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Post-80s blogger: “Shenzhen, I’m Truly Ashamed of You”

Posted: 11/11/2013 12:47 pm

A blog post about the experience of being a member of the post-80s generation in Shenzhen that first appeared on Shenzhen Forum late last month has since been forwarded on Tianya, Baidu and Sohu forum sites. It has also been the subject of features on Nanfangwang and in Nanfang Daily. The Nanfang has translated the blog post in full below. The Nanfang has not confirmed the facts and figures used by the author in the original blog post.

A Long Post-80s Rant: “Shenzhen I’m Truly Ashamed of You”

by Wu Gang (alias)


As a member of the post-80s generation, I see my peers leave the city one-by-one having once come here to follow their dreams. I see my own girlfriend forced out by her landlord because she can’t pay the rent. The problem of buying a house weighs on my shoulders every day. I see my peers having to commute all the way from Daya Bay (over 50 km). I have way too many things I want to say to this city.

Today, I finally finished the longest essay I’ve ever written and I put it online to seek comment. It may not be profound, and it may go too far. It records the thoughts and feelings of a member of the post-80s generation who is experiencing the hardship and sense of displacement that comes with living in Shenzhen at this time. Maybe one person’s thoughts and feelings don’t count for anything. And even if thousands upon thousands of my peers come out with the same thoughts, will it mean anything? Shenzhen, have you changed me? As I hit the “publish” button on my screen, I can’t help but smile.


In the autumn of 2010, Shenzhen celebrated the 30th anniversary of the founding of the special economic zone. The leader of our country, Hu Jintao himself, came to give a speech on how reforms had created a new spirit. At the same time, the State Council approved the expansion of Shenzhen’s special economic zone to the whole city.

It was becoming clear what the next 30 years will hold in store for Shenzhen. Other cities, such as Tianjin and Suzhou, could overtake Shenzhen in terms of GDP, pushing it out of the top four down to sixth. Media attention was also drawn to the exodus of university graduates from Shenzhen due to high housing and commodity prices. Is a place of sluggish economic growth, unaffordable housing and forbidding commodity prices really somewhere suitable for young people who want to pursue their dreams?

Question 1 for Shenzhen: Is Shenzhen still a place in which dreams come true?

Shenzhen was once a place where people came to pursue their dreams. It was once said of New York: “If you love a person, send them there. If you hate a person, send them there.” At one time, Shenzhen was inarguably the Chinese equivalent of New York.

There is a story that has been popular on the internet for some time: In the 1990s, a man left his home in the hinterlands of China to come and live in Shenzhen. On the second day, he sent a telegram to all his friends back home: “There’s a lot of money. The people are stupid. Come quickly.” It cannot be known whether those claims are true, but a lot of people felt that way when they migrated to Shenzhen in the early days. It seemed like the opportunities to make money were abundant; it was just a matter of working hard enough.

I too heard many wondrous stories about Shenzhen, such as the one about the cab driver who became a CEO overseeing several Futian office buildings; and the one about the man who met the Mayor’s daughter while he was washing his clothes in the river. He ended up marrying her, entering the real estate industry, and now works for one of the biggest companies in the city.

Again, these stories cannot be qualified, but if you look at the macroeconomic data, they are not that implausible. Shenzhen’s GDP went from 200 million yuan in 1980 to 951 billion yuan in 2010, increasing by 4755 times. This was known across the land as the Shenzhen miracle. While economic growth averaged 10% nationwide, it averaged 36% in Shenzhen. This is why there was a “gold rush” of people coming to Shenzhen to pursue their dreams.

Lots of people from the hinterlands left their steady jobs to come to Shenzhen and “dive into the sea” of business, living riskier lives to seek their fortune. Lots of university graduates passed up opportunities they had at home to come and try their luck here.

It didn’t matter where you were from; you didn’t need a letter of introduction, you didn’t need contacts, and you didn’t need experience. From graduates of Tsinghua University to those who had never finished middle school, everybody had the chance to find their place. And no matter what dialect you spoke, there would be somebody to speak it with. Anything was possible.

Too many people fulfilled their dreams. They may have started out as manual labourers, clerks, secretaries and drivers. But they would end up as factory bosses, managing directors, CEOs and chairmen. Some became billionaires, millionaires, celebrities, and government officials. And they would all thank Shenzhen for giving them their success.

