Once just a rural borderland, today Shenzhen is a city of twenty million and a technology hub
Words by Peter Smisek
Every great city – or city aspiring to greatness – has a founding myth, many so far-fetched that they are only found in the travel supplements of Sunday newspapers. Not so with Shenzhen, the Chinese megacity of 12 or 24 million inhabitants, depending on who you ask. Even serious commentators, architectural or otherwise, still reach for the oft repeated story of how the world’s second most important tech hub was ‘just a sleepy fishing town with 30,000 inhabitants’ before it was declared the country’s first experimental Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in May 1980.
The truth, it turns out, is a little more complex and a lot more interesting. In her latest book, The Shenzhen Experiment: The Story of China’s Instant City, Juan Du, an Associate Professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong, charts the city’s history alongside its recent boom. We learn that Shenzen’s pre-history is not just a curious sidenote swept away by the Reform and Opening Up policies of Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping.
Du’s meticulous research traces patterns of land ownership, existing settlements, industries and routes, and shows how they have played a crucial role in the development of the modern city. She also tells the story of a number of key individuals, from poets to statesmen, landladies and developers, always bringing the narrative back to these characters. The inclusion of numerous maps and diagrams shows the SEZ’s detailed physical transformation and demonstrate the complex interplay of geography, politics and urbanism.
Eschewing a more straightforward chronological narrative, Du organises the book into four parts. The first, provides a top-down overview of the city’s formative years in the 1980s and the 1990s, focusing on the speed with which planners, architects, builders, entrepreneurs, and even journalists – a free press existed briefly in Shenzhen – embraced the new possibilities offered by the SEZ.
Even at this point, the city’s destiny as the 21st century workshop of the world was far from certain. Du points out that despite the common view of the city being built on foreign direct investment, Shenzhen’s initial development in the 1980s was supported largely by investment from within China, and the value of the city’s extensive construction sector far outweighed that of manufacturing. For this reason, it was widely seen as a failure among anti-reform party dignitaries, who were looking for any reason to call the whole thing off because of its capitalist aspirations.
But the Shenzhen SEZ did manage to survive the 1980s and did eventually attract foreign capital. The book attributes this to Shenzhen’s second mayor, Lian Xiang, who ensured extensive civic infrastructure was provided to make it more than just an export and manufacturing zone. But the city’s fate was finally secured in political terms by Deng’s landmark visit in 1992. The retired statesman’s highly symbolic PR tour of the South China region showed his commitment to the project and ensured its continuation as an economic experiment.