: the New Economic Policy. Deng remained open to the outside world and its ideas during the darkest days of Mao’s reign, both as finance minister and as the Chinese Communist Party’s general secretary.

In 1979, a year after taking power, Deng and his inner circle began exploring the possibility of founding a series of “special economic zones” (SEZ) that could be used to open China to the global marketplace. Deng’s idea was not only to create centers for trade; it was to build an entirely new type of Chinese city, one that was modern and Western in outlook. In a break from the past, when such initiatives had been imposed solely from above, Deng promised local leaders the freedom to test a wide range of economic strategies. The government in Beijing would maintain political control and furnish basic infrastructure, and the market — the mystical self-regulating mechanism so beloved in the West — would take care of the rest, from factories and hotels to shopping malls, night clubs, bars, and restaurants: standard amenities of the new business class.

Deng and his cohort considered making Shanghai the first SEZ. But they feared that if their experiment went wrong, the economy of the old city, and consequently that of the entire country, could be destabilized. Eventually they settled on four sites along the coast: Xiamen, in Fujian province; and Shantou, Zhuhai, and Shenzhen farther south, in Guangdong province. Each located hours from the nearest major city, the zones were conceived as self-contained laboratories. Indeed, to protect the surrounding countryside from the dangers of “spiritual contamination,” Shenzhen was sealed behind a fifty-three-mile-long barbed-wire fence.

Bordered by the Lianhua hills to the north, Shenzhen was raw and undeveloped. It consisted of a few dozen scattered villages where peasants made a meager living gathering oysters and farming lychees. Yet it had one obvious advantage over the three other sites: it was a short ferry ride from the capitalist stronghold of Hong Kong, whose cosmopolitan bankers and corporate businessmen, many of whom still had family members living on the mainland, would be able to provide their expertise.

From 1984 to 1986, Beijing’s Ministry of Construction, run by a group of aging Party insiders who had been trained in the 1950s by Soviet advisers, drew up a master plan for the new city. Loosely modeled on the designs of the early Soviet avant-garde, the proposal had the regimented efficiency of an assembly line. Lying between the mountains on one side and the river on the other, the city was laid out along a strip of land that extended east to west from Luohu, a small backwater across the river from Hong Kong, past Shekou, the area’s only port. The strip would be divided into zones, with areas for tourism and manufacturing separated by lush greenbelts that would provide leisure space for the working classes. A series of freeways running the length of the city could in theory be expanded west of Luohu to accommodate future growth. Yan Meng, a partner at an architecture firm called Urbanus, told me the purity of the plan recalled Mao’s famous statement that peasants were nothing more than “blank pieces of paper on which it was possible to draw the most beautiful pictures.”

Still, to the foreign businessman arriving here in the mid-1980s, Shenzhen probably didn’t seem like a successful experiment. Even Deng, when he visited in 1984, had to fly to Guangzhao, the nearest city, and then drive several hours to reach his hotel. There were no subway lines and no easy way for workers to get around. The city’s skyline, several scattered high-rise buildings, was clustered around the old area of Luohu. (Its emblematic structure, the fifty-three-story World Trade Center, was built in a record eighteen days, complete with a revolving restaurant on its top floor, and touted as an example of “Shenzhen speed.”) Bureaucrats and civil engineers who came to oversee the city’s development lived in housing blocks hastily put up by peasant farmers with little or no building experience, and the quality of the construction was usually shoddy. Concrete structures were built using steel-eroding sea sand in the cement mix rather than industrial sand. After five or six years, their surfaces were often cracked and water stained, giving parts of Shenzhen the look of a city many times its age.

It was, oddly, the Tiananmen Square student protests in 1989 that finally provided impetus for the city’s growth. Amid international outrage over the ferocity of the government clampdown, sanctions compelled Western companies to pull many of their investments out of China. In reaction, Deng, who was then also watching the Soviet empire unravel, began accelerating the pace of economic reform. In January 1992, retired but still politically powerful, he arrived in Shenzhen on an inspection tour.

“Deng couldn’t provide political reform, so he had to accelerate economic reform,” recalls Weiwen Huang, who is director of urban design and architecture at the Shenzhen municipal planning bureau. From the moment of Deng’s visit, says Weiwen, things “really opened up.”