Can Shenzhen still claim to be a city of dreams? It was ten years ago (November 2003) that the blog post “Shenzhen, Who Abandoned You?” caused a stir across the city. Its author even got to meet the then-mayor Yu Youjun. Was that the point at which Shenzhen ceased to be a city of dreams?

Shenzhen owes its existence to reformist policies on a national level. In the wake of these reforms, hardworking individuals helped make Shenzhen into what it was. Now, Shenzheners’ biggest obstacle is not policy. Projects such as the development of Qianhai have received huge subsidies and will attract top talent from around the country.

However, this means that everything here has become more competitive and the threshold for getting started in the city is much higher than before. One of the problems is the slowing down of economic growth. Our economy grew 10% last year, which is high for Guangdong and even higher by national standards. But when growth slows, opportunities naturally dwindle.

The main problems facing Shenzhen include a scarcity of land resources. Other problems include increases in house prices and rent. As we join the race to simply survive in this city, it is easy to forget our dreams. Late last year, my college roommate packed up and left. I heard his parents had talked him into coming home and trying to become a civil servant. Just two years ago, he had expressed a strong aversion to doing such a thing. As he left, he looked at me wistfully and said: “I can’t see a future here.”

My high school classmate also left during the Labour Day holiday this year. When you no longer have your dreams, there is very little reason to stay in this city.

Question 2 for Shenzhen: If my buddies have all gone to live in Daya Bay, what use do I still have for you?

As it happens, many of my friends have bought houses, but most are not in Shenzhen. Most are in Huiyang-Daya Bay (translator’s note: Huiyang-Daya Bay is often referred to as a single entity). I’m thinking, if that area gets developed, what will Shenzhen have to “brand” itself with?

Huiyang’s current GDP is about 30 billion yuan, Daya Bay’s is about 50 billion yuan. That is 80 billion yuan altogether, less than one tenth of that of Shenzhen. But let’s look at the growth rate. In the past five years, the growth rate in Huiyang and Daya Bay combined has averaged up to 30%, similar to Shenzhen’s figures from the 1980s. Industries such as petrochemicals and fine chemicals are doing well and are set to become pillar industries in the region.

Meanwhile, the cultural and creative industries, automotive electronics and information industry, optical instruments and other emerging industries are receiving support from the local government. This will, in time, greatly enrich industry in the area.

Five years from now, Huiyang-Daya Bay will have closed the gap significantly on Shenzhen. Moreover, Huiyang-Daya Bay has a combined area of 1393 square kilometres, and 800 square kilometres of this is still to be developed. If this land is developed successfully, every square kilometre could be worth 1 billion yuan. That could make for 800 billion yuan in development.

Contrast that with Shenzhen, where the official estimate is that there are still several hundred square kilometres of land on which development could take place, but in fact it could be as little as 50 square kilometres because so much illegal construction has occurred.

Land shortage is another one of the obstacles facing Shenzhen in the next 30 years. Land is essential to a city’s development. For this reason Huiyang-Daya Bay has much more room for growth.

From a development point-of-view, will Huiyang-Daya Bay become bigger? Will it become a trend for talent, capital and business to flow there from Shenzhen? Will the hundreds of thousands of people who came from Shenzhen to buy property in Huiyang-Daya Bay provide a ready-made skilled workforce? With land and labour, the gap in wealth will disappear. Capital and industry will be sucked from Shenzhen sooner or later.

Question 3 for Shenzhen: How will the city hold onto its young people?

At 30 years old, a person has just entered adulthood. At 30 years old, a city is still in its infancy. Never mind an ancient city like Paris, Shenzhen is young even compared to Hong Kong.

Breakneck growth has had a damaging effect on Shenzhen, its environment and its resources. Shenzhen is no bigger than 2,000 square kilometres, and this land is running out. As a result, the costs of both living and starting a business are rising.

The people suffering most as a result of these rising costs are the young. Ironically, it has historically been the young who were responsible for Shenzhen’s economic miracle. The average age in Shenzhen is under 28 and 80% of the population is aged between 18 and 26. Shenzhen has had the good fortune to have a workforce that didn’t have to worry about either pensions or raising children.

