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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Bordering China, Bordering Reform (Part 2): China's Transition to the Reform Era
3: The Architecture of Reform: Buildings and Finance on the Hong Kong-China Border, 1978-1984
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
Much has been written about the history of the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and its role in attracting foreign investment, technology, and expertise to China as part of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Four Modernizations program and Reform and Opening policy, officially launched in December 1978. Such scholarly attention has produced important analysis of these urban spaces and their effects on trade, investment, and labor, resulting in numerous macro-scale assessments of the overall structures and processes at work in China’s economic liberalization. This paper, by contrast, shifts focus to the scale of individual buildings in an effort to better understand both the abstract and concrete dimensions of capital in early reform-era China—a study of the first architectural objects built in Shenzhen and the organizational systems, financing, and expertise that produced them.
From reform’s very beginnings, market-based economic activity in China’s SEZs first took shape as buildings—factories, residential complexes, and hotels borne of speculative Sino-foreign joint venture activity. A closer look at the first buildings produced in Shenzhen reveals the party’s experimental efforts to entwine market-oriented practices with state planning policies while simultaneously insulating portions of the country from the perceived deleterious effects of foreign capital. It also illuminates the role of Hong Kong as a source of knowledge and financing amid active flows of people and architectural ideas coursing between both cities from reform’s beginning. Integrating these influences together, this paper presents new ways of thinking about the Chinese state’s relationship to physical space, economic activity, and political sovereignty.