For the first time since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, the government encouraged private entrepreneurs to enter the real estate market. Then Beijing began pouring money into additional infrastructure projects, laying miles of new road and subway track. In 1996, the government approved a master plan that would create three north-south axes, strengthening the city’s connection with Hong Kong to the south and Guangdong province to the north, where many of the region’s factory complexes were being built.

It was an ambitious and in several ways an intelligent blueprint for the city’s future, yet it underscored the huge gap between centralized planning and the daily life of Shenzhen and its citizens. Nowhere was this disparity more obvious than in the colossal new civic center erected in the Futian business district west of Luohu. Combining populist symbolism and bureaucratic aloofness, the civic center is dominated by a new city hall and a People’s Congress building on opposite ends of a massive platform, the overall plan meant to echo the symmetrical axes of the Imperial Palace in Beijing. From a public plaza in the middle, a granite-paved walkway extended half a mile to the base of Lianhua Mountain Park, on a direct line with Deng’s bronze statue.

The placement of the plaza was intended to affirm the position of the average citizen at the center of political and civic life. But the symbolism was fairly hollow. Both the plaza and the walkway are a full story above street level, effectively alienated from the life of the city. And even the large park beneath the plaza sends an ambiguous message to the populace. A matrix of meandering pathways and pretty gardens, it is cut in two by an enormous freeway and bordered by heavily trafficked roads, so that it is virtually impossible to get to.

From the civic center, a new central business district stretched out in every direction in a grid of megablocks. Just to the south of the civic center rose a phalanx of gargantuan towers, their façades gaudily decorated with neon and traditional flourishes, as if to reassert their Chinese identity when the city was becoming more and more like everywhere else. Within a few years those towers were supplanted by a complex a few blocks to the east — a dozen or so slick leviathans straddling lifeless arcades and sterile black-granite plazas.

Several miles farther east, in the older part of the city, the 1990s skyline — a hodgepodge of concrete towers and weird creations such as the Golden Business Center Hotel, a mock Empire State Building with gold-tinted glass — was being taken over by the same kind of generic office parks and urban malls that I saw across the river in Hong Kong when I last visited, in December 2011. In the process, the complexity of the old city was being smoothed over, replaced with a vision that was more homogeneous.

The demonic pace of change made it seem as though the government, in Deng’s phrase, was “groping for stones while crossing the river.” In 1996, the year the city’s master plan was approved, government officials were predicting that by 2010 Shenzhen would have a population of 4.3 million — a figure that turned out to be short by as many as 10 million. Workers laid miles of new roads only to tear them up a few years later and replace them with multilane freeways. After the city began to overspill its boundaries and the national government decided to open the border that separated the Shenzhen special economic zone from the rest of mainland China, most of the old border posts were simply abandoned. No one, it seemed, had the time to tear them down.

The endless flow of newcomers led to yet another chapter in Shenzhen’s accelerated development. It created a kind of rival city — a mixture of teetering vertical tenements and informal marketplaces that took root amid the glistening towers of the metropolis; it was as if the nineteenth-century vision of Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the urban planner who at Napoleon III’s behest modernized Paris, had been turned on its head. There, the grand boulevards had been carved out of dense medieval neighborhoods to imbue the city with a sense of order. In Shenzhen, these two sides of the city — the medieval and the modern — seemed to be competing for dominance. With each new monolith built, a new wave of construction erupted in the migrant neighborhoods.

Some of this disorder sprang directly from the evolution of the urban villages. Since they were built on land owned collectively by the area’s original peasant farmers, they were by and large allowed to function outside the regulations that applied to the rest of the city. Beginning in the mid-1990s, many villages hired their own security forces and ad hoc fire departments. There were few zoning restrictions — no requirements for building setbacks to let in light, no division between industrial and residential sectors — and in most cases the jumble of labyrinthine alleyways simply followed the pattern of the village’s original street grid. As demand for housing grew, the villages continued to shoot upward, making these areas some of the most densely populated in China.

In 1999, the Shenzhen Municipal Congress, echoing Haussmann, declared the migrant neighborhoods incubators for filth and crime, claimed they were impediments to modernization, and started demolishing illegal structures. Urban villages in particular were targeted as fire hazards, since their alleyways were often too narrow for engines to navigate.

Tat Lam, who runs a research bureau for Urbanus, has been active in trying to save these villages. He estimates that between 1999 and 2002 the city tore down almost 10 million square feet of illegal construction before resistance from local peasant landlords put a stop to the demolition.

