By Craig Simons, INTERNATIONAL STAFF of Statesman.com, Texas, Sunday, February 11, 2007-
SHENZHEN, China — Nowhere else is China’s breathtaking economic growth on display as vividly as in this southern metropolis. It even has a name: “Shenzhen speed,” a remarkable rural-to-urban transformation.
Three decades ago, this area was mostly dirt roads and rice paddies. Farmers eked a living from the fertile crescent of land at the end of the Pearl River and gazed longingly across a barbed wire border at Hong Kong, then a British colony.
Today, Shenzhen is one of China’s largest cities, with a population pushing 18 million — almost twice the population of Los Angeles County — and a landscape of skyscrapers, luxury apartments and shopping malls.
Hundreds of square miles of fields have been drained and covered with factories that churn out a significant portion of the world’s products, from computers to clothing and toys. The city has averaged an annual economic growth of 28 percent since 1980, the fastest in China.
But Shenzhen speed also represents China’s dilemma. The fast profits have come with problems. On many days, the air is thick with smog. The number of cars has nearly doubled since 2003, and streets lock into snarls of exasperated motorists. Violent crime and the incidence of HIV/AIDS has surged.
Experts see the city as a test case for whether China will be able to solve problems ranging from massive pollution to growing labor disputes.
At a park in the city center, 55-year-old Peng Li remembered that when she moved to the city in 1987, “it was always clear.”
“But now . . . well, now you can see what’s happened,” she said, sweeping a hand across the polluted gray skyline.
Other residents complain that lack of social welfare has created a society where poorer citizens are left out.
Some 13 million migrant laborers work in Shenzhen’s factories and produce almost all of the city’s wealth, but they have almost no access to public services, including reduced-cost health care and schooling, said Liu Kaiming, director of Shenzhen’s Institute of Contemporary Observation.
“The system has created a huge group of people who are treated as second-class citizens,” he said.
In 1980, China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, declared Shenzhen a special economic zone, one of four cities allowed to carry out communist China’s first capitalist changes.
Changes followed rapidly as companies began to pay for work done rather than for time worked and, for the first time, to link salaries with performance, both of which “vastly increased productivity,” said Yang Yaolin, director of the city’s history museum.
An indication of Shenzhen speed is on display at a museum. An exhibition preserves a typical home from the early 1980s that today is considered a relic. A poster of Mao Zedong hangs on a wall, a sewing machine sits beside a manual typewriter, and a hot plate rests on a counter next to a flimsy bed.
Looking at the room, 73-year-old Wu Yanda, a retired factory manager who now lives in a “European-style villa,” recalled that when he moved to Shenzhen in 1987, such lodgings were “quite luxurious.”
“Today, it’s ancient history,” he said. “Most people have a lot more.”
But not everyone is basking in the new prosperity.
The combination of low pay, grueling work and discrimination has led to increasing labor unrest.
Shenzhen accounted for 15 percent of China’s court-adjudicated labor disputes last year, and the number of migrant workers seeking jobs in the city has fallen in recent years as they chose to look elsewhere, Liu said.
The change has forced companies to raise salaries by as much as 20 percent, a shift that could lead factories to relocate, he said, adding that “if the situation doesn’t improve, companies will not be able to find enough workers and the economy will have to slow down.”
With urban ills growing across China, cities are looking at Shenzhen for lessons on how to deal with the problems and avert an economic slowdown.
“Because development has been the most rapid in Shenzhen, the problems are the most extreme here,” said Huang Donghe, editor of the Shenzhen Youth Magazine. “But every Chinese city faces the same problems.”
City government plans to tackle the problems include attracting better-paying high-tech manufacturers while forcing heavily polluting firms to clean up or move further inland and improving access to health care and education for migrant workers, said Yang Lixun, a Shenzhen-based government sociologist.
Last year, the government set up a fund to compensate workers left unpaid when companies close. The city also has announced plans to greatly expand the city’s subway system by 2010, build more parks and increase recycling programs.
“In the 1980s and ’90s, Shenzhen developed by attracting low-value manufacturing that stressed high consumption and allowed high levels of pollution,” Yang said. “But now we realize there are problems with that development strategy.”
There is little evidence that the initiatives are working so far, Liu said. He noted that workers continue to have very little access to public services, and pollution and traffic seems to have gotten worse in recent months.
“In China, the most important thing is not to listen to what government officials say but to see if they actually do anything,” he said. “So far, they haven’t done much.”
Zong Qi, a 22-year-old college graduate who moved to Shenzhen from China’s inland Hunan province last year, attests to the difficulties migrants face. Over six months in the city he has changed jobs “more than seven times,” twice because an employer refused to pay him.
“It’s very easy to be tricked and it’s hard to find a boss who cares for workers,” he said between trying to sell postcards to passers-by at the park, a job he had started a week before and that, at most, could earn him the equivalent of $100 a month.
Loneliness is also acute. Since Liu Gang, 32, arrived in Shenzhen nine years ago from China’s central Sichuan province, he has been home to see his wife and daughter “only a few times,” because he wants to save what little money he makes.
“It’s the price migrant workers pay,” he said. “We need the work but we can’t afford to bring our families.”
Experts blame disillusionment and a lack of family ties for a local crime wave.
While Shenzhen does not publish crime data, the Southern Metropolitan News newspaper reported that in just one of the city’s six districts, there were 18,000 robberies in 2004, more than eight times the number reported that year in all of Shanghai.
Partly because of the transient community, the virus that causes AIDS is also spreading quickly, and hotels routinely distribute pamphlets about how to protect against sexual diseases, Huang said.
Like most Chinese cities, Shenzhen does not publish data on the number of residents infected with HIV/AIDS. ( firstname.lastname@example.org )
original report from Statesman.com, In China, ‘Shenzhen speed’ comes with bumps