How do formal civic organizations shape—and how are they shaped by—the making and transformation of urban space? Place-oriented civil society research emphasizes the central role of civic organizations in producing and changing unequal political and economic orders of cities but largely ignores the intercity connections and competitions that contribute to these local civic dynamics in a global capitalist system. Critical urban studies, in contrast, recognizes the influences of global capitalism and local city boosterism on city development but overlooks the paradoxical roles of formal civic organizations. Bringing the two scholarly camps in dialogue, this article explores how formal civic organizations are situated in entrepreneurial city-making in the Global South, when city governments promote their competitive advantage by boosting “social innovation” through nonprofits. Drawing on survey, interview, and social media data from a random sample of nonprofits in Shenzhen, China, our preliminary results highlight that the Shenzhen municipal government’s agenda to promote both global capitalism and authoritarian rules have shaped the urban spaces where nonprofits form and operate. In turn, nonprofits mediate the negotiations between the local state, market, and urban residents to create, transform, and reinvent unequal physical, social, and digital urban space in this Silicon Valley of China.

A small woman in her late twenties, with horn-rimmed glasses, a blue polo shirt, and straight hair, Tanyang is the executive director (ED) of a nonprofit organization focusing on corporate social responsibility. She had just finished hosting a venture philanthropy pitch competition when we met in summer 2018. Standing in front of a twenty-three-foot-long LED display wall, her voice brimming with excitement, Tanyang told us about how the development of social impact bonds may herald a new future for the nonprofit sector in Shenzhen. Her organization had received several government grants to participate in creating an investing ecosystem for social impact in the Futian district to make Shenzhen, a city on the southeast coast of China, a leader in, as a Futian district government notice put it, “building an environment of global social impact investment in five years.”1 Huang Min, deputy mayor of Shenzhen, argued that social finance can combine the city’s “soft power” from local nonprofits and “hard power” as a world financial and innovation capital.2 Such an argument has helped emphasize so-called “social innovation” in Shenzhen as part of efforts to secure Shenzhen’s status as a competitive global city.

In a context of intensified global intercity competition, cities like Shenzhen are drawn into a race with cities at home and abroad for global investment (Douglass 2002). Public officials are searching for the best strategies to make, transform, and promote cities to maximize benefits from a local-global dialectic (Harvey 1989). Nonprofit leaders did not unanimously share city officials’ enthusiasm for intercity competition. In contrast to enthusiastic supporters like Tanyang, we met Pengcheng, the head of an organization that runs an afterschool program, who said: “I sense the prevailing impetuosity and anxiety in Shenzhen. Everyone seems restless, from the government officials to regular people. I think we all need to slow down and take the time to really think and act. Now we [in Shenzhen] are pushed to constantly compete for a good international rank and be a leading economic entity in the world. [It’s] too much pressure.”

The Shenzhen case raises a question: what makes a city a global city in the Global South? When Saskia Sassen popularized the term “global city” in 1991, with London, Tokyo, and New York serving as the prime examples, Shenzhen was only a third-tier city in China, best known as a gateway to Hong Kong. When you walked around in Luohu, where Shenzhen and Hong Kong meet, you would see fallow fields and fishponds and groups of local residents waiting to go to Hong Kong to work low-paying jobs and then smuggle back consumer commodities unavailable in mainland China. At that time, Shenzhen’s gross domestic product (GDP) was 95 percent less than that of Hong Kong. But thirty years later, Shenzhen has outgrown its neighbor in many respects. Waves of shimmering skyscrapers reflect this growth. It is not New York or London yet, but the political and economic elites in Shenzhen want it to be, not least to attract foreign investors and global talents. The Shenzhen government is now focusing on annexing Hong Kong by building a new “instant city” on land reclaimed from the bay, with six interlocking skyscrapers at the center, to house more than a million finance, technology, law, and medicine professionals from Hong Kong.

The Shenzhen city government’s embrace of social impact bonds is just one example of how civic engagement and social sectors have become part of an important pursuit through which cities creatively reimagine and innovate forms and norms of being urban and being global. Rather than simply focusing on projecting economic or political power, this government has translated and reappropriated the ideas and practices of civic engagement and social trust from abroad—from authoritarian and democratic cities alike—to promote prosocial behaviors in the authoritarian context. How do such inspirations shape civic organizations and their operations? How do civic organizations respond to the top-down attempt to model an image as a global “charitable city” when the Communist Party’s political control has been rapidly increasing at the national level? These questions are not simply of idiosyncratic interest to those concerned with urban development in Shenzhen or the Global South. Rather, they shed light on an understudied question central to civil society research and critical urban studies: how formal civic organizations such as nonprofits affect the making and transformation of urban space at the intersection of global capitalism and local city boosterism.

