Shenzhen's ongoing legacy

Writer: Don Rechtman  |  Editor: Jane Chen  |  From: Shenzhen Daily  | 

Beijing may be China's cultural center, but Shenzhen is fast becoming a cultural beacon within a mere four decades.

I moved from the United States to China in 2007. My first four years in Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi Province adjacent to Guangdong Province on its northern border, exposed me to the wisdom behind modern China's growth. It was there I learned about the Revolution, and I encourage any people with doubts about the commitment of the Chinese Government to its people to visit the Nanchang August 1 Memorial Museum. Thanks to my experiences there, I was prepared purely by chance to understand life in Shenzhen.

As a socialist, I was confused by what seemed like the emergence of capitalism in China, and I was not alone. When Deng Xiaoping initiated his reform and opening-up policies, many Chinese questioned the economic connections being made with other countries. Deng's response was the famous quote attributed to him: "It doesn't matter if the cat is white or if the cat is black, as long as it catches the rat." What confused the critics is the concept of privatization, the right to ownership of businesses by individuals. When this takes place without regulations ensuring that the intent is to serve the people, you have capitalism. When China provides regulations to ensure the privately owned businesses properly serve the people, you have "socialism with Chinese characteristics," the goal Deng had in mind, and the goal that was modeled by and achieved by Shenzhen's status as a special economic zone (SEZ).

I moved to Shenzhen in 2011, and lived there for nine years before returning to Nanchang. As I have written above, my experiences in Nanchang had prepared me for what I observed in Shenzhen: Here was a massive city of 8 million (at the time I arrived, now more than 13 million) that was comprised of a surreal mixture of ultra-modern, even avant-garde architecture side by side with traditional Chinese construction, and cold steel-and-concrete financial districts side by side with traditionally rural residential neighborhoods. Just as all 56 ethnic groups (57 if you count me!) live, work and play together in peace, so too does the old and new thrive in this delightful anomaly we call Shenzhen.

How did this come to be? How did a fishing town of about 30,000 people 40 years ago grow into a thriving metropolis of more than 13 million, a part of the world's largest metropolis of more than 120 million in the Pearl River Delta? The key was the brilliance of Deng Xiaoping.

After Mao Zedong stabilized the nation, it became the responsibility of Deng to oversee the rebuilding. In 1980 he created SEZs. As Hong Kong was under British rule, he selected its neighboring city Shenzhen to be one of the first SEZs. The Shenzhen SEZ provided tax-free incentives for domestic and overseas companies to make the city their bases of operation, as well as by relaxing oversight, at least for the initial period of the SEZ's growth.

Because of cheap labor costs, foreign investors jumped at the opportunity. The infusion of outside capital and the job opportunities it created attracted rural Chinese people literally by the millions. Today's Shenzhen is populated by a majority of young people from all over China.

When I first arrived in Shenzhen, the checkpoints between the original SEZ and the rest of the city were still operating. Today all checkpoints are inoperative, allowing all traffic to flow freely from one district to another. Shenzhen is the first major metropolitan city to have all-electric public bus and taxi fleets; app-based cars for hire are heading that way as well.

In various arenas such as technology, education, health care and culture, Shenzhen is already serving as a beacon for the rest of China and the world. Did I say culture? Look back at my opening sentence. One of the first things I did when I arrived in Shenzhen was attend a concert by the Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra. I was prepared for a performance of a quality like that I experienced years ago from the Fort Wayne Philharmonic in Indiana, which sounded like a high school orchestra having its first performance. Instead, I heard a performance on a par with the London Symphony Orchestra, or Vienna's or the New York Philharmonic — what I heard was a world-class orchestra, which consisted of both Chinese and foreign musicians. There are orchestras in the world that are just as good; there are none better.

When I arrived nine years ago, I was told that Shenzhen was a "cultural wasteland." That might have been true in the past, but as I previously said, Shenzhen is fast becoming a cultural beacon. In addition to the symphony, Shenzhen boasts a world class chorus that has won international recognition (I had the privilege of being a chorus member for several years), has outstanding music training centers, schools and universities, and has a thriving traditional Chinese music scene and diverse dramatic theater production troupes. Shenzhen stages a massive number of cultural activities every year, including a Reading Month and a Design Week, as well as the country's largest cultural industry fair. So how did all this come to be?

When Shenzhen became an SEZ, it attracted people from all over China but also from around the globe. The incoming population arrived bringing with them their appreciation of their own cultures, and strived to bring their arts to life in their new home. Thus with growth of population and industry comes growth of culture. Thanks to Deng's creation of the Shenzhen SEZ, today's Shenzhen is the Shenzhen I have come to know and love.

(The author is a voting citizen from Chico, California, currently residing in Nanchang, Jiangxi, China. His personal website is