Shenzhen: from a village to a city

40 years after Shenzhen was established as one of China’s first special economic zones opened up to the west, I finally came here and had a glimpse of the economic development frontier. Today Shenzhen is a prosperous, innovative city. In 2017, its GDP surpassed Hong Kong for the first time (though Hong Kong’s per capita GDP remains higher). The city also ascended to the third place in China’s GDP ranking, trailing Shanghai and Beijing.

I have no way to get to know the city in a short, unplanned visit like this, but in its tall palm trees and cozy winter air one cannot help smelling riches. If I were only looking at the names of the stores at its shopping centers, I would not be able to tell it was in China. In an Apple store I find Jimu Robot made by UBTech, a unicorn startup born and headquartered in Shenzhen. As a matter of fact, Apple is Jimu Robot’s sole distributor.

In a historical speech given on December 13, 1978, Deng Xiaoping envisioned a new model of development that anticipated later economic reforms. In his vision, some regions, some enterprises, and some workers and farmers should be allowed and encouraged to have higher incomes and improve their living standards before others through their hard work. Once some become rich, they would also become models to positively influence their neighbors, other regions and enterprises. Thus the whole economy would develop like waves pushing forward, and all people would become rich relatively quickly.

The grand wave form on the backdrop of the city center, I suppose, signifies Deng’s notion of “wave development,” or that first wave originated here. Shenzhen started from a village 40 years ago. It has since then converted many villages into urban areas. While a village bordering Hong Kong, named Shuiwei, is no longer recognizable as a rural village, another village near where I stayed still looks very much like small towns in many parts of rural China.