Civil society research has long acknowledged that informal social relations and social capital facilitated by formal nonprofit organizations are crucial to the vitality of cities (Brandtner and Dunning 2020; Marwell and McQuarrie 2013). After Robert Park (1915) started the tradition of examining the influences of social dynamics on urban spatial patterns, numerous studies have analyzed how local nonprofits shape the economic, political, and social environment of cities (Levine 2016; Rao and Greve 2018). For example, nonprofits can facilitate the transformation of inequalities, but they can also reproduce and strengthen the existing urban power structures (Marwell, Marantz, and Baldassarri 2020; Vargas 2019).

While yielding notable insights, this line of research predominantly treats nonprofit organizations as being bound by particular places, histories, materials, and people. Urban life is studied as unitary and naturally related to, and fixed within, geographic city territories. Scholars have hence attended much more to processes within city boundaries than connections across those taken-for-granted boundaries such that they have lost sight of how disparate cities, especially global cities, are tightly linked through a global capitalist system. Indeed, this literature has largely underplayed how the locations of different global cities—especially those in the Global South—in the unequal world system and global supply chain are manifested in the configuration of inequalities in social life in those cities.

Critical urban studies, meanwhile, highlight that many global cities in the Global South, including Shenzhen, have bought into the entrepreneurial urbanization paradigm originating in the United States (Harvey 1989; Hall and Hubbard 1998; Jessop 1997; MacLeod and Jones 2011). Concerned not only with managerial commitments such as extending social services and collective consumption to their local citizens, entrepreneurial cities are also oriented toward economic growth and urban development as a means to claim a place in the international competition for capital and talent. For instance, Austin, Texas, approved high tax breaks and other benefits to attract Tesla away from California in a move presented as making Austin the “new Seattle” or “next San Francisco” (Egan 2021). Although scholars first noticed this transition from inward- to outward-focused urban governance in countries in the Global North (Cox 1993; Leitner 1990; Paddison 1993), this post-Fordist Keynesian shift has been crystallizing in many low- and middle-income countries, where urbanization did not take off until the 1980s. As with their northern counterparts, southern entrepreneurial city-making hinges on not only innovating more urban space and place for market production and consumption, but also formulating and marketing a particular image and identity. More and more city governments are taking “an extrospective, reflexive, and aggressive posture on the part of local elites and states” by “actively—and responsively—scan[ning] the horizon for investment and promotion opportunities, monitoring ‘competitors’ and emulating ‘best practice’” (Peck and Tickell 2003, 47).

Our discussion hence is built upon the proposition that entrepreneurial city-building across the Global South capitalizes on various utopian ideas and practices of the “world-class” city to experiment and reinvent urban models on a much larger scale at a much faster speed. The term “Shenzhen speed” was coined in 1985 to describe the construction of the fifty-three-story World Trade Tower in Shenzhen, the tallest building in China at the time, for which workers put up one floor every three days. This term projected a new exemplar of urban modernity that cities throughout China began to emulate. The motto of building newer, building bigger, and building faster then went beyond economic growth to intercity competitions in “people-centered” domains such as arts, culture, aesthetics, knowledge, environment, progressive politics, and even morality (Ghertner 2015; Lowry and McCann 2011). Different cities gather various heterogeneous ideas, rules, visions, actors, and resources from the local and everywhere else with distinct and often contradictory rationalities and aspirations (McFarlane 2011; McCann 2011; Parnell and Oldfield 2014; Roy 2009; Sheppard, Leitner, and Maringanti 2013). Much of the critical urban studies literature stresses how southern global cities rethink various models of urban governance derived from the North and reinvent the notion of being urban itself. As Ong (2011, 2) points out, these southern cities are “fertile sites, not for following an established pathway or master blueprint, but for a plethora of situated experiments that reinvent what urban norms can count as ‘global.’”

