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Shenzhen city profile | city data
  • Within 35 years, Shenzhen has grown from a town of 30,000 to a megacity of 10 million
  • Recent rural migrants make up a high proportion of the city’s population – their right to cultural provision is a key driver in city policy
  • Shenzhen’s creative industries have boomed following a policy decision in 2005, with the ‘culture+technology’ model becoming central to its economy

City data: Key facts

  • Geographical area: 1,997sq. km
  • Total population: 10,778,900
  • Percentage of total national population living in the city: 0.8%
  • Education level – percentage with degree level or higher: 41.10%
  • GDP (PPP) million: $453,335
  • Percentage creative industries employment: 2.76%

By any standard, Shenzhen is a very new city. In 1980, when it became China’s first Special Economic Zone, it was a fishing town of 30,000. Since then it has become a world centre of manufacturing, specialising in electronics, software and telecommunications.

Today Shenzhen is a megacity, with a population of over 10 million. Of its residents, over 95% are Han Chinese. The city’s dramatic growth has been fuelled entirely by internal migration. Shenzhen is the largest migrant city in China: even now, millions of people lack permanent residency in Guangdong province, often living in factory dormitories. Although Shenzhen’s population is projected to increase to 12 million by 2025, its rate of growth has slowed dramatically. It is now facing a shortage of space for further expansion along with high housing prices.

It is part of a much larger mega-region, the Greater Pearl River Delta, which stretches from Hong Kong to Shenzhen to Guangzhou and embraces some 120 million people. Much of Shenzhen’s prosperity was built upon its nearness to Hong Kong’s open economy, but its growth and success means that it now can consider Hong Kong a competitor. A challenge for Shenzhen over the next decade will be to develop its own unique identity to differentiate itself from its powerful neighbours.

In 2005, when most Chinese cities were still developing their manufacturing base, Shenzhen developed a strategy to transition its economy. It aimed to develop four pillars: high technology, modern logistics, finance, and the cultural and creative industries. Since then, the cultural and creative industries have been growing by 20% annually: in 2014 they represented 9.8% of Shenzhen’s GDP. Areas of importance include design, software, animation and video games, new media, digital publishing, television and the performing arts. Shenzhen has a large creative workforce drawn from across China, and aims to become a city of innovation, focusing on digital, IT and ‘smart cities.’

At the same time Shenzhen has a massive population of rural migrant workers with limited education and no roots in the city. These are particularly concentrated in suburban districts such as Longgang, Longhua and Bao’an (which is 95% migrants). The city government faces the major challenge of providing cultural facilities and activities to these migrants and ensuring their integration into the life of the city. A Migrant Workers’ Cultural Festival helps to encourage participation.

Culture is now a priority for Shenzhen, which emphasises the right of citizens to cultural provision. The Publicity Department of the Shenzhen Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China has established a wide range of cultural facilities: by the end of 2013, Shenzhen had 633 public libraries, 34 museums, 20 theatres, and 11 public art galleries receiving more than 2 million visitors per year. Yet it still faces challenges: in particular it has many fewer universities and academic institutions than other leading Chinese cities. This lack of academic talent has impacted Shenzhen’s ability to define, create and assess its cultural offer as a city.

Shenzhen was named as a global model for the promotion of reading by UNESCO. Creating a reading culture is a key aim for the city, which sees reading as directly influencing its capacity to create and to compete economically. Shenzhen currently has four ‘book malls,’ each with over 10,000 square metres of floor space. The Shenzhen Book Mall in the city centre is arguably the city’s most vibrant public culture venue.

More informal participation in culture is also growing. One important cultural hub is OCT LOFT Creative Culture Park. Starting in 2003, a large state-owned enterprise, Overseas Chinese Town (OCT) Group, led the revitalisation of a former industrial district which has been converted into offices for creative businesses, bookshops, cafes, bars, artist studios and design shops. The LOFT hosts festivals and exhibitions and is also the home of OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, a major gallery for Chinese contemporary art.

For Shenzhen, culture is a concept that can be deployed across sectors to support innovation. The ‘culture+technology’ model is central to its economy, with examples including Tencent, China’s largest and most used Internet service portal, and Arton, a group that runs art spaces and an on-line art market. Similarly, the OCT group illustrates the ‘culture+tourism’ model.

Shenzhen hosts the China (Shenzhen) International Cultural Industries Fair (ICIF), run by the Chinese Ministries of Culture and of Commerce. In 2014 it attracted over 2,000 exhibitors, 17,000 overseas buyers and 5 million visitors. Another important event is the Shenzhen & Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture. Bringing together these two neighbouring cities, it is internationally unique in its focus on urbanism and urbanisation. It is sponsored by the Shenzhen Municipal Government and organised by Shenzhen Public Art Center.

After its amazing growth and development over the past three decades, Shenzhen now faces the challenge of transitioning into a mature city. Culture and creativity are key tools in the process, as Shenzhen works to develop its identity.