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Learning from Shenzhen

China’s Post-Mao Experiment from Special Zone to Model City

Learning from Shenzhen

China’s Post-Mao Experiment from Special Zone to Model City

This multidisciplinary volume, the first of its kind, presents an account of China’s contemporary transformation via one of its most important yet overlooked cities: Shenzhen, located just north of Hong Kong. In recent decades, Shenzhen has transformed from an experimental site for economic reform into a dominant city at the crossroads of the global economy. The first of China’s special economic zones, Shenzhen is today a UNESCO City of Design and the hub of China’s emerging technology industries.

Bringing China studies into dialogue with urban studies, the contributors explore how the post-Mao Chinese appropriation of capitalist logic led to a dramatic remodeling of the Chinese city and collective life in China today. These essays show how urban villages and informal institutions enabled social transformation through cases of public health, labor, architecture, gender, politics, education, and more. Offering scholars and general readers alike an unprecedented look at one of the world’s most dynamic metropolises, this collective history uses the urban case study to explore critical problems and possibilities relevant for modern-day China and beyond.

360 pages | 24 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2017

Asian Studies: East Asia

Geography: Urban Geography

History: Asian History


“Shenzhen is an extraordinary city, but until now, surprisingly little had been written about it. This book, which traces the story of Shenzhen from its late 1970s beginnings to its subsequent explosive growth into the present, fills that void. These chapters clearly and eloquently depict the ‘Shenzhen Miracle’ in its successes—and also its considerable human costs. Anyone who reads this volume, whether social scientist or interested layperson, will come to see Shenzhen in an altogether new light.”

Gordon Mathews, Chinese University of Hong Kong

“Fluidly combining historical, ethnographic, geographic, humanities, and policy research approaches, this is much more than a study of the history and contemporary life of one city. Especially emphasizing the place of Shenzhen as model and anti-model in China’s marked turn toward urbanization, these essays sensitively explore the irreducible complexity of a Special Economic Zone turned futuristic urban exemplar. Clearly in conversation with each other, the contributors offer fresh theories and methods for engaging in critical scholarship on cities anywhere. This volume is a model of how to study the global contemporary moment with its burgeoning economic centers, mobile populations, and recurring crises.”

Judith Farquhar, University of Chicago

"An incisive new book, Learning from Shenzhen... reveals that many of the advances seen since the city was opened up in 1980 came disruptively from below."


"Twelve papers examine the political, economic, and social transformation of Shenzhen since 1979 as a pivotal case study of development in China, considering how policy experimentation and political model making came to be integrated into the official narrative."

Journal of Economic Literature

"Learning from Shenzhen dives deeply into the ground-level dynamics of change to illuminate the forces and evolving cast of characters that made Shenzhen’s development process much more contingent and chaotic than suggested by dominant narratives about Shenzhen’s history. . . .An important addition to the literature on China, providing a rare in-depth look into the nature of Shenzhen and raising useful questions about the process of China’s transformation."

Pacific Affairs

Table of Contents

     Ezra F. Vogel
Introduction: Learning from Shenzhen: Experiments, Exceptions, and Extensions
     Mary Ann O’Donnell, Winnie Wong, and Jonathan Bach

Part 1 Experiments (1979–92)
1 Shenzhen: From Exception to Rule
     Jonathan Bach
2 Heroes of the Special Zone: Modeling Reform and Its Limits
     Mary Ann O’Donnell
3 The Tripartite Origins of Shenzhen: Beijing, Hong Kong, and Bao’an
     Weiwen Huang
4 How to Be a Shenzhener: Representations of Migrant Labor in Shenzhen’s Second Decade
     Eric Florence

Part 2 Exceptions (1992–2004)
5 Laying Siege to the Villages: The Vernacular Geography of Shenzhen
     Mary Ann O’Donnell
6 The Political Architecture of the First and Second Lines
     Emma Xin Ma and Adrian Blackwell
7 “They Come in Peasants and Leave Citizens”: Urban Villages and the Making of Shenzhen
     Jonathan Bach
8 Sex Work, Migration, and Mental Health in Shenzhen
     Willa Dong and Yu Cheng

Part 3 Extensions (2004–Present)
9 Shenzhen’s Model Bohemia and the Creative China Dream
     Winnie Wong
10 Preparedness and the Shenzhen Model of Public Health
     Katherine A. Mason
11 Simulating Global Mobility at Shenzhen “International” Airport
     Max Hirsh
Conclusion: Learning from Shenzhen
     Mary Ann O’Donnell, Winnie Wong, and Jonathan Bach


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