In 2005, the Municipal Congress tried again, threatening to clear nearly 100 million square feet of urban-village land, but by then private developers were stepping in. Sensing the possibility of quick profits, they began paying villagers astronomical sums for their properties, tearing down existing structures to make room for new retail and commercial centers. In Luohu, for example, a large section of the urban village of Caiwuwei was leveled in order to build a development anchored by the city’s first luxury mall, the MixC. Other urban villages have been replaced by high-rise residential towers or the kind of fashionable districts that have become havens for architects, graphic designers, and software engineers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Shoreditch, London.

Adding to these tensions is the increasingly close relationship between Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousands of people cross the border every day, and on holiday weekends the number may hit a million — not only businessmen but truck and limousine drivers, working-class people on organized shopping tours, and children whose parents send them for a better education in Hong Kong’s anglophone schools. (At the Luohu train station, flocks of uniformed schoolgirls with enormous pink backpacks line up at passport-control booths in the early hours of the morning to start the tiresome trip to Hong Kong.) Visitors from Shenzhen are exposed to the relative freedom people experience in Hong Kong, a “special administrative region” where citizens vote and access to Western media is taken for granted.

In recent years Shenzhen has also been overrun with twenty-four-hour “spa hotels,” mostly to service visiting businessmen from Hong Kong and Taiwan. After changing into robes, visitors can have dinner at one of several restaurants, take a dip in a swimming pool, and recline in enormous chairs that resemble first-class airline seats, where they can watch movies while having their feet massaged. Not far away, a wall monitor displays images of young women available by the hour to give private massages. Another trend has been the proliferation near the Shenzhen–Hong Kong border of “second-wives villages,” where men who regularly travel back and forth house mistresses or second families.

We have already seen this happen in places like Beijing,” says Tat, the Urbanus researcher. “It has already become a supersegregated city, with the rich isolated from the poor.” In advance of the 2008 Olympics, Tat adds, the government demolished large tracts of Beijing’s ancient courtyard houses to make room for new office towers and developed two vast housing districts in the northern suburbs to house the poor. “At rush hour now, the city center empties out,” he says of modern Beijing. “Shenzhen was never like this.”

The trend toward social polarization is being reinforced by changes in government housing policy. In 2011, the Shenzhen municipal authority announced an ambitious plan to build nearly a quarter of a million units of public housing over the next five years. The news was greeted with excitement by Weiwen Huang, who hoped the project would keep workers integrated in the daily life of the city, if not reverse the relentless market pressures pushing them out. Yet within a few weeks of the announcement, the government decided it would locate all the new housing on the city’s outskirts.

“They don’t understand what lower-class people want,” Weiwen explained. “The waiters, the cleaners — their jobs are downtown. Now they will have to commute a long way. They don’t share the facilities of the city.” It seems more likely, however, that the government doesn’t care what lower-class people want; it is simply making a rough financial calculation.

A carpenter I met in Huanggang told me that when he’d first arrived in Shenzhen twenty years earlier the city had been “in a revolution.” Like many of his fellow migrants, he had left his wife and children behind in his native village in order to earn enough money to support them, visiting them just once a year. Recently, however, prices had risen so rapidly that he was struggling — and the chances of making better wages, never high, seemed to have disappeared altogether. “When I can no longer afford it, I will be forced to move to another city,” he said.

Nor does the outlook appear less bleak for the younger generation. In a coffeehouse downtown, I met a soft-spoken teenager — he refused to give me his name, as did most of the migrants I spoke with — who was born in Shenzhen soon after his parents went to work at a local factory. Dressed in black, with bangs combed across his forehead, he reminded me of a 1960s British mod. He dreamed of becoming a writer, he told me, but increasingly despaired of finding a foothold in his hometown. Like many of his friends, he had begun to think about moving. “Maybe I can go work in Macau,” he told me, somewhat doubtfully.

For all its hardships, Shenzhen reflects an unflinching faith that modernity can deliver a better future. The city’s myriad dust-choked construction sites reflect not only a constant process of reinvention but also the capacity of Shenzhen’s citizens to break with the past and start their lives anew. This partially explains why the migrants keep coming here from China’s countryside. As Weiwen Huang explained: “It is the way of life here. The Chinese have always been city animals — it is very different from America. There is no race problem here. In most of Shenzhen different people live together. They share the same possibilities.”

