“Go to Shenzhen”, a colleague in Shanghai had exclaimed. “It’s fantastic. Everything is new. It’s a frontier city.” There was a hint of sadness in his eyes as he said it.
He connected me to his old friends in the city, whom I met up with for dinner. They told me he had spent five years here in his twenties. Now a father and husband, this is where he’d spent his first years abroad – and I started seeing how that could be something special. In Shenzhen, the average age is just under 30 years old. Those aged 65 and above account for around 1% of the 12 million people living here – compared with nearly 10% for China as a whole. The city itself is just as young: before its establishment in 1980 – due to its proximity to Hong Kong – Shenzhen was a “sleepy fishing village” with a population of 300,000. The parents of the people walking the streets were, by any modern standard, poor. Shenzhen basks in the glow of progress.
The dialect of progress is American; Shenzhen is a city facing the West. There are more American brands per street corner than in most US cities. The coffee shops play Death Cab for Cutie; the clubs play the Chainsmokers. Even the English metro announcements are done in a thick American accent. Yet ironically, there are hardly any Westerners. I’m the attraction here, observed with quiet suspicion by the thousands that pass me by. This despite the fact that Western tourists can get a five-day visa on arrival at the border.
This heightens the sense of alienation. It suddenly hits me, for instance, how all the public messages on LCD screens here take the form of a cartoon. Stuck elevators, anti-terrorist procedures, train emergencies — all woes of modernity are communicated using figurines with large eyes and grandiose expressions, as if to better catch the attention of commuters whose gazes are glued to a phone screen.
Anyone who grew up in the West thinks about terrorism in a serious manner. The images in our minds are of London or Paris or New York. No comical representation can answer to the reality of our concern.
By contrast, the animated terrorists and bombs on display here become part of something you could call gentle futurism. A demonstration of surveillance and control, which says: “We know what you’re doing – but we’re harmless in doing so.”
Is this just the infantilization of Chinese civic life? Perhaps. But as I’m walking around, the enforced gentility fits in perfectly with the demure attitude of the local citizens, none of whom seem much bothered by the technologies of supervision they are surrounded by. These ads are embedded in a wider cultural relation to technology.
Back in Jinan, I’d had lunch with the faculty dean. As part of his protracted self-introduction, he noted that his team had just come back from a meeting with a telecom company that had demonstrated the power of 5G to them. The students in the room, acting as translators between us, gasped, then started clapping in genuine enthusiasm. They started asking questions; how long until it is implemented? Did they try out mobile VR?
I watched the scene with confused bemusement. Applauding the future, of course, seems blatantly naive to most Westerners. The price of digital technology, in the last decade, takes the form of post-truth and irony poisoning and clickbait and rigged elections. Anything other than skepticism seems ignorant. But to be lifted up in the elevator of modernity in just three decades, as these students’ families have, clearly produces a different attitude. Technological pessimism is not the next stop in some linear progression; it’s a different path than the one these millennials are on. Perhaps the choice is simply between controlled childishness and adult power play.
In the West, we view China with democratic condemnation: the social credit system, the jailing of dissidents, the reported brainwashing of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in high-security prison camps. You would almost forget that it is a society. Walking over Binhai avenue towards Nanshan, bathing in the sunset, Spotify curiously starts playing some music I listened to in my own twenties – Yo La Tengo, the Notwist, Sufjan Stevens. Gentle music.
It fits the atmosphere of young families strolling across the promenades, so far removed from my own bitter attitude towards technological control. Finally, I can understand my colleague’s nostalgia. I can imagine what it must be like to spend your first years abroad here, and I feel closer to his experience by simply walking here. I see a life I’ll never live, a past I’ve never had: one defined by a perpetual, gullible optimism about the future.