area, region, zone
posted 5 July, 2020
by Carolyn Cartier
In “36 Calendars,” a conceptual art project covering thirty-six years in China, the Beijing artist Song Dong 宋冬 records his perspectives in drawings on blank pages of the generic wire-bound household wall calendar. His sketches depict emerging issues or events for each of 432 months over more than three decades from 1978–2013. The third month of 1980 features the term jingji tequ 经济特区 or “economic special area.” The Publicity Department (Xuanchuan bu 宣传部) translated it as “special economic zone” for international circulation. Song recorded his memory about it on the March 1980 calendar page: “A new expression (xin ci 新词) arose: ‘jingji tequ’. My teacher said it was a new idea [sic] thing (xin shiwu 新事物). I neither understood it nor had any interest in it. … Our senior schoolmates told us that it was a place for making fortunes.”
In China, and beyond, the special economic zone (SEZ) suggests a place of economic distinction and exception, a spatial infrastructure with outsize signage and positive charge: global capital this way! An internationalized discourse about it, comingling Chinese Communist Party narratives, China scholarship, and mediatized business interests, has promoted the SEZ as a concept and policy. For instance, Ezra Vogel recounts that the inception of his 1989 book project, One Step Ahead in China: Guangdong Under Reform, was at the invitation of the Guangdong Province Economic Commission which hosted Vogel at the provincial Party guesthouse to facilitate the project (Vogel 1989, 5). One Step Ahead, on special zones and new cities in the Pearl River Delta, and a leading statement on the development of the region, appeared like an early adopter in trendsetting, translating the SEZ for international scholarship and legitimating its potential for transnational capital. But the problem for the word zone—and the word qu—is that zone is only one of many translations of qu and a minority among them at that.
Even English language translations of statements by Deng Xiaoping have trouble with qu terms. In the early 1980s the special zones on the south China coast were the only areas open to the world economy. It was as if they were “walking one step ahead ” (xian zou yibu 先走一步), inspiring the title of Vogel’s book. They were geographical analogs of Deng’s statement, “let some people get rich first.” Any online search of this statement returns millions of hits. But this common portrayal of Deng’s statement is only partly correct. What Deng actually said is “allow some regions and some people to get rich first” (rang yi bufen diqu, yi bufen ren keyi fuqilai 让一部分地区, 一部分人可以先富起来) (Deng 1997). Deng referred to regional change, because only through governance of the administrative divisions could state-led development take place. The more common portrayal of Deng’s slogan, however, omits the word “region” (diqu 地区) just as zone works around what it cannot see in the administrative divisions.
From qu to the administrative divisions
This essay examines the keyword qu 区in jingji tequ 经济特区 and shequ 社区 and interrelated words under the umbrella of xingzheng quhua 行政区划 or the “administrative divisions” for its potential to reveal dynamics of spatial governance, Chinese ideas about bounding and bordering space, and state territorialization where subnational territory, marked out nationwide, edge to edge, is ever subject to change.
In what ways do meanings of the Chinese terms and the English-language “zone” diverge? In its transformation from the simple word qu, why has zone garnered an international fanbase? The idea of special zones is inseparable from the history of export-processing zones in Asian regional development and China’s reconceptualization of the concept. In 1978 Deng Xiaoping toured Singapore and came away with plans that would surpass the Singapore model zones while attracting global capital. China’s approach would establish much larger territories, providing expansive space for simultaneous industrialization and new city development. The party-state would strategically locate the largest of the first ones, Shenzhen, on the Hong Kong boundary. The transfer of the Hong Kong manufacturing apparatus into Shenzhen and the larger Pearl River delta region would ground unprecedented rapid growth. Imbued with what came to be called “Shenzhen speed” (Shenzhen tekuai 深圳特快), the special zone would travel as a leading idea in the era’s world of flows. Based on international uptake of the official Chinese discourse, the special zone would evolve into a quasi-policy approach with spectacular characteristics—a rhetorically seductive, mediated phenomenon. The discourse about SEZs, affiliated to mobilities of labor and capital, fueled the ideology of globalizing neoliberalism, casting zones into high relief in relation to surrounding areas which would be left behind.
The growth of the zone fanbase reflects the polyvalence of zone across the political-economic spectrum. From subject of multiple turn-of-the-century popular magazine cover stories to leading postcolonial scholarship, it is difficult to exaggerate the extent of the international popularization of the Shenzhen zone. A major misconception about zones, that SEZs are discrete spaces free from bureaucratic Communist Party authority, propelled market excitement. Anthropologist Aihwa Ong paradoxically established the free space notion in her 2006 book, Neoliberalism as Exception. Ong writes, “In short, the coastal zone authorities and open cities are spaces of exception to the centrally planned socialist economy. They enjoy autonomy in all economic and administrative matters” (Ong 2006, 108). Little could be further from the truth in China’s party-state structure, but the illusion circulated as a subject of common talk without accuracy.