Susan, a neatly dressed twenty-seven-year-old hotel worker, told me she had been so determined to move to Shenzhen from the small town in Guangxi province where she grew up that she had made the journey three times before finally finding a job. On her last trip, she slept on the floor of a community center one night and on another night in a rooming house where only a wooden board separated her from a teenage boy. She spent her days at a local Internet café sending out her résumé, eventually finding night work as a hotel telephone operator. After a year, she was promoted to the front desk. Her parents, she said, were pressuring her to get married, but for the time being she shared a room in a dormitory with four co-workers.

When I asked Liu Kaiming, the director of a local labor-advocacy group, about people like Susan, he pointed out that even with steady work, theirs is a precarious existence. Unless they can establish permanent residence, which is virtually impossible here for a low-paid worker, migrants have no access to health care and other benefits. If they live in a company-owned dormitory, as Susan does, and lose their jobs, they lose their housing as well. Still, like almost every other migrant I spoke with, Susan said she’d never considered moving back to her village. “I’ve made friends at the hotel,” she said with a determined smile. “My life is not so boring.”

And even Weiwen, the planner, is quick to stress the city’s strengths. He believes that its extraordinary combination of centralized planning and self-organized, informal communities has created a unique urban condition, one that could form the basis for a more egalitarian city. The city’s linearity and impressive subway system make it easy to navigate. And although Shenzhen has yet to produce an equivalent of Frederick Law Olmsted, the Victorian-era social reformer who designed New York City’s Central and Prospect Parks, many of Shenzhen’s original green spaces nevertheless function much as Olmsted might have envisioned them, as areas where the city’s different classes and ethnicities can mingle.

Just as important has been the plan’s surprising adaptability. Thirty years ago, when the government gradually began appropriating peasants’ farmland to build the new city, it looked as if they were getting a raw deal. Yet the farmers became Shenzhen’s first true entrepreneurs. They gave the city a human dimension that was missing from both the large-scale urban-renewal projects of the Fifties and Sixties and the anesthetizing corporate developments that have become hallmarks of late-capitalist cities such as Singapore and Dubai. Shenzhen’s vegetable markets, butchers, noodle shops, tailors, cobblers, and hair salons furnished everything new arrivals needed to survive. The urban villages proved economically nimble, able to adapt to the shifting needs of each successive wave of migrants.

One of the best examples of this flexibility is Dafen, an urban village north of the SEZ border where migrants working in hundreds of storefront shops churn out a large portion of the cut-rate art found in hotel rooms, souvenir shops, and furniture stores around the world. Paintings of every period and in every style, from Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Napoleon to van Gogh still lifes, are stacked outside along the narrow streets. (Van Gogh’s paintings are the easiest to reproduce, I was told, so they are typically assigned to the newest apprentices.)

According to Winnie Wong, a junior fellow at Harvard who is writing a book on Dafen, the majority of the village’s first-generation painters were rural migrants trained in workshops whose clients were large Hong Kong firms. In the 1980s and 1990s, she explained, working in the village “had low social status.” But eventually the area began to attract trained artists, graduates from the region’s academies who couldn’t find galleries to show and sell their work. As Dafen’s reputation grew, owners expanded their storefronts. Small independent cafés and bookshops appeared, often stocked with the same monographs that local artists thumbed through for images to copy.

In 2007, Dafen received an upgrade. The village still mass-produced and exported some 4 million paintings each year, but now it had its own art museum, which would showcase the original work of both local and international artists. The museum, designed by Urbanus, is located on a public plaza, with a giant ramp running up across its façade and in through the building, where it connects with the galleries and an internal courtyard. It has become a place where locals gather — an example of how small, carefully considered interventions can give shape to a city’s communal life.

Other neighborhoods have launched similar projects, often without the benefit of trained architects and planners. The tenacity of Shenzhen’s migrant life is perhaps best exemplified in Yuan Lin, a compound built for Communist Party functionaries sometime in the 1980s. Sealed off from the surrounding city by steel gates, the complex’s housing blocks, which evoke the minimalism of 1920s Bauhaus, are organized around large gardens and linked by an elaborate system of ramps and elevated walkways. Around 2003, Yuan Lin’s original residents began moving to newer, upscale developments in Shenzhen’s northern suburbs. Migrant workers soon moved into the vacant housing. The main entry gates, which were once protected by an armed guard, are now wide-open. Inside, children play in gardens that have become wild and overgrown. Some residents have used sledgehammers to break openings in the outer walls, through which they sell meat and vegetables from inside their apartments. On the floors above, several apartments have been converted into informal schools where young children sit at tables hunched over their notebooks. The compound is now a bustling hubbub.

