Shenzhen: “Charter City”

1. Thankfully, I was not on this flight. Whatever you do, don’t let my dad

see this video.

My tale will generate far less adrenaline: I slept through the typhoon in Shenzhen, waking up once to eat a granola bar and those chocolate candies they leave on your bedside table.

This allowed me to awake at 4am to watch the Patriots game. Dreadful performance. Weirdly, at all timeouts, Chinese TV runs short commercials about the best soccer players of all time. They’re messing with us.

At least I remained comfortably dry in my 20th floor room, unlike these guys, doing the real work to keep the city humming along.


2. “Charter City”

This is from Paul Romer, a professor at NYU.

Q: The idea of Charter Cities originated from Hong Kong and Shenzhen, am I right?

Romer: The two most interesting precedents for Charter Cities are Hong Kong and Shenzhen, so it does have some origins here. They each played important roles in fostering reform of the Chinese economy.

But it is an approach that can be used in any country that wants to implement reforms, even a developed country like the United States. It turns out that this is a unique time in human history when it is possible to start many new cities because there is an enormous, unmet demand for city life.

Q: What are the essential elements of a Charter City?

Romer: In one sense, the essence of the idea is the notion of a Startup City. You have a chance to start a city anew.

Then the question is: “What can you accomplish with that? What are the things that will be required to make it successful?” I think what is unusual about a Startup City, as opposed to an existing city, is that you can propose something new without having to go through a long process of consultation and agreement amongst the people that might be affected by a change, one that would inevitably mean that a change that some people do not want is imposed on them.

With a Startup City, you can propose something entirely new and let people choose whether they want to live under its rules, as embodied in its charter, the document that specifies its founding principles. People who want to try the reform can go there, and people who don’t, they don’t have to. With a startup, you can have reform without coercion.

This is part of the insight that Deng Xiaoping had in pursuing Shenzhen.

Ah. Charter City. Like charter school. Something new. Not imposed on people. They can choose to join. Or not.

Imagine if the USA had just one charter school, not 8,000. The world has (arguably) one charter city: Shenzhen. It’s pretty amazing.

Romer continues:

Shenzhen has been incredibly important. It changed the course of history. People in the west seem to forget that reform in China was extremely controversial; that there was lots of opposition, even violent opposition. So it was not a sure thing that reform was going to succeed there even after Deng took power.

When reform was underway and Deng went on his Southern Tour in 1992, the visible success of Shenzhen protected reform from the reactionaries. Without Shenzhen, reform in China might have stalled before it had a chance to take hold.

So even if Shenzhen is the last startup city we ever see, history will be different because it was possible to start a new city in China.

I had to read up on the 1992 Southern Tour. It is a turning point in history, which will affect my kids and your kids. Deng solidified China’s move to an economy that allowed entrepreneurship, against strong political opponents. Without Deng, China would perhaps has followed a path like the USSR, with military strength but without economic strength.

3. Schools in Shenzhen

A quick “word” about population growth here.


Obviously, the city needs many new schools.

Most of those new schools, perhaps 96%, will be the traditional track, preparing Chinese kids for Chinese universities.

But with that other 4%, I’m guessing that still means a few dozen new schools will be launched to prep kids for American universities.

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