The zone phenomenon moved through Asian cross currents and raised particular interest in India, for instance. A 2007 report of the Department of Commerce of India “Special Economic Zones are the dream projects of the Government…launched by the Government of India, with great fanfare, on the model of the Special Economic Zones in China, in the fond hope that they would help India replicate the Chinese success story of rapid industrialization” (Parliament of India, 2007). In this utopian discourse zones inspire economic desire and the potential for material results. India began to establish SEZs only to realize the size of the Chinese special zones—large state administrative divisions—could not be matched. Unlike India, China could establish new territorial areas because it maintained state land ownership and authoritarian power over land use decisions.
Where the English-language idea of a zone connotes difference from some unspecified surrounding area, all zones in China are areas within the system of administrative divisions. All territorial areas are types of qu. Shenzhen’s primary status is as a “prefectural city” (diji shi 地及市) at the “sub-provincial level” (fusheng ji 副省级) of government. These are not appealing and memorable terms. Nevertheless, they demonstrate the reality of the Chinese state spatial structure. The prefecture in contemporary China is a bounded territory at the level of government between the province and the county. It is also Deng’s region word: diqu 地区. Based on its two characters, di地 and qu 区, diqu appears to mean “local district” or “local lands,” and the word descends from the imperial history of administration when a prefecture was a field office or “dispatch office” (paichu jigou 派出机构) of the province for large rural areas between the levels of the province and the county. Consequently, diqu can mean an area in the general sense of a large rural area, or a bounded area in the contemporary hierarchy of the administrative divisions.
As the world economy invested in China’s special zones, excited narratives about their growth failed to grasp the fundamental tiaozheng xingzheng quhua 调整行政区划or “adjustments to the administrative divisions” that made them. Administrative and territorial changes to the administrative divisions defined and established the areas of zones, just as changes to the prefectures made them into expansive cities-in-formation at the prefecture level. The four special economic zones established in the early 1980s, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Xiamen, and Shantou, share names with the large territorial cities that contain them. Shenzhen the special zone was for three decades only one-fifth the size of Shenzhen the city, until the State Council made them coterminous in 2010.
Clever term: jingji tequ had become simultaneously a metonym of the reform era, a metaphor for rapid growth, and a synecdoche of the part and the whole—the zone and the subnational territory—that masks the project of reconfiguring China’s territory for party-state-led industrialization. Analysis of qu 区 區 and its fundamental meaning in the administrative divisions sheds light on this process.
One version of qu
Zone is the geographical keyword in English talk about the reform era in China. Yet there is no Chinese word that means zone uniquely or is a direct translation of zone. Zone is just one among several translations of the word qu. Its more common translations are area, district, and region. Qu appears in numerous compound words as the final character in which it means the territory of whatever precedes it. A chengqu 城区 is a district of a city. A juqu 居区 is a residential area or residential district. A zizhiqu 自治区 is a so-called autonomous region, the equivalent of a province in the system of administrative divisions. A jiaoqu 郊区 is a suburban area. A gongye yuanqu 工业园区 is the Chinese translation of industrial park. All have administrative boundaries. Among these translations and terms, the word district, as in city district, usually denotes the governing jurisdiction. The same word, qu, that is translated in English as zone, means in Chinese an administrative district or a government territory. Official areas of all kinds in China, including zones, are territorial governing spaces in the state structure under the authority of the party-state bureaucracy.
All types of qu and their meanings exist within and are defined by this system of administrative divisions. Its basic categories are province, prefecture, county, and town with corresponding hierarchy of government. In the administrative divisions (行政区划) the compound word qu hua 区划 means the noun “area divisions” and the verb “to delimit” or “draw a line” as well as “to plan, transfer, and assign.” It indicates how the state actively determines, delimits, and nominates subnational territory including special variations. The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China defines the power of the state to change the administrative divisions—the power to change any area (qu) at any scale or size. A qu is state-demarcated administrative territory with prescribed functions which the party-state may periodically adjust.
Qu’s character itself has a centuries-long history. The traditional version, 區, reveals meanings about organizing things in space. Its internal component, pin 品, means a variety of commodities or objects of some type as well as to sample or to judge, which indicates the interests and actions of an arbiter evaluating within and among categories. The external component is the semantic radical xi 匸, which indicates enclosure. In these combined meanings the character conveys notions about differentiation, delineating, and bordering for spatial organization. Given that the contemporary character indicates types of state-defined territorial space, the language conveys the origins of a worldview of the power to organize – whether populations, resources, or the economy – through state spatial practices.
