Deng Xiaoping had a problem. It was 1992 and although he had broken the Chinese Communist Party's tradition of lifetime appointments by stepping down from his position three years earlier, he was still widely regarded as China's leader. In political circles, however, his power had significantly weakened in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests that saw the rise of Jiang Zemin, who was not pursuing reform as fast a Deng desired.
Expedience and frustration pushed Deng onto the road, where he made speeches and ginned up support for his policies, extolling the virtues of both enterprise and -- rather shockingly -- the aggregation of personal wealth. Though his message was significant, where he went was equally important. The speaking tour landed him in Guangdong Province in China's south, where he traveled through the cities of Guangzhou, Zhuhai and Shenzhen, China's first Special Economic Zone.
In 1979, the section of the Pearl River Delta where Shenzhen now stands contained little more than a handful of fishing villages eking out an existence directly north of UK-administered Hong Kong. Due to its proximity to that economic powerhouse, the area was designated as a Special Economic Zone, an experimental laboratory of sorts for market capitalism. This meant, and means, many things, but the fundamental significance was that the area opened to foreign investment, provided companies with favorable tax policies and allowed native businesses to amass wealth and property.
By 1992, the expanding city was already a testament to the success of Deng's reforms, providing a physical backdrop for Deng's moral and economic arguments. Today, Shenzhen has ballooned to a city of over 10 million that must constantly expand its multi-line subway system and its container port just to keep up with growth.
Although virtually everyone in America owns or wears products that came from Shenzhen, few have a real conception of the city. "Made in China" usually means some nameless factory half a world away and when people do think of actual locals the usual suspects of Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong loom large. In fact, the inhabitants of China's more metropolitan cities look down on Shenzhen as a city without a real culture or history, a destination for overly ambitious climbers. These criticisms are not completely without merit, but to dismiss Shenzhen is to dismiss the future.
I first traveled to Shenzhen in 2009 and every time I've returned I've found a new skyline, and new bustling corridors of commerce. The city is a physical demonstration of the breakneck speed of China's economic growth as well as a gallery of the problems such growth creates. Bicycles travel against traffic on a modern expressway, no one seems to know how to let people off a subway and mountains of rotting garbage tend to pile up outside apartment complexes.
Still, the city's audaciousness is attraction enough to bring me back.