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Inside Shenzhen

WHAT YOU SEE IN TOWNS LIKE SHUNDE is the disturbing and exciting process of instant modernization. There is something unhinged about the high-speed development of China's great open door. You wonder how this gold rush can be justified in what is still nominally a Communist state. Of course it cannot be justified by socialist dogma. The government's answer has been to turn to history.

Of that, the Pearl River Delta has plenty. This is where the Chinese Revolution of 1911 began. The first prime minister of the Chinese republic, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, was born in the delta, not far from Zhuhai. You can visit the house he lived in. There is a theme park nearby, with huge golden Buddhas and Indian-style temples. But most important, the Pearl River Delta is where the first Opium War was fought, right under the new suspension bridge in the city of Humen. Two museums commemorate the event and instruct the next generation.

The official story they convey is patriotic and vaguely Marxist. Ever since the beginning of the 20th century, the Chinese have been told that it is their duty to wipe out the shame of the 1840's, when foreign aggressors tried to force open the Chinese door. But this message really gathered force when Maoism began to fade in China and Deng Xiaoping opened the Pearl River Delta to foreign trade and industry. The Opium War Museum in Humen was built only in 1990. It is as though the policy of capitalist enterprise in a Communist state can be justified only by an appeal to aggressive anti-Western patriotism. The more Western ways penetrate the southern coast, the more people have to be reminded of past humiliations.

What the Westerners wanted, of course, was an open door into China. The Chinese government now wants this too, but behind carefully guarded borders.

NEAR THE END OF MY STAY IN THE DELTA, I am standing on the 17th-floor balcony of one of those gigantic housing estates in Shenzhen that look like concrete beehives. It was built eight years ago for relatively wealthy people. In Shenzhen, only the poor live near the ground. But the building already has a shabby, weather-worn look—and obscene graffiti in the elevators. I am with my friend Yang Yong, an artist from Sichuan. His photographs of young women in Shenzhen—journalists, housewives, students, even prostitutes—are somewhat derivative of the work of such Western artists as Nan Goldin, or the Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. But they have a freshness, an innocence almost, that somehow matches the city's youthful optimism.

It's hot. The skyline shimmers in the brownish haze. On the far side of the housing development is the football stadium, which is rarely used for sports but comes alive at night with its cluster of ground-floor bars and discos. Farther away are the green hills of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, out-of-bounds to Yang, and most people living here. Between the stadium and those hills gleam the downtown skyscrapers, and all around us a sea of concrete beehives, with restaurants, supermarkets, barbershops, and massage parlors.

Yang is a small, plump man in his early twenties, with bushy eyebrows and quick, inquisitive eyes. "All this," he says, making a sweeping gesture with his right arm, "didn't exist until about ten years ago. It was just countryside." These are almost exactly the same words used by Mr. Zhou, the publisher, as he surveyed the city from an even greater height. Yang likes Shenzhen. Indeed, he loves Shenzhen "because everything is new." He could have gone to Beijing, the center of contemporary art in China, but "politics are too complicated." Shanghai was also a possibility, but there is too much nostalgia there. Shenzhen is different. It's in China, yet half outside it, and that is the main point. For to come to Shenzhen is to take a step halfway to freedom.


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