From Exceptions to Region in Pearl River Delta - Part I

The video made for DJ Jamie xx's track Gosh is set in Tianducheng, a new residential development in Hangzhou on a modernist layout with baroque façades, and a 1:1 copy of the Eiffel Tower. Comments on this town have been about the smoggy atmosphere, such as "the urban devastation of the aftermath of a nuclear war in Hausmann-styled Paris", or as "a dehumanized and automated futuristic world". Despite popular expectations, the town is not that ghostly anymore. In the first half of 2015, the developer had already sold 915 units, ranking it fifth in terms of sales in Hangzhou.1

Jamie XX, Gosh from ROMAIN-GAVRAS on Vimeo.

One would hear similar analyses about Shenzhen, Dongguan, and other cities in the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region, along with the well-known success story of the special economic zones (SEZ), which made this region "the factory of the world".2 During one of our workshops3 in Shenzhen concerning the issues of rapid urbanisation and the future of cities in relation to potential social and environmental issues, a young local participant confessed that she had not known that Pearl River Delta is a definition that relates to a region, which includes the geography of a river and its ecologies.

Cities like Tianducheng, Shenzhen, Dongguan, and others, develop according to an agenda of economic and urban growth which is measured in terms of income, profit, and infrastructure per capita. The concept of 'exception' holds its ground. However, understanding this region as a whole, with its localities, while considering the region in relation to a geography as well as a binding agent and a way to claim diverse characteristics and belongings, provide a notion that is different to an agglomeration of the territories of exception. This might allow us to reconsider our sense of belonging and citizenship in a way that relates to our livelihoods, instead of an abstract notion related to economic development and the nation.

The idea of exception and planning territories of exception has been the guiding principle of urban growth in Pearl River Delta. What I mean by a territory of exception is a perpetual possibility to suspend the existing laws and regulations in order to make new laws and regulations,4 largely backed by highly efficient infrastructure networks. This way the governing structure remains, and the sovereign exempts itself from rule, mistakes, responsibilities, crimes, etc. In the case of the SEZ, for instance, these exceptional rules are related to production, incentives for factories, tax exemptions, ease of shipping requirements, but also a suspension of law in terms of environmental impact, worker certificates, registrations of resident workers, their rights and allowances, etc.

The following map of Hong Kong, dating from 1978, shows how Shekou was projected and established as a SEZ, opposite Hong Kong, which is itself, historically, a special administrative region. Arjen Oosterman names this map the "birth certificate" of Shenzhen, and for Mary Ann O'Donnell it is the "circle map" of Deng Xiaoping, former president and father of the idea of SEZs in China. China Merchants, the company that started the Shekou SEZ now features in different listings of the richest companies in the world. Today, with its factories and urban sprawl, Shenzhen spreads all the way to Hong Kong; so much so that Beijing wants to develop a new Shenzhen in the north, an hour away from the capital's periphery5.

The SEZ has not always been on the global agenda of urbanism, nor was it invented in Shenzhen, however, "once relegated to the backstage, it has, in a few decades, evolved from a fenced-off enclave for warehousing and manufacturing to a template for the world. Yet the wild mutations of the form over the last thirty years only make it seem penetrable to further manipulation".6 The manipulation and expansion of the idea of exceptional territories is one of the concerns of this text. In the following map of Shenzhen, you see the two borders (in)between Shenzhen and Hong Kong. The first one in the south is the border between China and Hong Kong, and the second one in the north is the border of the then established SEZs appearing in pink. This second 'fenced' border does not exist anymore, and most of the factories of Shenzhen are moving out of the city as part of a government agenda and real estate push. In other words, Shenzhen as a city, was founded as, and still is, an exceptional territory. It is officially within the borders of Guangdong province, but has its own administrative borders.

1 — Fung, E. 2016, "China Real Time Report. 'Gosh': Ghost City in China Spooks Viewers of Jamie xx Music Video", The Wall Street Journal, 6 July, viewed 1 February 2018.

2 — In 2006, the International Labour Organization (ILO) had reported that there were approximately 66 million workers in the world's SEZ, and more than 40 million of them were employed in China. For more information: Pong-Sul Ahn, "Global trends in EPZs/ SEZs", viewed 1 February 2018.

3 — Aformal Academy is an experimental education platform based in Pearl River Delta

4 — For more information on Carl Schmitt's state of exception: Norris, A. 2007, "Sovereignty, Exception, and Norm", Journal of Law and Society, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 31–45.

Shekou Special Economic Zone marked with a star in the north-west, on map of Hong Kong (image courtesy of China Merchants Museum, Shekou, Shenzhen).

5 — Fong, D. 2017, "China Looks to Build A Major City from Scratch", The Wall Street Journal, 17 April, viewed 1 February 2018.

6 — Easterling, K. 2014, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, Verso Books, New York.

Shenzhen map, displaying the north and south borders (image courtesy of Mary Ann O’Donnell).
Posted 15 Mar 2018
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