Letter from Shenzhen — From the June 2013 issue

Instant City

China’s Wild West gets tamed

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 2 of 7 )

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.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

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

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2019

Men at Work

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To Serve Is to Rule

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bird Angle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The K-12 Takeover

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The $68,000 Fish

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Close

You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.