To ensure its continued development, Shenzhen must attract young people and retain the young people it already has. However, according to official statistics, 2011 was the first year in which the city’s population actually contracted.

Who is leaving this city? How old are these people? The statistics are not available, but judging by my own anecdotal evidence, it is mostly the young. The middle-aged and older people here came at a time of more opportunity and are now financially comfortable, with houses and cars. The rising cost of living doesn’t affect them too badly.

By contrast, the university graduates that have just arrived are renting shared accommodation in urban villages such as Gangxia and aspiring to live somewhere like Meilin, which is tipped to have a future. Also, as Longhua and Bantian are developed, the opportunities move around. With the need to regularly change places of work and residence, it may be a good idea to leave.

Maybe it’s just their personal choice. But Shenzhen needs to ask itself, if the young people are leaving, where does the future of the city lie?

Four analyses of Shenzhen: Shenzhen is about to become an island

When we see all the young people leaving, we must think: What’s wrong with Shenzhen? If we continue with our current development model, what will become of the place? May we make an attempt at rational analysis?

Analysis 1: The cause of the exodus of young people is land scarcity that has led to high prices

Every post-80 person who’s left has had their own reasons. But they all may have one thing in common: Shenzhen’s high housing prices have scuppered their dreams. Although it seems like ages ago, houses in Houhai cost only 5,000 yuan per square metre as recently as 2003. That means you could buy a two-bedroom house for just 400,000 yuan. Further afield, in Qianhai, it was 4,000 yuan and in Xili it was 3000 yuan. A dual income family could realistically get onto the property ladder without too many problems.

Then from 2005-2007, prices rose four-fold. From 2009-2010 they rose 50% and from 2011-2013, they again rose 50%. By conservative estimates, there has been a rise of 9-10 times. Now where are the 20,000 yuan houses? They are in Bao’an’s Fuyong and Shajin areas, in Longgang’s Pinghu area, and in Longhua’s Qinghua and Guanlan areas.

Even in these areas, if you take the average graduate’s salary of 6,000 yuan, every month they can only buy one third of a square metre.

The reason for these unsustainable housing prices is unquestionably a scarcity of land. When you try to squeeze 15 million people into 2000 square kilometres, that gives each person just 60 square metres in which to live. This is just 60% of the international standard. On land being developed in Longhua now, housing is expected to cost 22,000 yuan per square metre. It could reach 35,000 per square metre, and this was never intended to be an exclusive area.

Analysis 2: Shenzhen will become a city that people escape from rather than escape to

The fact that Shenzhen has limited space cannot be changed. But two of its neighbours, Dongguan and Huizhou, still have a wealth of land. If Shenzhen can integrate with these two cities to create an eastern Pearl River Delta mega city, then there is room for development.

National level authorities are already aware of this problem. That is why in 2008 “The Pearl River Delta Development Plan” was published. Its main thrust is the importance of integrating Shenzhen, Dongguan and Huizhou, leaving Shenzhen as the engine of growth to the east of the Pearl River. The blueprints look beautiful. But at an administrative level, this integration is seriously lagging behind.

On October 25 2013, reading the following news brought tears to my eyes. Under a new transport plan, it is hoped it will take no more than 40 minutes to get from Qingyuan to Guangzhou City Centre. I looked it up on Baidu, and that is a distance of 70 kilometres. That is about the same distance as that between the centre of Shenzhen and the centre of Huizhou. The distance between Shenzhen and Huiyang-Daya Bay is about 40 km.

If you take a closer look, the integration between Guangzhou and Foshan is in full swing, and puts Shenzhen to shame. If the 20th century was about competition between cities, the 21st century is about the competition between clusters of cities. Integration in the Yangtze River Delta has been much better than that in the Pearl River Delta, and integration between Shenzhen, Dongguan and Huizhou has been the worst.

The main problem has been protectionism by local governments. Shenzhen has reason for concern, such as the possibility of losing business and talent to those cities. This has opened up the possibility of Shenzhen and Shantou becoming special partners, which is inexplicable. Shenzhen needs to learn from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Under the current five-year plan, Beijing has pledged to expand its subway to Hebei Province, which would promote the integration of the Bohai Gulf area.

Analysis 3: When industry hollows out, the hangers-on will leave. Where can Shenzhen go from there?

