China’s economic advance has been so fast over the past quarter of a century it’s like viewing U.S. economic development over a hundred years on fast forward. Take, for example, the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. Founded only 26 years ago, it looks like any large modern city with towering skyscrapers, busy streets, and crowded shops. Shenzhen was built close to Hong Kong (while it was still under British rule) to take advantage of that city’s bustling economy and outside connections. The economic miracle represented by Shenzhen, however, is countered by the social and environmental challenges that rapid growth also breeds according to a New York Times article by Howard W. French (“In Chinese Boomtown, Middle Class Pushes Back,” 18 December 2006). The focus of French’s story about Shenzhen is how the middle class resisted the construction of an expressway through a middle class neighborhood.
“Over the next two years they managed to halt work on the most destructive segment of the highway and forced design changes to reduce pollution from the roadway. It became a landmark in citizen efforts to win concessions from a government that by tradition brooked no opposition. And it was no accident that the battle was waged in Shenzhen, a 26-year-old boomtown that was the first city to enjoy the effects of China’s breakneck economic expansion and that has served as a model for cities throughout the country.”
Shenzhen’s growth rate is phenomenal, averaging 28 percent a year since 1980 according to French. Such unchecked growth, however, inevitably leads to challenges such as pollution and crime.
“Throughout most of the year its skies are thick with eye-burning smoke. Street crime is high. And the workers it has drawn so effortlessly in the past from the countryside are becoming harder to recruit, as their options increase elsewhere.”
The Chinese government is just starting to appreciate the fact that affluence brings with it the expectation of a better quality of life. As French notes, challenges such as pollution and crime are best addressed when those most affected get involved.
“Shenzhen may also herald more promising changes. Possibly the greatest force taking shape here is the quiet expansion of the middle class, thicker on the ground here than perhaps anywhere else in China. This middle class is beginning to chafe under authoritarian rule, and over time, the quiet, well-organized challenges of the newly affluent may have the deepest impact on this country’s future.”
French points out that it is not just the money that makes a difference but property rights. When citizens are personally invested in a community, their resolve to protect those rights deepens.
“In newly rich Shenzhen, as in much of China, social change is being driven by economic transformation and, more than anything else, property ownership. Red-hot real estate markets have given birth to a new class of people, known as mortgage slaves, because the financial burden of buying into the middle-class dream of home ownership has suddenly become so great. The new property owners have poured their energy into everything from establishing co-op boards to spar with landlords, to organizing real estate market boycotts to force down prices. Others, meanwhile, have begun running for office in district-level elections, where they hope to make the city government more responsive to their needs, though, like governments at every level in China, the ultimate power here rests with Communist Party officials. Shenzhen has also spawned a local research group known as Interhoo, an independent association of civic-minded professionals who discuss municipal policy issues, publish position papers and quietly lobby the government over development strategy and other issues. … Academics and others who study the city’s development say it is no surprise that Shenzhen is emerging as the cradle of movements like this. From the start, its proximity to Hong Kong has made it unusually open to outside influences. The city is also new, founded in 1980, and populated by migrants who contribute to a culture of greater individualism and risk-taking than anywhere else in China.”
All of this civic action, although potentially disruptive in the short term, will make Shenzhen more resilient and successful (which includes improving the quality of life). Economic reform almost always precedes political reform — a development predicted by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. People don’t think much about quality of life until they are no longer struggling just to survive.
“Even with all of this political activity, China is a long way from participatory democracy, even at the local level. Yet a survey by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences says that Shenzhen’s expanding middle class now accounts for about 10 percent of the city’s population of 12 million — a higher percentage, most here believe, than in any other city in China, though reliable figures are hard to come by. As the middle class grows, civic leaders say they expect to see a steady growth in citizen involvement.”
French goes on to relate stories about how Communist Party bureaucrats have tried to dissuade grassroot movements from gaining footholds in prosperous communities. Such efforts are like trying to patch a crumbling dike with chewing gum. Globalization not only helps bring people out of poverty, it empowers them in ways never before possible. One of the activists French writes about ran much of his campaign using text messages from his cell phone. Such connectivity never would have been possible before globalization took hold in China.