Urban planners who want to preserve the villages stress that they are not sentimentalizing poverty in search of some kind of authenticity. “I’ve never argued that we should keep these places as they are,” says Juan Du, a professor of architecture at the University of Hong Kong who has worked on several government housing projects in Shenzhen. “The question is, How can we learn from all of this informal urbanism?” What some of these planners propose is to stop wholesale demolition and instead begin implementing the sort of small-scale adjustments — creating more parks and other public spaces, tearing down certain buildings so that more sunlight reaches the streets, removing interior walls to make apartments seem bigger, and providing subsidies for low-income tenants — that could improve the lives of workers without displacing them. Others, like Tat, who doubt that the urban villages can be saved, hope to pressure developers to retain some of the characteristics that make the villages affordable.

These are not new strategies: they date back to the 1960s and 1970s, when a variety of architects and planners first began promoting the virtues of a messy, textured urban fabric as an alternative to the homogenizing effects of modern large-scale planning. And they have gained new currency in the past decade or so, as a growing number of urban thinkers have begun to grasp that this kind of sanitized landscape can be every bit as oppressive as Soviet-bloc monotony.

But the ferocity of the global economy makes it hard to imagine how any approach to urban development will help the underclass in Shenzhen over the long term, even as the Chinese state continues to invest in large-scale projects. It is building a stretch of bridges and tunnels more than thirty miles long that is supposed to cut the average travel time between Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Macau from over three hours to fewer than forty minutes. And several months ago, as thousands of workers were rushing to finish the new airport terminal — an ellipsoid shell designed by the Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas — the government was planning to build shopping malls, offices, and hotels in the area, as well as considering a future extension to the airport.

The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and his firm are completing a soaring new headquarters for the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, an eighty-story rectangular block bisected, 200 feet above the ground, by the gigantic overhanging slab that houses the trading floor. The Vienna-based Coop Himmelb(l)au, a firm known for its highly contoured structures, broke ground in the fall of 2012 on a new art museum with an hourglass-shaped atrium that is meant to enliven one of the city’s dreariest neighborhoods.

These projects are certainly good for the city as a whole, but they will also smooth over and erase the very qualities that once made Shenzhen unique. Even Yuan Lin, the modernist housing compound, may soon fall victim to economic pressures. Over the past year or so, the wealthy have started snatching up cheap apartments there so that they can establish residency and enroll their children in an elite local high school. Many of these apartments are left empty and allowed to deteriorate, which neighbors say is contributing to an overall squalor. And, predictably, developers are beginning to circle Yuan Lin with proposals to demolish it and erect more towers.

“What seems to have saved some of the villages for now is the skyrocketing value of the land,” Du told me. “Peasant landowners have become shrewder. They realize what their land is worth and are holding out for astronomical amounts of money.”

Obstacles to creating a more equitable urban environment, however, are as much cultural as economic. Like New York City and Paris half a century ago, Shenzhen is now being turned from a manufacturing city into a late-capitalist city — from a place that makes things into a place that consumes them.

“It’s pretty simple,” Du said. “They [the Chinese] think high-rise buildings are good, low-rise buildings are bad. Urbanization means modernization, so the way to a better life is to keep developing.”

Du told me of a proposal she had made to the municipal planning authority for a dense low-rise community that could be phased in over time — a way for the landowners to generate some income without displacing the working-class people who currently lived there. “I convinced everyone but the village elder,” she said, “who refused at the last minute.” The elder, a semiliterate peasant who had lived through the city’s transformation from rural backwater to metropolis, now controlled billions of dollars’ worth of real estate. Shortly after rejecting Du’s plan, he unveiled his own: a pair of cylindrical skyscrapers vaguely modeled on Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers that would punctuate the route running north through the civic center to the bronze statue of Deng Xiaoping three miles away. They would be a fitting, if disheartening, symbol of the city’s likely fate.

is at work on a book about architecture, culture, and politics since 1900, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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June 2013

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