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One of China's wealthiest cities is thinking about its past and its future. In the early 1980s, Shenzhen became part of an experiment designed to lure foreign investors to China. It was a huge success, and the city in southeast China is now filled with skyscrapers and sends its exports around the globe. Some Chinese hope that now the city will begin experimenting with more political openness. In the last of three reports, NPR's Anthony Kuhn looks at the prospects for political change in one of China's most freewheeling regions.

ANTHONY KUHN: There's a park called Lotus Flower Mountain that looks out over the skyline of the city of Shenzhen, and on top of the mountain 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 the man whose ideas created Shenzhen as a special economic zone.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. DENG XIAOPING (Former Leader, People's Republic of China): (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: Speaking to a Communist Party plenum in 1982, Deng said, "Whether in revolution or in economic development, we must study and borrow from the experiences of foreign nations." So 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. Shenzhen's skyline is beginning to rival that of Hong Kong's south of the border. And its per capita GDP of more than $10,000 is the highest on the Chinese mainland. Recently, China has begun phasing out the tax breaks and preferential policies for foreign firms here. At a recent meeting, though, Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang made it clear that in future Shenzhen would remain at the forefront of China's development.

(Soundbite of Communist Party meeting)

Mr. WANG YANG (Communist Party Secretary, Guangdong, China): (Through Translator) Guangdong's special economic zones must remain special in character, status, and appearance. We must continue to dare to take the lead, boldly explore, reform and innovate, march in the vanguard of liberating thought and opening the world.

KUHN: Mao Shoulong is a public administration expert at People's University in Beijing. He says that Shenzhen's leaders have clearly stated how they want to reform the zone's government.

Professor MAO SHOULONG (Director, Public Administration Institute, People's University, Beijing, China): (Through Translator) 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.

KUHN: This last idea made quite a stir when it was raised five years ago. But 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. Zhong Jian, director of the Special Economic Zone Research Center at Shenzhen University, explains.

Professor ZHONG JIAN (Director, Special Economic Zone Research Center, Shenzhen University, China): (Through Translator) I think political reform should be from the top down. 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.

KUHN: This February, the separation of administrative powers was listed as an official aim of the Communist Party's reforms. But the party's aim is clearly more bureaucratic reorganization than political reform. Its aim is to make government more efficient, not necessarily more accountable to the people. A leaner government, though, means more wiggle room for social groups like Liu Kaiming's. He's director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation, a Shenzhen-based group advocating for the rights of migrant laborers.

Dr. LIU KAIMING (Executive Director, Institute of Contemporary Observation, Shenzhen, China): (Through Translator) The government understands what we're doing here. 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.

KUHN: People's University professor Mao Shoulong says that nearly two decades of reform have made Shenzhen the most market-driven and the least bureaucratic city in China. He cautions that no substantial shakeup of China's political structure is likely in the next decade or so. But when it does come, he says, it could very well come to Shenzhen first. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Shenzhen, China.

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