In 2005, when he was deputy party secretary, Li Hongzhong listed the four “unsustainables” of Shenzhen. He worried about the hollowing out of the city’s industries. Motivated by this concern, Li proposed a change in the development strategy of the city’s industries.

Industries such as fine chemicals and automotive equipment received support. But eight years on, both of those industries are doing poorly.

Once the city’s traditional industries begin struggling, others will follow. Part of the problem of government-backed industries is that industries change faster than the government can account for. With a strong industrial base, a city can thrive.

Shenzhen’s two most powerful hands are the communications and finance industries, but even these face great crises. Both Huawei and ZTE are looking for new areas of growth. When growth slows, the first thing companies consider is how to cut costs.

To save money, these companies have outsourced key operations to cheaper parts of China. According to Zhang Lihua of Huawei’s Research & Development Department, the company moved its China Financial Sharing Centre to Chengdu last year. The R&D department has been moved to Xi’an. Soon Huawei will have more employees in Chengdu and Xi’an than in Shenzhen.

The finance industry is the lifeblood of Shenzhen’s economy. The Shenzhen Stock Exchange has long competed with the Shanghai Stock Exchange. In the China Financial Centres Index, Shenzhen is in the top 3 along with Beijing and Shanghai. Shanghai is 11 points off Beijing, but Shenzhen is 36 points off Shanghai, which suggests that Shenzhen’s status as a financial centre is not actually that strong. And these figures come from the Shenzhen Development Institute.

Analysis 4: Dreams are broken, wealth gets concentrated, and society punishes entrepreneurship

Every city encounters obstacles in its development. Perhaps Shenzhen has entered a bottleneck in which on a micro level, individuals sense fewer opportunities, and on a macro level, enterprises don’t innovate and economic growth is weak.

Us post-80 kids who came here with dreams have really been hit hard by this bottleneck. Our dream was simply to live well in this city, but high prices are slowly destroying this dream. And even the most determined and resilient among us will probably not see our dreams come true.

The young are increasingly sensing a class divide. Upward mobility is down and the best option may be to move inland. The days in which one could go from security guard to businessman, from worker to boss, seem to have been left behind in the 1980s and 90s.

Not only is wealth becoming more concentrated, but the intergenerational wealth gap is widening. Shenzhen is better represented than Guangzhou on the most recent Forbes Rich List. Pony Ma (founder of Tencent) is Shenzhen’s richest man. But can Shenzhen produce another Pony Ma? It is not a good sign when society rewards risk aversion and punishes entrepreneurialism.

Five goals for Shenzhen: Territorial integration, airport transfers, lowering house prices, ensuring 8% growth while striving for 9% growth, and developing high-speed rail

Everybody who comes to this city has reason to love it. It’s beautiful, inclusive, efficient, and boasts many qualities that other mainland cities don’t have. But because we love this city, we hope to change it for the better. It is still vibrant, forward-looking, a city of dreams, and a place for the young.

We hope Shenzhen makes some changes, and based on our own observations, we have some suggestions. Our vision may not be strong enough and our thinking may not be deep enough, but our desire is strong.

Goal 1: Step up integration with Dongguan and Huizhou: Make it one city, one heart, one territory.

The first goal should be to step up the drive to integrate Shenzhen with Dongguan and Huizhou to become the fifth municipality. This would give Shenzhen a second lease on life. The establishment of the special economic zone was just the first step.

Shenzhen must become bigger so it can have loftier goals and become a true international metropolis. If it continues to be confined within its current 2,000 square kilometres, Shenzhen can only be inward looking. Moreover, without this integration, Dongguan and Huizhou also face uncertain futures.

If the integration of the three cities can be achieved, there will be 15,000 square kilometres in which to work; that’s about the size of Beijing, two Chongqings or two Shanghais. This new city to the east of the Pearl River would truly be one of the world’s great metropolises.

Shenzhen would have a much bigger area in which to lay out its industries, its transport, its urban areas and its public space. If Shenzhen, Dongguan and Huizhou become one city, one heart, one territory, then another economic miracle could be created.

