What Does Freedom Mean in China?

Decades of market reforms have created space citizens didn't have before.

Deng towers over Shenzhen, literally.

Photographer: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

The bronze statue of Deng Xiaoping at the Shenzhen Museum is a little larger than life. But unlike the giant, striding Deng who towers over the city from a hill in a nearby park, there’s nothing imposing about it. It depicts the former Chinese leader planting a tree, something he did at a botanical garden in Shenzhen during a famous visit in 1992. The actual shovel and pail he used are in an adjacent display case.

The statue is part of the museum’s permanent exhibit on “Reform and Opening-up History in Shenzhen,” to which I paid a visit during an Independence Day tour of this giant city on the border with Hong Kong. I didn’t go on July 4 -- the museum is closed Mondays, and the people of Shenzhen are all at work -- but I figured July 3 was close enough.

While I was gazing upon Deng and his shovel, a teenage girl walked up to the statue and, ignoring the “No Touching” sign, rested her hand gently on Deng’s arm. A guard started yelling at her, but the girl kept her hand there for a while. Finally she gave the guard a withering look and moved on.

After that, several others walked up to the statue and touched Deng in the same place on his upper arm. In a couple of cases they posed for photos. The guard had by this point given up and moved on to another part of the exhibit.

Maybe all I was witnessing was the Chinese proclivity for ignoring petty rules. But in my Independence Day mindset I couldn’t resist reading a little more into the relationship between Deng, who died in 1997, and the inhabitants of this city that he played such a big role in creating.

Deng came to Shenzhen and planted that tree less than three years after ordering the violent crackdown on unarmed protesters in Tiananmen Square. He had retired as the Communist Party’s leader a few weeks after Tiananmen and, at age 87, no longer had a formal political role. But as his successors in the Party’s leadership began to proceed from silencing political dissent to squashing the country’s other experiments with openness and reform -- of which the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, created in 1980, was the most prominent -- Deng decided he had to do something.

In January 1992 he left Beijing, without telling any top government officials what he was up to, and embarked on a tour of the economic-reform zones of southern China. By the time he got to Shenzhen, 50 to 60 news photographers were trailing him and crowds gathered to cheer him wherever he went. As Ezra P. Vogel put it in his 2013 biography of Deng:

To many officials in Beijing, Deng was viewed as a stern commander, but the crowds in Shenzhen cheerily greeted “uncle Deng” (shushu hao) (and, for younger people, “grandpa Deng,” yeye hao), whom they found warm, witty, and eager to soak in all the latest developments.

The southern tour worked as Deng had hoped. Shenzhen’s experimentation with market economics was allowed to continue and was steadily embraced by the rest of the country. And, to the surprise of many outside observers, Deng’s uneasy balancing of political repression with ever-growing economic freedoms has now outlived him by almost 20 years.

You may find this compromise cynical. You may find it unsustainable. I have held such views from time to time, and probably will again in the future. But take a tour of Shenzhen on a summer Sunday, as I did, and it’s really not hard to understand the fondness here for Uncle Deng.

This was a railroad-station town 1  of 30,000 before the Special Economic Zone was created. Residents were constantly leaving to swim across the river to Hong Kong. Now, Shenzhen has 11 million inhabitants. They (or their parents -- this city is bursting with children and teenagers) emigrated from all over China in search of economic opportunity here.

In the early days, they came for factory jobs and Shenzhen was a tough, grimy place. In recent years, though, the manufacturers have ceded ground to research centers, financial firms, corporate headquarters and startups, and Shenzhen’s leaders have been aggressively upgrading the city. It now boasts a great (and still-growing) subway system, beautiful parks, monumental buildings by famous architects, lively shopping district after lively shopping district -- and let’s not even get started on the theme parks. 2

To paraphrase a couple of famous economists, capitalism is freedom (that’s Milton Friedman) and development is freedom (that’s Amartya Sen). Shenzhen has witnessed an awful lot of capitalism and development over the past three decades. Its leaders have also been granted ample room for policy experimentation

What Shenzhen hasn’t enjoyed are Western-style free speech or political self-determination. But the people of Shenzhen now have far more choices, and more autonomy, than their parents could ever have imagined. Thanks to Uncle Deng and their own achievements, they are freer. That may not be enough, but it does seem worth noting on this Independence Day.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. Shenzhen is frequently referred to as a “former fishing village,” and there definitely were fishing villages along the coast here. But the old center of town is not on the coast, and both Wikipedia and the excellent “Shenzhen: The Book” emphasize the railroad station, so I’m going with that.

  2. Yes, Christopher Balding described Shenzhen in similarly enthusiastic terms in Bloomberg View just a few weeks ago. Believe us: it’s a really impressive city!

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Justin Fox at

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