The pride its youth display in the People’s Republic could be the envy of regimes anywhere
SHENZEN — The #113 bus traverses Shenzhen’s Nanshan district. And if you ride it the 17 km or so from Overseas Chinese Town to the expat heavy Shekou neighbourhood, you can see the development of the insta-city that best embodies China’s economic miracle. On all sides, there are malls, gleaming apartment blocks, and a Wal-Mart—a monument to the new class of consumers demanding brandname gadgets and consumables like frogs, snails and turtles, all under the same roof, all at cut rate prices.
Almost on cue, a recently graduated architect named Zhang Xian Rong strikes up a conversation with me. Like so many young people here, he is happy to practise his English. He introduces himself by his English name, Henry. A few days later, he’ll send me an email. ‘Great changes have taken place in China in the past 30 years,’ he writes. ‘I hope you have a good impression on China.’
It’s hard not to be impressed by this place. The roads are brand new, the infrastructure is superb, and residents enjoy the highest per capita GDP in Mainland China (the big cities of which boast an average figure of $13,959, this place being the richest of them). In case anyone has any doubt who is responsible for this, flags of the People’s Republic flutter from every flagpost along the bus route.
It’s late September, and the flags still fly from a commemoration a couple of weeks earlier of the 30th anniversary of Shenzhen’s designation as China’s first Special Economic Zone. Shenzhen was famously dreamt up by former Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, and grafted out of a fishing village beside Hong Kong. Today, it comprises the heart of the Pearl River Delta, the world’s most prominent manufacturing region. At the anniversary event, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao gave speeches commemorating the city’s birth, emphasising China’s great opening up. But Wen Jiabao also talked of the need for political reform.
A visit to Starbucks here underscores Wen Jiabao’s point. Customers here have their choice of latte, but their choice of newspaper is limited to the state-run People’s Daily. This is modern urban China’s great contradiction: consumerism in place of political freedom. But this is a major oversimplification. So Shenzhen seemed the ideal place to see exactly how much influence the government exerted over the lives of young upwardly mobile Chinese people, and whether they could separate their pride in being Chinese at such a historic time from the Chinese state. (This question seemed even more important, a week after I left, when the dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize and Beijing reacted exactly as you’d expect it to: locking up Liu’s supporters for celebrating his win.) I found that the economy trumped politics, but that didn’t mean China’s young people gave their government a free pass either.
THE POST TIANANMEN BABY
Outside China, the events of 4 June 1989, when the army’s tanks rolled against pro-democracy students like Liu Xiaobo in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, are often seen as the defining moment in recent Chinese history. But inside China, the Cultural Revolution—and resulting famine—has far greater resonance.
Yan Cao was born in 1990, a year after Tiananmen and a generation after the start of the Cultural Revolution, but it is the latter that clearly influences her worldview more. She describes her own life as far easier than her parents’. They come from Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, where the Cultural Revolution started. Like many people in their 60s, they lived through the political upheaval and famine. Her parents, now retired, both worked in middle management in a factory in Changsha. “People [my age] can enjoy having their own life, which was unthinkable for the older generation.” She is the first in her family to go to college, and she is studying fashion design, hardly a pragmatic career path.
Yan is seated in a mall called Coco Park overlooking a terrace that reveals a massive courtyard. The scene is a typical Shenzhen contradiction: a slick restaurant with glitzy private rooms that advertises simple village food from Jiangsu province. Yan looks quite the fashion designer in the making. She is wearing a pink blouse that reveals a pink bra with black straps and matching tie-dyed pants. She has freckles, delicate eyelashes and looks Eurasian. She periodically answers a pearl white cellphone that is chained to a pink wallet.
Today’s China feels more civilised to her. She has even seen a corresponding change in people’s behaviour. “On the public bus nowadays, many people give seats to older people,” she says, attributing this to the country’s economic reforms. “Nowadays, most Chinese people don’t have to worry about food and welfare,” she tells me. “Compulsory education and education [in general] are better compared with before.”
She is proud to be Chinese, she says, citing their illustrious history. She is especially proud of the state for the process of reforms that has improved the lives of her generation. I try to delicately broach the more unsavoury aspects of the Chinese state. I ask her about China’s policy towards its minorities such as Tibetans and Uighurs. She tells me she isn’t qualified to comment. I try a different tack.
“How did you feel about the Urumqi riots in 2009 and Lhasa riots in 2008?”
“In Lhasa and Xinjiang, there were cases of local people’s anger towards the communist government,” she allows.
As a student at Changsha’s Hunan Normal University, however, she seems more concerned with China’s post-secondary educational system, which she feels has a lot of room for improvement. “This is kind of a little bit fucked up,” she says. “This system encourages people to go to university, not according to students’ interests but according to the fame or rank of the university.”
I ask her if she feels lucky to be born in 1990. “Before, I thought so,” she says, “but now I think the people who are born after me are more lucky.”
THE CAREER WOMEN
Ashley Liang came to Shenzhen for work. She is from Sichuan, a province in southwest China that is a leading source of migrant workers—it’s sort of like China’s Bihar. Liang is considerably luckier than most; she speaks fluent English and has a job as a software tester at an American company. She lives in a high-rise near a metro station. But she realises many of the economic migrants that have built this miracle are far less lucky. “It’s like I love my country,” she says, “I am proud of being Chinese. But I don’t like the long gap between rich people and the poor.”