Goal 2: Build the second airport in Huiyang or Daya Bay

Pingshan was recently selected as the site for Shenzhen’s second airport. From a regional development point-of-view, this is a very good choice. After the recent expansion of Shenzhen Bao’an Airport, there is not much room for development in that area. To be competitive, Shenzhen needs a second airport. New York has five and London has three. Within China, Beijing and Shanghai each have two and Chongqing has three. This new airport can link up with the Xiamen-Shenzhen high speed rail to boost development in the area.

To broaden the scope, when one considers the richness of resources in the area and the extent to which development would be boosted, I think the second airport should be built in Huiyang or Daya Bay. The day before yesterday, the authorities changed the name of Shenzhen High Speed Rail Station to Pingshan Station.

Does this mean Shenzhen has bigger plans for Pingshan than it did initially? According to experts, Shenzhen will work together with Hong Kong on the construction of the second airport, as it will serve both cities. Shenzhen’s second airport will be a major civil airport. Serving mostly Asia and mainland China, a huge proportion of flights will be charter flights for tourists. That is why I think if the airport were located in Daya Bay it would, as well as boosting integration, make the airport a more appealing place to transfer. Shenzhen would be the winner.

Goal 3: With more territory, housing prices would decrease while the city’s competitiveness would increase 

With more territory, there would be more opportunities to build cheap housing and decrease overall prices. Shenzhen should lead the way in working with the governments of Dongguan and Huizhou in developing border regions such as Tangxia, Fenggang, Huiyang and Daya Bay to integrate industry, transport, education, healthcare, and communication.

Overall, Shenzhen businesses’ operating costs would decline and there would be more incentives for long-term thinking. In recent years, many large companies have switched their headquarters to Shenzhen. But Shenzhen only has so much territory. With integration, Shenzhen could open an entirely new Central Business District and economic base, helping to continue attracting businesses.

Land auction prices would also fall as developers would no longer have to rack their brain as to where to make space for development. This could lead to housing prices dropping by up to 10,000 yuan per square metre, making them affordable to members of the post-80s generation.

Reduced operating costs and reduced living costs can only boost Shenzhen’s attractiveness and competitiveness.

Goal 4: Hold on to post-80s talent, attract post-90s talent

A strong youth makes for a strong nation. A city is also dependent on its youth. Shenzhen clearly owes its success to having attracted youthful talent.

To uphold this tradition, Shenzhen needs to maintain its post-80s talent and attract post-90s talent. The government has already done commendable work on this, such as stepping up hukou access for college graduates. But the next step must be the development of affordable housing. This would give every Shenzhener reason for hope, as would the provision of low-rent housing to those not yet able to buy property.

We also must take a serious look at the large number of post-80s people who have been able to buy housing in Huiyang-Daya Bay. They contribute tax, so their need for transport and education should be considered.

Goal 5: High-speed rail should be developed. A long-term vision is needed.

The construction of the Xiamen-Shenzhen high speed rail brings a historic opportunity for integration between Shenzhen and Huizhou. According to news reports, the rail will begin operation by the end of this year.

The line has two stations in Shenzhen, one in Longhua (Shenzhen North) and one in Pingshan. The next station is Huiyang. Shenzhen is still exploring the opportunities that will arise from this. For it to work, capacity must be met and ticket prices must be kept low. Major cities such as Tokyo and Taipei have mastered this.

For example, The Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation was formally established in 1998. The work it has done, with the help of government subsidies, to reduce the cost and increase the convenience of travel has been widely commended.

The local government of Pingshan New Zone has completed many feasibility studies. The results suggest that the high-speed rail project can be successful, but it must coordinate with the Guangzhou Railway Bureau in the purchase of trains, pricing policy, scheduling, and the arrangement of government subsidies.

Considering that up to 1 million people may migrate from Shenzhen to Huiyang-Daya Bay, a high-speed rail line between Shenzhen and Huiyang is of huge strategic importance. This is essential to the long-term future of our city.

Home page photo courtesy All China Youth Federation

  • Andao

    95% sure he’s a gov official. All of his solutions are stupid government administrative moves or government spending. Forget the fact there are many empty buildings in Shenzhen and unoccupied houses. Or how about political reform? Nah, spend more money. Spend spend spend. That will make housing cheaper.

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  • jialongwu

    The exodus of Shenzhen is not yet evident, is it?

    • Kevin McGeary

      Far from it.

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