The compound word shequ 社区, typically translated as community or neighborhood, also looks different from the perspective of the administrative divisions. Shequ have become ubiquitous with urbanization in contemporary China, and research in cities has tended to focus on this local scale of society, including residential areas in new property developments and gated communities. Shequ also encompasses the xiaoqu 小区or “small areas,” the so-called sub-neighborhoods of private commercial housing developments where residential committees have some measures of self-governance. Though shequ has established meanings, the word qu reveals the community and neighbourhood translations to be false friends. These sociological terms, community and neighborhood, descending from the traditions of western sociology, differ from the spatial governance intrinsic to China’s state structure. The shequ is governed space. The shequ is, as the words read, the territorialized area qu 区 of local society she 社. Perhaps words like shequ should never be harnessed into translation. In daily life, the shequ is typically equated with the shequ residents’ committee. The shequ committee has staff, receives complaints, and undertakes tasks. It disseminates government information. It is a people-to-people station. While a shequ will have governing institutions—the interrelated shequ Party branch and shequ residents’ committee—the shequ is the governing space. The process of establishing shequ in the reform era began in the 1990s based on the merger of territories of the historic residents’ committees, which were also territorialized areas. Established in 1954, at the spatial scale of 100 to 600 households, they were based on the subdivision of the area of the local police station as a “dispatch unit” of the public security apparatus (National People’s Congress 1954). In the reform era the shequ maintains local security functions while the governing bureaucracy in charge of shequ has shifted to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, which administers the system of administrative divisions. In the Chinese literature the concept of the “administrative division-shequ” (xingzhengqu-shequ 行政区–社区) defines the shequ as the grassroots extension of the administrative divisions at the local level (Liu and Zhang 1995).
Translating zone into Chinese yields qu. Where the ideology of zone implies notions about globalizing neoliberalization and mobile capital, the reality of qu is the context of the organization of state power. These contexts vary. When the government of Shanghai announced a new “free trade zone” (zimao qu 自贸区) in 2013 it seemed to signal to the fanbase another round of zone magic. The cartoonist Badiucao 巴丢草 registered a different perspective—the final brick in the wall—that symbolizes the power relations of governing by administrative divisions (Badiucao 2013).
Then let us review the nature of qu. What is Hong Kong? By appearances, Hong Kong is a global city. In China, Hong Kong is a special administrative region (tebie xingzhenqu 特別行政區). Its formal name is the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. The region in “special administrative region” is a basic translation of qu. The special administrative region, a category in the system of administrative divisions, is a province-level territory. That Hong Kong is not a city in China’s official territorial-administrative system is another story. But it is special because, in the worldview from Beijing, the Chinese central government allows Hong Kong to do different things in different ways. In 2019, for instance, the Hong Kong electorate voted for democrats in local district elections. The central government did not like the direction of change and in 2020 unilaterally implemented in Hong Kong a form of protection for the party-state called the National Security Law (Pepper 2020). Its implementation abrogates a treaty and infringes-upon Hong Kong law. But this is a routine matter in the history of qu.
Bordered and bounded, yet mutable; locally administered and yet subject to unilateral authoritarian change—in whole or in part—varieties of qu represent the state on the ground. They are not locations. They are the contexts of the spatial organization of the party-state that seeks to govern all territory nationwide at all levels down to the shequ, or “horizontal to the edge, vertical to the end” (hengxiang daodi, zongxiang daobian 横向到边, 纵向到底). The spatial governing concept cannot tolerate gaps. There is no free space.
Badiucao, “Free Trade Zone,” China Digital Times, Sept. 24, 2013. Online: https://chinadigitaltimes.net/chinese/2013/09/【图说天朝】一周网络漫画选摘-9-30/巴丢草：自贸区; and @badiucao, “Badiucao 巴丢草,” Twitter, Sept. 25, 2013, 12:17 a.m. Online: twitter.com/badiucao/status/382509001612599296?s=20
Deng Xiaoping. 1997. “让一部分人先富起来 (Let Some People Get Rich First),” 国共产党新闻(Chinese Communist Party News), Feb. 19, 1997. Online: cpc.people.com.cn/GB/34136/2569304.html.
Liu Junde 刘军德 and Zhang Yuzhi 张玉枝. 1995. “上海浦东新区行政区—社区体系及其发展研究 (1 & 2) (Shanghai Pudong New Administrative Division-Community System and Its Development), 城乡建设 (Urban and Rural Construction) 9: 13–15; and 10: 23–24.
National People’s Congress. 1954. “城市居民委员会组织条例 (Organization Regulations of City Residents’ Committees),” Fourth Meeting of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, Dec. 31, 1954. Online: www.npc.gov.cn/wxzl/wxzl/2000-12/10/content_4275.htm.
Ong, Aihwa. 2006. Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty (Durham, NC, Duke University Press).
Parliament of India, “Eighty Third Report on the Function of Special Economic Zones” (Parliament of India: Parliamentary Standing Committee on Commerce, 2007). Online: 184.108.40.206/newcommittee/reports /EnglishCommittees/Committee%20on%20Commerce/Report%20SEZ1.htm.
Pepper, Suzanne. 2020. “National Security Law: A Second ‘Handover’ for Hong Kong?” Hong Kong Free Press, June 25. Online: hongkongfp.com/2020/06/25/national-security-law-a-second-handover-for-hong-kong/
Vogel, Ezra. 1989. One Step Ahead in China: Guangdong Under Reform (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Carolyn Cartier is Professor of Human Geography and China Studies at the University of Technology Sydney.