Book Review | Special Economic Zones by Maurits Ruis

The recent news about the world's longest high speed line to connect Beijing with Guangzhou — a 2,298-km route — at speeds of over 300kph can be a justification of looking into the reasons that make China one of the world's most dynamics — depending on what criteria you choose — countries. One reason: SEZs, or Special Economic Zones. As known, SEZs have completely reshaped China's coast.
Special Economic Zones
By Maurits Ruis
. 57 pages. Colloquial ebook. $5.95

"Special Economic Zones", which I just finished, is an ebook of 57 pages by Maurits Ruis, a London-based architect. There is an extensive literature about this topic of SEZ, mostly from the economic and urban sociological fields. This book, however, is written by an architect who seems to have a great interest in the question of zone, its history, its implementation, its geopolitical implication.
I will first start with a definition of "zone", then follow with that of "Special Economic Zone" for a better understanding of the book. A zone is a dynamic place of trade, finance, management and communication. As the book states, it is ancient and new. As Keller Easterling, one of the most accurate specialists of global infrastructure, showed in an article titled Zone: The Spatial Softwares of Extrastatecraft, posted in The Design Observer in 2012, the zone is heir to the history and mystique of the ancient free ports, pirate enclaves and entrepôts of maritime trade. The sociologist and political scientist Xiangming Chen charted in 1995 three eras in the evolution and use of the zone: the first era, from the mid 16-th century by the 1930s, is characterized by the Free Port and early Free Trade Zones; the second, from the late 1950s to the 1970s, is dominated by the Export Processing Zones. These zones focused broadly on manufacturing; the third and last era starts in the 1980s with the rise of the Special Economic Zones, the Economic and Technological Development Zones, and the Science Industrial Parks.
Special Economic ZonesMaurits Ruis

Now the Special Economic Zones (SEZs). Maurits Ruis defines this zone as "geographically delimitated areas with an exempt legal status, that aim to attract foreign capital and generate jobs by offering special incentives to foreign companies." SEZs, in general, profited from international specialization. This is the case of China's SEZs, as the book, which is mostly focused on, stated. A fact is, in the case of China's SEZs — but this is not restricted to China — the implementation of SEZ coincides with a globalization of production in the world's economy, and China's aim of attracting foreign trades to access global markets. Put it in the simplest way, observers have demonstrated that SEZs use foreign capital to stimulate export and national development. The transformation of China's territory into city clusters — as trend in China seem to become groups of large, nearly contiguous cities with many adjoining satellite cities and town — provides a good example.
I shall put economic references aside as a literature from the economic field exists. My concern lies more in the architectural-urban contribution to the implementation of SEZs and to reshape the regions where these instruments are used. The author unsurprisingly chose Shenzhen as case study. In 1979, Shenzhen, in the Guangdong Province, became the first of China's Special Economic Zones. Shenzhen is now considered a China's special city, or a "overseas Chinese community" (qiao xiang). The township-now-high-tech-city became an urban and market-oriented economic laboratory to serve the entire country as a 'window' and a 'base'. The choice for this city is strategic. As Ruis noted, these "SEZs were deliberately located far from the center of political power in Beijing to minimize both potential risks and political interference."
Shenzhen was a fishing village close to Hong Kong. With the implementation of SEZs, Shenzhen estimates a population of 8 million (including a transient population of around 14 million). The city is composed of 7 districts: Futian, Luohu, Yantian, Nanshan, Bao'an, Housing districts in Shenzhen, and Longgang. If SEZ comprises only 4 of the 7 districts, namely approximately 396 square kilometers (approximately 150 square miles), in the following years, the SEZ will expand to other districts to reach a total of approximately 2,000 square kilometers (approximately 700 square miles).
Beneath the becoming-high-tech of Shenzhen, another aspect, more strategic: the geographic proximity between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, Which is not a coincidence. Shenzhen's SEZ status can be deconstructed in terms of the Strategic sites as the city is neighbored with Hong Kong and located in the southeast coast of China, and the linkages that bind them. The connection of these two cities offer many advantages such as low cost of shipping raw materials and products, easy supervision of the production process, and easy coordination with the headquarters in Hong Kong. Needless to repeat, then, Hong Kong is a global city. China developed the setting-up of a link between economic hinterland and overseas. Hence this explains the choice for Shenzhen as a SEZ and the geographic proximity and the economic links to the domestic business environment between these two cities. Note, again, that Shenzhen is not the only city to have been designated as a SEZ; three other cities — Zhuhai and Shantou, both in Guangdong Province, and a province — Hainan Province — were designated as SEZs too (Zhuhai, for example, is close to Macao). All located in the southeast coast of China.
Another important point, this time discussed in the book, is the 'Pearl River Delta'-ization of Asia's coastal regions after Chinese model. SEZs and Pearl River Delta Regions are the front runners of internalization of China's global-market oriented economy. They are also the front runners in spreading Chinese influence and economic models overseas such as Africa, as Ruis writes, and other Asian countries.
A lack, however, beyond the internationalization of China's economy, and its access to global market, concerns the architectural-urban level of SEZs. SEZ is the engine of not only economic growth but also urban growth with enormous, ramifying consequences. The urban growth must be neglected when examining SEZs. It seems to me that a spatial arrangement, architectural-urban study of SEZs is rarely discussed when addressing SEZs while trends of speculation and land loss, inequalities in urbanization and infrastructure improvement increased dramatically in the Chinese territory. What are the spatial and architectural patterns of these SEZs? As Keller Easterling wrote in The Action is the Form, "spatial arrangements are often the inadvertent outcome of rules written in the jargon of business, real estate, logistics, trade, banking, informatics or governance." In examining the instrumentalization of architectural-urban by SEZs, we could better understand how spatial disposition of SEZs as well as constructions of high towers, building complexes, infrastructure and facilities affected Chinese coastal areas, and more broadly China's cities and rural areas; how this zone-oriented approach led to competitions between cities, speculations and inequalities, among others, outside and inside the SEZs. An example concerns land loss. In China, it is stated that urban lands belong to the state and rural lands as part of the village commune reforms in the 1980s. An aspect particularly very complex is the land distribution. Overall, urban land use rights can be transferred to private parties while rural land use contracts can be transferred only to the state. Yet, when transferred to the state, they can be changed into urban land then sold to private parties. This is what happened to Shenzhen's lands creating and exacerbating a "zone fever" along with other estate speculations.
Another negative aspect of SEZs that, unfortunately, was not addressed in the book is inequalities in terms of 'infrastructuralization' of the selected zones. Over the three decades, Shenzhen witnessed an infrastructure improvement of its territory examine the ways, throughout SEZs, to quote Easterling, "in which architecture and urbanism have become repeatable and infrastructural." The means by which Shenzhen has an infrastructure improvement can be an indicator of spatial strategies as I mentioned earlier: both the geographic proximity between Shenzhen and Hong Kong and Shenzhen's SEZ status. The geographic proximity of these two cities may lead to the creation of… ONE city, in a certain future.
While, in my view, the ebook suffers from a spatial arrangement and architectural-urban perspective, this is a very interesting Précis of 57 pages — I insist as the book must be continued. I cannot affirm whether or not this ebook announces a larger study, if it must be considered an excerpt, which I hope so. Be as it may be, for those who want a global outlook on the topic of SEZs and understand why and how China becomes this today's China — city clusters, China's interest for urbanism as economic instrument for global market access, et cetera — without the economic (for example) jargon, this ebook is for you.

Special Economic Zones
By Maurits Ruis
57 pages. Colloquial ebook. $5.95

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