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Back to China after COVID
Chronicle of my visit to Shenzhen
China still felt pretty much like China.
I’ve been in Shenzhen these past few weeks to meet my wife’s family and celebrate our wedding in China. To add to the excitement, this was my first time visiting China in four years. And not just any ordinary four years, neither for the world nor for me.
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Being back felt like meeting with an acquaintance whom you have only been updated about through social media for years. You both know where you are now, but you can still feel that time has led you down different paths, though not necessarily in opposite directions.
From 2019 to 2023
I decided to specialize in Chinese studies around 2016, and in 2019, I finally spent a semester studying Mandarin and researching for my Master's Thesis at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
Like many others, I went to China to learn and discover a country that was not only supposed to be entirely different from mine but that was going to shape the course of the 21st C.
On a personal level, Beijing was going to be my last experience as a student.
During my time in Beijing, I spent most of my free time in sketchy-looking places wandering around the hutongs – and, to the horror of my now wife, using their public bathrooms. I managed to talk with a bunch of journalists, scholars, artists, and business people, but what I enjoyed most was chatting with randos and weirdos at bars or on the street.
I didn’t invest that much time eating well. I used to have meals for 10 or 15 RMB and get drunk on baijiu bottles from 7/11. Everyone I know who spent some time in China has gotten fatter. I lost weight. Coffee was my only luxury, accounting for half of my expenses – I’ll always be thankful for Luckin Coffee discount coupons.
Thinking back, my disregard for even basic comfort surprises me. I even used an underwear T-shirt as a pillow cover for a while.
It wasn’t a matter of money; it was more a mindset. Even though my original plan was to go back to China, I felt like I operated under the sense that time was limited. I privileged some weird sense of “adventure” over comfort.
And maybe this carefree attitude is the one that brought me to meet my wife and make things work. Who knows.
I treasure those moments but am glad my life has built on top of them. Now things are different, that is to say, in all objective aspects, much better.
But of course, it is not only me that is different now from 2019. The China I visited was in the world before COVID, another age.
Four years ago, the US-China trade war was in its early steps. Many democrats still championed open trade with China and criticized Trump for decoupling. It was much more uncertain which course Europe would take in its relationship with China. Both the EU and Britain were reluctant to follow the US against Huawei. Ironically, China was seen then as a source to strengthen European sovereignty vis-à-vis the US.
China’s Belt and Road seemed to be the pillar of a new world order. Italy was the star of the II BRI Forum in Beijing, celebrated that year. I remember attending a CGTN show where the Italian Chamber of Commerce representative did some bizarre magic trick, tacking an orange under his seat – he had to repeat it twice. As someone said on Twitter, in 2019, exchanging oranges for high-end manufactured goods was still considered a good deal for a G7 country. Now, Giorgia Meloni is close to taking Italy out of the BRI.
The enthusiasm around the BRI was proof of the self-confidence that China projected before the pandemic. But the day-to-day experiences also felt like China was indeed ahead of everyone else.
I remember that in 2019, China’s consumer economy felt far more advanced than ours, especially coming from Europe. You could access an immense service economy through your phone, almost infinite options for delivery, the use of QR codes to access menus and orders in bars and restaurants, and instant phone payments through WeChat and Alipay. One could believe that the future was on China’s side.
The pandemic has clearly changed that. It is not that China has gone backward – at least in terms of technology and economy. It is just it’s not going that far ahead anymore.
In a price-quality ratio, I’d still say that China offers a superior service economy, at least compared with New York. Still, today, our consumer technology is very similar to China’s. I didn’t find any shocking innovation that struck me with awe as I did in 2019 – indeed, some of the services I used to use weren’t available anymore.
Of course, many of the digital tools we have included in our daily day were directly imported from China when it seemed that China had everything figured out about how to live with COVID. But also, the recent crackdown on the tech sector has clearly slowed down the focus on the digital service economy in China.
Linked to this, four years ago, nobody talked that much about microchips. Taiwan was an important topic but not as much in the spotlight; Hong Kong’s massive protests against the Extradition Law garnered international attention. Discussions focused on Huawei taking over 5 G networks around the world.
I remember that before going to Beijing, Huawei opened an Apple store-style in Barcelona’s Plaça Catalunya—a declaration of intentions of what the Chinese company wanted to represent in the world. The store in Barcelona is now closed, as much of Huawei’s smartphone business in Europe.
Fate wanted that in my second time in China, Huawei returned to the spotlight. The new Huawei P60 has been built with only Chinese indigenous microchips bypassing American sanctions. As you know, Shenzhen is the center of China’s technological sector, and the city was full of commercials for Huawei’s new phone.
Nonetheless, Huawei’s breakthrough microchip development doesn’t feel the same as in 2019. Four years ago, Huawei was seen as the spearhead of China’s technological capacity to dispute US hegemony of global tech markets. Today, Huawei’s achievement is presented as a symbol of Chinese self-reliance.
That presents a country in a much more defensive stand than four years ago. Still a strong country, still confident in its own capacities, but less oriented toward mastering the outside world.
If I had to summarize how different China felt compared with before, that would be it.
This time, I didn’t come to Shenzhen as a student but as “a family man”.
As you can imagine, my experience has been different in terms of comfort. I only drank the good stuff, had great food at home, and went to the best restaurants in the city—no need to say that proper pillow covers were provided.
This time, I think I might have even added some weight.
To that, we need to add that this was my first time in Shenzhen. So, apart from the time that has passed, there was a geographical difference, and my previous experience in Beijing has likely influenced my feelings about the city.
Leaving my bettered standard of life apart, I definitely liked Shenzhen.
Shenzhen seems a pretty well-managed and ordered city where one can circulate without feeling constrained, especially in the newly developed areas.
