Freedom Swimmers to Hong Kong, 1970

Shenzhen: China on the Move


Anyone interested in the rise of China would need to understand the rise of Shenzhen—a city located in the Southern Chinese Province of Guangdong immediately north of Hong Kong. The most widely circulated narrative about Shenzhen’s development highlights how political decisions by top leaders ultimately transformed over three decades a sleepy town of peasants, peddlers, fishermen and oyster farmers into the foremost frontier in China’s adaptation to market principles and integration to the world economy. In 1980, as part of China’s “reform and opening” (gaige kaifang) policies, Deng Xiaoping initiated the People’s Republic’s first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Shenzhen. Shenzhen thus became known as China’s “window” to the world, as its proximity to Hong Kong offers easy access to international trade and investment. It also enjoys a reputation as the “laboratory” for Chinese economic reforms, where the profit-and-efficiency-seeking rationale of capitalism was first introduced to socialist China. The speed of the city’s development was so astonishing to the general population awakening from the Cultural Revolution that the expression “Shenzhen speed” became an everyday term for efficiency. Today Shenzhen is often labeled “the Silicon Valley of China” for its burgeoning high-tech industries.

This project aims to contest the popular narrative of Shenzhen’s development, which focuses on top-down decision-making. I hope to reconstruct the transformation of Shenzhen from the 1960s to the 2010s by emphasizing the trans-local, trans-regional and transnational flow of people, ideas, commodities, capital and technology to, from and through this “laboratory” city or the “Chinese Silicon Valley.” It will build a new narrative from the ground up of China’s metamorphosis from the late 20th century to the 21st century with a focus on movement and mobility. Currently, I am researching on two cases of mass migration: The first is the exodus of people from or through the territorial precursor of Shenzhen, Bao’an County, between the early 1960s and late 1970s; the second is the influx in the early 1980s of the PLA Engineering Corps, who took charge of the city’s initial infrastructure building.