I have been visiting Shenzhen for the past few days. The last time I was in Shenzhen was in 1999-2001, when the Internet bubble peaked.
This time around, the city has changed considerably since the last time I spent time here. Parts of the city are not recognizable, all in the good sense. There are many more skyscrapers than before, but somehow the city seems more refined and green than Shanghai and Beijing. When I was last here, the city had a grimy, grungy feel about it; no more. It takes pride in being the garden city of China, and in large parts, it is. The downtown area is clean, there are new and very modern shopping malls, and the people seem happy.
I have ridden several times on the Shenzhen Metro, it is very clean and modern. There is one line which roughly runs east-west; another line is under construction. Before, when I lived in Shenzhen, I would cross to Hong Kong every weekend. Now, I feel no need to do so; I can get everything I need in the city. Last night, I went out with a friend to a very nice and clean Japanese restaurant, owned by a Japanese, which had excellent fresh sashimi.
Real estate is still substantially cheaper, and many Hong Kong residents now keep their homes in Shenzhen, crossing the border every day when they go to work. Their children also go to Hong Kong schools, so when crossing customs in the morning and afternoon, there are often large groups of schoolchildren.
I went to a Starbucks once (there are many in Shenzhen; they first opened in the city in 2002), and in section of the cafe, I counted 25 persons and eight notebook computers in use. (In China, Starbucks offers free Wifi service.) If you work out the ratio, that means there were nearly three persons to every notebook computer in use, which is a very high ratio. I have not seen ratios this high in Shanghai, Beijing, or for that matter, in the US which is increasingly falling behind in many Internet usage statistics.
I have not checked any of the Internet cafes here, nor do I plan to. My own guess is that most Beijingers access the Internet from their offices, and the poor or 民工 access the Internet from Beijing’s low-priced Internet cafes since they cannot afford it at home. People in Shenzhen, for the most part, are comparatively well off since the city, which now has a population of 7-14 million mainly comes from other regions of China. (Over the years, the hukou system of individual registration has fallen into disuse, which is why the city government is no longer able to keep track of population.) If their usage of notebook computers in Starbucks is any indicator, they are also much more mobile.
Shenzhen is surrounded with factory satellite towns which employ many workers; most of these factories also supply food, housing and entertainment facilities to their employees. I’m sure that many of these factory workers now have broadband Internet access from their dormitory facilities.
Just to give you some indication of how common broadband is now, I am staying in a Home Inn (a Chinese chain of moderately-priced motels) which charge about US$25 a night. Broadband access is provided free of charge.
Shenzhen now has a very large and modern port and container facility which rivals Hong Kong in capacity.
I cannot help being impressed with Shenzhen’s and China’s development as a whole. In the late 70s, just when China’s reforms were starting and Shenzhen was just a fishing village, many refugees would try to swim across Mirs Bay to seek freedom in Hong Kong. Many of them drowned, and their bodies were washed up on the shores of Hong Kong, or Hong Kong held offshore islands.
Those days are gone.
The women in Shenzhen are fashionably dressed and wear makeup, and are more conscious of their looks than Beijingers. They also smile more readily, and look less self-conscious when they do. There is a lot of truth in the saying 天高皇帝远 (“The skies are higher when the emperor is far away”)
Definitely China is making progress. If the expressions on peoples’ faces are any indicator, China has come a long way.