Understanding Urbanization and Globalization in Shenzhen, China

By Heyne Kim

In the most literal sense, the term Global South indicates countries situated south of the Equator. In practice, however, it encompasses emerging and developing economies in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Oceania, regardless of their geographic location relative to the Equator. Despite the discrepancy in its literal reading and underlying definition, the term has become synonymous with youth, energy, hope and excitement. Many of the fastest growing cities are found in the Global South today, which are “overflowing with opportunities.”[i] Already in 2011, the World Bank highlighted that Dubai, Shanghai, and Sao Paulo are fulfilling the role that Tokyo, London, and New York had assumed in the last century.[ii]

While countries and cities in the Global South share many traits, they differ widely in cultures, socioeconomic structures, and political systems. Scholars have suggested various interpretations of urbanization and globalization in the Global South, focusing on a specific city, region, or country to contextualize the experience, but not all have been successful at painting a full picture of development across time and space. For example, the success of Shenzhen is frequently discussed in economic terms while other non-economic elements are not highlighted as much. Indeed, Shenzhen’s urbanization and globalization are as much political and cultural phenomena as they are economic.

Within a mere span of 40 years, Shenzhen transformed from a tiny fishing village of 30,000 people to a manufacturing hub and subsequently to a center of the high-tech industry. The Garden City, as it is affectionately called, is home to 11 million people and constitutes the world’s largest continuously urbanized area.[iii] It is one of the world’s 123 largest metro areas and an Emerging Gateway, places that “…serve as the business, transportation, and oftentimes political centers of their respective countries.”[iv]

Luohu District, Shenzhen

Shenzhen’s remarkable progress toward urbanization and globalization is undeniably a result of Deng Xiaoping’s economic liberalization in 1979. One of the first Special Economic Zones in China, Shenzhen promoted features that were attractive to businesses and foreign direct investments, such as: competitive corporate tax holidays; low-cost land, services, and labor; lax labor regulations; zero or low tariffs on certain goods; simplified entry and exit procedures; and easy access to the domestic market and inputs.[v] Bordering Hong Kong to the South, Shenzhen also benefitted from evolving conditions in Hong Kong during the 1980s and 1990s, where rising rents and labor costs prompted many manufacturing businesses to relocate. The share of manufacturing in Shenzhen’s GDP grew from 26 percent to 53.2 percent between 1980 and 2005.[vi]

With the services sector gradually replacing the manufacturing sector, Shenzhen is now repositioning itself as the “Silicon Valley of China.” The city, which is home to numerous Chinese technology giants—notably Huawei and Tencent—produces 90 percent of the world’s electronics and caters to a growing number of high-tech startups.[vii][viii] As a result, the share of the services sector in Shenzhen has grown from 46 percent in 2005 to 58 percent in 2018.[ix][x] Overall, Shenzhen’s nominal GDP grew more than 12,000 times between 1979 and 2018, from 0.196 billion RMB to 2,422.198 billion RMB.[xi]

Besides economic liberalization, political conditions in the region and across China were in Shenzhen’s favor. Urbanization in China has picked up a tone of inevitability since the Central Urbanization Work Conference in 2013, where the Chinese leadership likened urbanization to “the road China must take in its modernization drive.”[xii] Support for the growth of Shenzhen was part of the central government’s grand strategy to uplift the economy and society of China nationwide.[xiii] Moreover, the relative lack of government oversight from Beijing allowed the municipal government to create an environment favorable to the high-tech industry. In 1992, the central government and the Communist Party of China granted the City of Shenzhen the authority to write their own policies and laws.[xiv] This gave the municipal government significant leverage to introduce laws and regulations that incentivized high-tech firms to locate in Shenzhen. As part of this initiative, the City reformed its household registration system (hùkǒu) under the 2014 National New Urbanization Plan: depending on the extent of educational attainment and work experience, people from outside of Shenzhen were now eligible for residency permits and housing subsidies.[xv] In 2016 alone the City of Shenzhen issued 1.71 million permits.[xvi]

Shenzhen’s success is an indication of the growing political instability in Hong Kong, where the demand for full democracy has been escalating since the transfer of its sovereignty in 1997. The diminishing role of Hong Kong in China’s economy is evident in its share of China’s GDP, which has shrunk from 20 percent to less than three percent since 1997.[xvii] Beijing’s preference for Shenzhen became clear in August 2019 when the Central Committee for Deep and Comprehensive Reforms (Zhōngyāng Quánmiàn Shēnhuà Gǎigé Wěiyuánhuì) gave Shenzhen special rights to carry out reforms and reify the socialist model with Chinese characteristics. The government envisions Shenzhen becoming a leader in the global economy and providing top-notch welfare.[xviii] Given the political support, Shenzhen is expected to not only outperform Hong Kong, but is poised to become a global city comparable to Tokyo, London, and New York.

