“Shenzhen Speed”: New Reform measures, High-tech Start-Ups, and Precarious Entrepreneurs

Authors: YiJIAN LIU*, UNIVERSITY OF OSLO
Topics: China, Economic Geography
Keywords: Shenzhen; ethnography; high-tech startups
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 6:25 AM / 7:40 AM
Room: Virtual 16
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


According to the five-year plans, China has attempted to change its role in the global economy from a low-tech assembler to a high-value-added producer since the mid-2000s. Shenzhen has been at the forefront of this process. On the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SEZ), Xi hailed Shenzhen's exceptional speedy development as "a miracle in the world development history", and granted greater autonomy to Shenzhen by designating the SEZ as a pilot zone for reform measures and a national model of high-quality development, innovation and entrepreneurship by 2035. This paper explores how the “Shenzhen speed” that characterizes the high expectations and demands harboured for Shenzhen-based high-tech start-up entrepreneurs presents particular problems for those actors who aim to grow their business amidst intensifying competition and a global pandemic. Drawing on six months of ethnographic fieldwork in high-tech start-ups, makerspaces, incubators, coworking spaces, and high-tech industrial parks in Shenzhen in 2020, I trace how high-tech start-up entrepreneurs understand and experience such speed in this particular geographic area. Concepts such as “agile manufacturing”, “rapid prototyping”, “fast mass production” or “technology and product iteration” have been widely discussed and presented by these entrepreneurs as a means for growth. Yet to a large extent, such speed requires an overwhelming workload and leads to precarious work conditions for them. This study sheds new light on how government-led labour deregulation in the high-tech economy is justified by tracing how the popular, tongue-in-cheek notion of “Shenzhen speed” has been appropriated by policymakers.

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