“The Shenzhen Experiment: The Story of China’s Instant City” by Juan Du

Shenzhen

Is Shenzhen now China’s most important city? In August of 2019, the country’s State Council released a statement announcing that Shenzhen was to be developed into a “pilot demonstration area of socialism with Chinese characteristics”, with the aim of it becoming a “global benchmark city”. The timing of the announcement was unsurprising; the government attention to be lavished on Shenzhen is in direct response to the current situation in Hong Kong. An editorial in the Global Times put it:

 

Shenzhen has become a key ground for China to tackle tricky issues from a seemingly never-ending trade and technological battle with the US to chaos in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

 

Juan Du’s new book The Shenzhen Experiment: The Story of China’s Instant City, is welcome, then, in providing some historical context on this city’s development. And context is sorely needed; much coverage of Shenzhen’s development repeats the same lazy, CCP-derived tropes of a “fishing village turned megalopolis” or a technological city of the future. The author notes in her introduction:

 

Whether viewed as cliché or cherished as an origin story, the Shenzhen myth embodies China’s global rise at the turn of the twenty-first century. The myth has become more powerful than any facts about the city.

 

Like all myths, Shenzhen’s has a relationship, albeit distant, with reality. However, the evolution of this city has been far less straightforward—and straightforwardly positive—than this founding mythology suggests.

Blending the personal and the historical, this is an outstanding primer on the fascinating fortunes of a city.

The Shenzhen Experiment: The Story of China’s Instant City, Juan Du (Harvard University Press, January 2020)
The Shenzhen Experiment: The Story of China’s Instant City, Juan Du (Harvard University Press, January 2020)

The book begins not with an abstract story of Shenzhen’s early history, but a personal tale which epitomizes its spirit of transformation. Jiang Kairui made his way to Shenzhen from the far north-east of the country in 1992, a few months after Deng Xiaoping’s now equally mythologized “Southern Tour”, in which the ostensibly retired leader toured Shenzhen and other nearby cities to affirm the policies of reform and opening which he had pioneered.

At fifty seven, Jiang was unusually old for an incomer to the city; this was a place where the average age was under 25. He found a job, however, and settled in to his new life. A budding lyricist, in December of the same year he was moved to write a song about the city which had become its home. It was called “The Story of Spring”:

 

The year of 1979
That was a spring
There was a great man
Drawing a circle by the South China Sea
Mythically building a great city
Miraculously forming a mountain of gold
Shenzhen! Shenzhen!
The Test Pilot of China’s Reform and Opening.

 

The song would eventually become a huge national hit and forever entwined two images in the story of China’s economic reforms: Deng as a kindly “old man”, and the “miracle” of Shenzhen.

Jiang became successful songwriter, composing other laudatory musical accounts of China’s leadership: in 2010, his Shenzhen transformation complete, he was named one of “Thirty Outstanding People of Shenzhen”. The story of Jiang and his song is foregrounded in The Shenzhen Experiment because, the author observes,

 

the story of Shenzhen is not simply one of reforms and policies; it is a collection of stories of personal struggles and redemptions.

 

This employment of personal anecdote is carried over to the book’s other sections, and The Shenzhen Experiment does an excellent job of balancing broader historical narratives of the city’s development with smaller scale stories of individual and community experiences, thus avoiding the synecdochical dangers of talking of Shenzhen as a homogeneous, conscious entity.

 

As well as relating the personal stories of the city, The Shenzhen Experiment also endeavors to move beyond the caricature of Shenzhen as a history-less tabula rasa: a blank landscape onto which Deng Xiaoping simply drew a circle. The area which would become “Shenzhen” was a well-populated and culturally rich landscape, and its history is here outlined in detail. The author quite rightly comments:

 

The region’s long history cannot be discounted in any narrative of post-1979 Shenzhen, and any understanding of industrialization in the countryside must begin with an understanding of the countryside before industrialization.

 

Later sections examine the modern urban development of the city, and the tension between lucrative redevelopment and the preservation of Shenzhen’s urban villages, which provide essential housing to newcomers to the city as well as being fortresses of vibrancy and diversity in a city which is becoming increasingly homogenized, at least in architectural terms. At all times the individual experience of the city is foregrounded, ensuring the reader retains a sense of the personal within the urban.

As we try to read the runes of last summer’s announcement that Shenzhen is to become once more a pioneering model city for China, Juan Du’s book provides a nuanced and detailed historical grounding, drawing on a diverse range of sources and primary research. Blending the personal and the historical, it is an outstanding primer on the fascinating fortunes of a city which will only grow in national and global significance over the course of the next decade.


Jonathan Chatwin is the author of The Southern Tour: Deng Xiaoping and the Fight for China’s Future, travelogue Long Peace Street: A walk in modern China and Anywhere Out of the World, a literary biography of the traveler and writer Bruce Chatwin. He holds a PhD in English Literature.