Political Ideas Proposed For China's Shenzhen

The third in a three-part series.

Schoolchildren in front of Deng Xiaoping's statue in Shenzhen, China. i i

hide captionA group of schoolchildren pose in front of a statue of China's late leader Deng Xiaoping atop Lotus Flower Mountain, a park in Shenzhen, China.

Francois Bougon/AFP/Getty Images
Schoolchildren in front of Deng Xiaoping's statue in Shenzhen, China.

A group of schoolchildren pose in front of a statue of China's late leader Deng Xiaoping atop Lotus Flower Mountain, a park in Shenzhen, China.

Francois Bougon/AFP/Getty Images

China's wealthiest city is doing some soul searching.

In the early 1980s, the city of Shenzhen began as an experiment to attract foreign investors. That experiment became a success, and the city now accounts for 1 percent of the world's exports.

Now, some people in China are proposing that Shenzhen begin political experimentation.

A 'Special Economic Zone'

A park called Lotus Flower Mountain looks out over the skyline of the city. On top of a hill in the park is a big statue of China's late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Lately, local and national Chinese leaders have been laying wreaths of flowers in front of the statue, paying homage to Deng, whose ideas led to the creation of Shenzhen as a special economic zone.

"Whether in revolution or in economic development," Deng once said to a Communist Party plenum in 1982, "we must study and borrow from the experiences of foreign nations."

Deng created Shenzhen and four other zones on southeast China's coast as an experiment in capitalism, modeled on the export enclaves of Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong.

Twenty-eight years later, Shenzhen has gone from a sleepy fishing village with 30,000 residents to a bustling metropolis of 12 million, and the city's skyline is beginning to rival that of Hong Kong's south of the border. Its per capita gross domestic product of more than $10,000 is the highest on the Chinese mainland.

Murmurs For Political Reform

China has recently begun phasing out the tax breaks and preferential policies for foreign firms here. But at a recent meeting, Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang made it clear that, in the future, Shenzhen would remain at the forefront of China's development.

"Guangdong's Special Economic Zones must remain special in character, status and appearance," Wang said. "We must continue to dare to take the lead, boldly explore, reform and innovate, march in the vanguard of liberating thinking and opening to the world."

Mao Shoulong, a public administration expert at People's University in Beijing, said that Shenzhen's leaders have clearly stated how they want to reform the city's government.

"Their aims are very clear: limited government; rule of law; scientific and democratic policymaking; government transparency; and the separation and balancing of the government's powers of policymaking, administration and oversight," Mao said.

That last idea made quite a stir when it was raised five years ago. Separating government powers and having them check and balance each other apparently sounded too much like Western democracy for some leaders' tastes, and the idea was scrapped.

"I think political reform should be from the top down," said Zhong Jian, director of the Special Economic Zone Research Center at Shenzhen University. "I don't think reforms from the bottom up have fared very well. Under the current system, there just isn't the space for such reforms. As Deng Xiaoping said, Shenzhen is a special economic zone, not a special political zone."

Separation Of Powers

The separation of administrative powers was listed as an official aim of the Communist Party's reforms this February, but the party's aim is clearly more bureaucratic reorganization than political reform. Its aim is to make government more efficient but not necessarily more accountable to the people.

But a leaner government means more wiggle room for social groups like the Institute of Contemporary Observation, a Shenzhen-based nongovernmental organization advocating for the rights of migrant laborers.

"The government understands what we're doing here," said Liu Kaiming, the institute's director, "and although they have their suspicions, they don't get in our way. But they have a bottom line, and that is that you can't touch the regime's sensitive spots, such as political criticism, or pushing for independent trade unions or religious groups."

People's University professor Mao said that nearly two decades of reform have made Shenzhen the most market-driven and least bureaucratic city in China. He cautioned that any substantial shake-up of China's political structure is unlikely in the next decade or so. But when it does come, he said, it could very well come to Shenzhen first.

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