Lastly, while local history and culture had little impact on shaping urbanization and globalization in Shenzhen, the city has increasingly invested in building its cultural capital. Before 1979, Shenzhen was known as the place where the term “generic city” originated.[xix] Once people from all over China migrated to Shenzhen and settled in, diverse and innovative thinking have set in and come to define the culture of modern-day Shenzhen. Dafen, a suburb of Shenzhen, is one such example of agglomeration: artists from all over China and abroad flocked to Dafen in the late 1980s and engaged in oil painting production, which led to the establishment of Dafen Oil Painting Village, the largest oil painting producer in the world. Once a hotspot of the fake art business, Dafen has evolved into a creative haven for artists to develop their own style and brand.[xx] It is now part of the creative clusters in Shenzhen through which the city reinforces the pioneering spirit across the municipality.[xxi]

Dafen Oil Painting Village

For much of the past century, urbanization and globalization in the Global South have been emblematic of colonial legacies. Many of the large cities found in the Global South are previously colonial cities that served as trading posts and administrative capitals for resource extraction and control of the indigenous population. In contrast, Shenzhen had no such history when it was first designated a Special Economic Zone. At the time, China was struggling with the widespread poverty produced by the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Successful policy implementation, evolving political dynamics between Beijing and the Pearl River Delta, and cultural agglomeration have however changed the course of Shenzhen’s future.

Shenzhen’s path to success is multifaceted and may not be easy to replicate elsewhere. While not discussed extensively, the lived experience of locals and migrants is also likely to vary widely, given how top-down policies often fail to reach all levels of society, leaving out the most marginalized and distressed. Although parity concerns remain, Shenzhen is a great inspiration for the Global South. With a bold vision, strong leadership, and a stroke of fortune, perhaps one day other cities in the Global South will be liberated from their colonial pasts and rise to become leaders in the global economy.

About the Author:

Heyne J. Kim is a candidate for the Master of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Prior to joining the program, she worked as a Coordinator for International Relations in southeastern Japan, promoting multiculturalism to Japanese citizens and foreign residents. 


[i] Goldman, M. (2015). “Development and the City.” Cities of the Global South Reader. Franak Miraftab and Federic Stout (Eds.). New York, NY: Routledge. 5th edition.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Sala, I. (2016, May 10). Story of cities #39: Shenzhen – from rural village to the world’s largest megalopolis. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/may/10/story-of-cities-39-shenzhen-from-rural-village-to-the-worlds-largest-megalopolis
[iv] Trujillo, J. and Parilla, J. (2016). Redefining Global Cities: The Seven Types of Global Metro Economies. Brookings. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/research/redefining-global-cities/.
[v] Lockett, M. (1987). China’s Special Economic Zones: The Cultural and Managerial Challenges. Journal of General Management. 12(3), 21-31. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/030630708701200302
[vi] Huang, Y. and Bocchi, A. Reshaping Economic Geography in East Asia. Washington, DC: World Bank Publications. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/books/edition/Reshaping_Economic_Geography_in_East_Asi/tOAITgWbNLEC?hl=en&gbpv=0
[vii] Harris, B. (2017, Nov 9). The astonishing rise of Shenzhen, China’s gadget capital. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/11/inside-shenzhen-china-s-gadget-capital/
[viii] Whitwell, T. (2014, June 13). Inside Shenzhen: China’s Silicon Valley. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/jun/13/inside-shenzen-china-silicon-valley-tech-nirvana-pearl-river
[ix] Huang, Y. and Bocchi, A. Reshaping Economic Geography in East Asia.
[x] Shenzhen (Guangdong) City Information. (2019, May 16). HKTDC Research. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2AQiTy3
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[xii] Sala, I. (2016, May 10). Story of cities #39: Shenzhen
[xiii] Kurry, A. (2012). Case Study: Shenzhen’s tale of “success” [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://eportfolios.macaulay.cuny.edu/akurry/2012/05/20/case-study-on-the-effects-of-rapid-growth-shenzhens-tale-of-success/
[xiv] Wang, M. and Meng, X. (2003). “Building nests to attracts birds”: China’s hi-tech zones and their impacts on transition from low-skill to high-value added process. 15th Annual Conference of the ACESA. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=
[xv] Arellano, G. (2019). 2014 New Urbanization Plan: What prograss has been made in Chinese cities towards implementing hukou reforms? (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from https://csub-dspace.calstate.edu/bitstream/handle/10211.3/210056/ArrellanoG_PPA_sp2019.pdf?sequence=1
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[xvii] Schlesinger, D. (2019, Aug 27). Can China’s Government Replace Hong Kong? ChinaFile. Retrieved from http://www.chinafile.com/conversation/can-chinas-government-replace-hong-kong
[xviii] China plans to make Shenzhen a ‘better place’ than Hong Kong. (2019, Aug 20). The Strait Times. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/china-plans-to-make-shenzhen-a-better-place-than-hong-kong
[xix] Sala, I. (2016, May 10). Story of cities #39:
[xx] Zhou, H. (2014). Redevelopment of Urban Village in Shenzhen.
[xxi] Lintu, M. (2012, Sept 17). Shenzhen: culture on the rise. GBTimes. Retrieved from https://gbtimes.com/shenzhen-culture-on-the-rise

Photo Credits

Shenzhen City Center (lead photo): Sparktour [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D
Luohu District, Shenzhen: “hdr6-2” by trey.menefee is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Dafen Oil Painting Village: “04500037” by skha818 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0