Liang and I are seated at Lanzhou Noodle Shop, which serves traditional Chinese Muslim noodle soup native to the famous northwest Chinese city in Gansu province. Appropriately, in a city known for knock-offs, the noodle maker is actually from a nearby Qinghai province. Either way, the kufi-clad noodlewallah stands in front of the restaurant at a stainless steel table, wrangling artful noodles out of a limp ball of dough with his bare hands.
A restaurant like this, with a dozen or so tables, represents roughly the middle of the aforementioned long gap, marked on one side by toxic black factories in the city’s two massive industrial districts, and on the other by upscale planned communities like Portofino, a faux Swiss town with a man-made lake in the middle of Overseas Chinese Town.
After Tara Feng, who shares a mutual friend with Liang, joins us, we head to Portofino in Feng’s Toyota Camry. Like the few Shenzhen dwellers who can be classified as native, she actually arrived here as a baby. At the time, the city was just a decade older than her. Now 22 years old, she’s emblematic of so many upwardly mobile young people in Shenzhen, with her taste for brandname clothes and her job at a French export company.
After passing through the complex’s guard booth, we park the car and head to the edge of the artificial lake. We are surrounded by high-rent apartments (the going rate for a three-bedroom flat here is about $3,000 a month), a wine store and cigar shops. On either side of the small lake, there are Swiss villas and a luxury hotel with a high-end dim sum parlour. We settle into a lakeside espresso shop, serving a single shot of Illy for double the price of the Muslim noodle soups.
Seeing a faux-Swiss town would be a little creepy under any circumstances, but when it’s inside Overseas Chinese Town, which also contains two theme parks called Wonders of the World and Splendid China—the former containing world monuments like the Eiffel Tower and the latter offering all of China’s splendour in an afternoon—the whole exercise seems even creepier. That OCT, as it’s commonly known, is also the name of the state-owned company that envisioned and executed this leafy tree-lined burg, makes the whole scene seem positively Orwellian. (On the other side of Shenzhen, in the port district of Yantian, the OCT Group has even opened OCT East, which will feature a budget hostel built from shipping containers.)
In these environs, it’s interesting to hear their views on that other large government shaper of images, China Central Television, or CCTV. For this, Feng, who has been speaking through a translator until now, breaks into English. “CCTV is just the government voice. If I want to get some news, I will go to the internet.”
This neatly leads us to that uncomfortable subject. “We have only one party in China, one party in charge of the whole country,” Liang says. “Officially there are other parties, but they’re controlled by the party,” Feng continues. “So it looks like multiple parties, but there’s only one. Puppet parties. That’s the biggest problem in China. There’s only one party.”
“So when you look to places like India, are you hopeful that one day you’ll have a democracy as well?” I ask.
“Yes,” Feng says.
“It will take a long time, definitely,” Liang adds.
THE WORKING CLASS HERO
As in so many developing countries, those on the wrong side of the long gap that Liang mentioned often don’t have the luxury to sit around and consider their country’s place in the global order.
This is most obvious at Shenzhen’s Fuji-Xerox factory, which sits in Shenzhen’s heavily industrialised Bao’an district. Here, I speak to Yu Pong and Wang Fei, two 17-year-olds who are working their seventh day this week.
“Where do you see China’s place in the world?” I ask naively.
“Not sure,” they both reply.
Do you think about that kind of stuff?
“Never,” Yu Pong, a member of China’s Tujia minority group, tells me.
Both kids would rather work overtime. They need to send money home to their villages.
Shenzhen activist Zhu Qiang, 27, based in Long Guang, the city’s other industrial district, was once like these kids. After arriving from Sichuan at 17, he took a job with a rubber factory. Then he lost his hand in one of the machines at work. He taught himself law, earned an associate’s degree, and began filing cases on behalf of those like him.
Zhu speaks for the least vocal people in Shenzhen: migrants like Yu and Wang who have driven the boom. Like many young men from farming villages such as the one where he was raised, he doesn’t have a Shenzhen Hukou, the household registration marker that ties your government benefits to one region. In this apartheid-like system, migrant workers have few rights and almost no recourse when they are cheated of their wages.
While he admits that the government is an impediment to his work, he chooses to see the agents who sometimes follow him around as a good sign. “Actually, it’s a way to let them know that what we are doing is meaningful, [that it] makes a difference.”
He’s even begun to understand how to work within the system, forging an alliance with the Ministry of Civil Affairs for a project that will provide social services in the nearby mega-city Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, and even co-opting their language. “Using a buzzword, ‘harmonious society,’ we’re telling the government that we’re doing some harmonious community building work. And this can be a topic of research: how we can explore ways among workers to meet their needs.”
Even with the passing of Shenzhen’s 30th anniversary and Premier Wen Jiabao’s promise of more rights and modernisation, Zhu says, there is a lot more to be done. “In all walks of life, people have different levels [of rights]. But for the grassroots people, [the reforms that Wen spoke of are] not really a reality.”