Beijing is nice for a while, but I would rather not raise a family there. It is dry, polluted, and dusty, and traffic can be horrible. It isn't easy to walk around. Fences are everywhere, which act as a physical reminder of other constraints.
And more importantly, it is too far from the sea.
In general, Shenzhen felt more relaxed than Beijing. Some could argue that it is a less exciting city than Beijing. I can see that. Shenzhen seems more focused on public services, transportation, and amenities to build its quality of life.
With rain and humid heat, I spent a good deal of time visiting shopping malls. I don’t come from a shopping mall culture, nor am I a shopping mall guy. But with Shenzhen’s weather, I totally understand why people like to spend time there. And they are actually pretty cool malls.
There has been some talk about empty Shenzhen malls, especially in the current doubts about China’s economy. During my stay, most of them felt pretty empty, and luxury stores were desperate to sell you something, although you had to line up a couple of stores to get in. But to be fair, we were going during working hours, off-season, so we shouldn’t expect to find many people. Said that, high-end supermarkets and food courts were always full of customers.
Shenzhen’s coffee culture is very good, too. This is something that already surprised me on my first time in China, and things have only gotten better. That has to do with – leaving Muo Tai Luckin coffee apart –coffee is still seen in China as a luxury and many baristas take their craft very seriously. Which is something I appreciate.
I’d say that Shenzhen's main trait is a lot of space, something different compared with Beijing or Shanghai. Everything is pretty new; the roads are wide, and walking or riding everywhere is very easy. Even during rush hour, the subway felt pretty spacious.
In general, buildings are massive. Sometimes, it feels like a not necessarily dystopian version of Blade Runner.
It is a commonly known fact, but electric vehicles are everywhere, and yes, BYDs are pretty good. There were a lot of Teslas, too – I’d say roughly 30% of the EVs I saw were Teslas. No wonder Elon Musk wants to stay on good terms with Chinese authorities.
One of the things that shocked me was how green Shenzhen is.
There is vegetation everywhere, big trees, big parks and surrounded by green mountains. I wasn’t expecting that. In that sense, I could see how Shenzhen's culture and aesthetics are closer to Southeast Asia than Northern China. In the long term, I believe this is the cultural connection that will matter the most for China. The city is in a good position to exploit future connections and influence throughout the ASEAN countries.
The combination of the sea and mountains makes the city's geography very special. Especially if you get good views on a rainy day and you can see the mist coming down from the mountains. Also, stay in high buildings to avoid floods.
I must admit that I have a preference for sea peoples and coastal cities and cultures, and Cantonese industrious and merchant sea-fearing culture shares many elements with my own. Although Shenzhen is not the most Cantonese city out there, due to massive migration from all around China, geography still matters, and many traits of the original culture of the place have been intermixed to form its unique identity.
I don’t think Shenzhen could have happened anywhere else in China.
Shenzhen after the Reform and Opening Up
Shenzhen was the poster child of the Reform and Opening up, so seeing how the city adapts once that era reaches its twilight will be interesting to pay attention to.
Some of the policy initiatives I noticed make me think that, in a similar fashion to China itself, Shenzhen, more than taking an expansive approach as the “model city” for the country, will push for consolidation of its strengths and unique identity.
Shenzhen's strong entrepreneurial and industrial identity is evident everywhere, and they will preserve that. Not only does the government’s narrative push in that direction, but references to industrial culture are all over the city and have become part of the population's imagination.
I took a picture of a mural made by some kids in a school, where the representation of the city is linked to Shenzhen’s industrial identity. We see bridges, container ships, infrastructures, etc. The theme couldn’t be very different from what you find in Western countries, but I feel it might also be different from what kids in other schools in China draw.
It is very likely there is a policy promoting this, which is totally fine. Still, I feel some of the details are a good account of the class or the school’s own perceptions.
Contrasting with other accounts of the Chinese economy that people I know have shared, Shenzhen seemed to be holding well. I’ve talked to friends who visited the northern parts of China and told me things there had become very cheap. That is not the case in Shenzhen.
Even though Xi wants to limit the influence of the digital economy, Shenzhen’s tech sector still represents the parts of the economy that Xi intends to protect. The pulse of the times might have changed, but many economic sectors in Shenzhen will still be able to operate in a favorable central government policy framework.
Based on what I saw and talked about in Shenzhen, I am more inclined to think that China’s economy is going through an adjustment, coming to terms with the end of its years of fast expansion and not to its downfall. I think Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities are the ones that will suffer, and most likely, Chinese investments and wealth will be concentrated in Tier 1 cities. Shenzhen will do better than Shanghai, I think.
But, of course, I am biased.
I have observed that many people who have been watching China for years have been suffering a certain level of exhaustion.
There's a prevailing sense of futility as we circle around the same issues without discovering anything new, facing cultural and political involution, diplomatic obstinacy, and a lack of room for hope in terms of creative policy-making.
At the same time, while we keep sharpening our knives to prepare for a global conflict that, if it ever escalates to war, everybody knows won’t bring any good, we haven’t figured out how to make our economy work without China – and I am inclined to think we may never do.
Being able to visit China after the pandemic doesn’t change any of this. That’s the times we have to live with.
Nonetheless, being there has helped me reconnect with the human reality of people who try to go on with their lives, face similar problems as we do, and are much more concerned about what is going on at home than grand geopolitical schemes.
I am aware this has never prevented a geopolitical disaster, but it is good not to forget about it.
A friend of my father-in-law came to our wedding, and he had the kindness to include our wedding in an article about life in Shenzhen for the Financial Times in Chinese. If you can read Chinese, it’s a beautiful depiction of the city, and of course, we feel very flattered by it.
Have a nice week ahead, and I will retake the brief next week
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