While stressing the impact of labor, capital, land, and technologies in making global cities, however, critical urban studies have not systematically examined formal civic organizations in those “situated experiments.” Some studies take for granted that “authentic” societal forces can serve as a counterpower to many detrimental consequences of entrepreneurial urbanism, especially rapidly widening inequality (Atia 2019; He and Lin 2015; Lee and Hwang 2012; Mbaye and Dinardi 2019; Wu and Zhang 2021). Analyses regularly valorize societal actors and their localized social and cultural context in opposition to policy elites and market forces, especially in the authoritarian context. However, a much smaller body of research has shown that civic groups and marginal urban populations are not necessarily consonant (Nijman 2008). For example, nonprofit organizations and activists helped to incorporate slums into entrepreneurial urbanization in India against the will of many impoverished communities by prioritizing international financial processes in resolving poverty (McFarlane 2012). Some studies also call for more attention to the collaborations rather than antagonism between state and society (Chu 2018). Formal nonprofit organizations provide an important site where struggles around urban development are often expressed in complex alliances and oppositions that elide the categories of the global and the local.

In this article, we bridge the gap between civil society research and critical urban studies by exploring the interactions between civic organizations and the rise and changes of global cities in the Global South, using Shenzhen as a case study. Based on preliminary data analysis, we argue that formal civic organizations play an indispensable role in making Shenzhen a global city through shaping cooperation and conflict between local state, market, and urban residents over urban spatial inequality. On the one hand, the Shenzhen government promotes the development of nonprofits as a way to gain legitimacy and competitive advantage in the transnational capital market. On the other hand, nonprofits participate in the creation, transformation, and reinvention of unequal physical, social, and digital urban space, which simultaneously facilitates and/or resists the government’s cosmopolitan ambition.

Our analysis aims to highlight the role of formal civic organizations in various forms of entrepreneurial city-making in an authoritarian context. Shenzhen was founded as an entry point for China’s opening up to the world, bringing in international capital, technology, and management knowledge. It has also served as a laboratory for market reform and urban development. The social impact bonds Tanyang extolled are just one of an eclectic mix of urban initiatives implemented over two decades to achieve world recognition and claim a place in First World economy and civilization for Shenzhen by forging a thriving nonprofit sector. Making Shenzhen an attractive site of capital accumulation has always been a major focus of such initiatives. But since the mid-2000s, Shenzhen’s search for intercity competitive advantages has changed to people-centered activities designed to narrate and advance a definition of the city. The municipal government has been learning, replicating, and inventing policies around the nonprofit sector to measure up to what it considers to be the global standards of cosmopolitan norms and design in order to outperform urban centers both domestically and internationally. Nonprofits have hence become, like finance and technology, another hallmark of modernity pursuit, or local institutional innovation, in Shenzhen.

Shenzhen’s officials are implementing what we term glauthoritarian urbanization, a portmanteau formed with the words global and authoritarian. We follow on what Bob Jessop (1998, 2002) terms glurbanization pursued by cities to enhance or maintain their economic, social, and cultural competitiveness against other cities and regions in the global economic market. To his insights, we add the understanding that authoritarian rules increasingly take place in and through urban governance, which is embedded in global intercity competition. Local states are supposed to provide public goods to society in order to maintain performance legitimacy while clamping down on political dissidents. City governments are therefore seeking through glauthoritarian urbanization to promote their place-based competitive advantages to attract global mobile capital and lock local capital in place while dismantling democratic norms and practices from the outside.

The concept of glauthoritarian urbanization reinforces prior research highlighting how urban development in Shenzhen is embedded in the transnational flows of capital, ideas, ideology, populations, and technologies (O’Donnell, Wong, and Bach 2017; F. Yang 2017). Formal societal actors are a crucial part of glauthoritarian urbanization. Whereas neoliberal urban forms decentralize decision-making or downscale the government, Shenzhen’s city government expects nonprofits to improve the efficient distribution of social services and attract talented professionals, increasing Shenzhen’s legitimacy, prestige, and status in global competition without posing a political threat. Central to all these roles is promoting social innovation through combining technological tools and market-oriented corporate management to cultivate a white-collar work force and to fuel capitalist growth. For example, nonprofits are encouraged to adopt information communication technologies as a managerial tool and contribute to their development in urban governance.

Glauthoritarian urbanization differs from urbanism in that it is a continuing battle rather than an omnipresent or omnipotent entity as nonprofits either strengthen, combat, or mitigate the Shenzhen government’s entrepreneurial city-making. Neither the market nor the state can assume dominance over the other, but their attempts to do so generate ambivalent subjectivities and unexpected opportunities for dissent. Organizations such as the one led by Tanyang actively support the government’s dominance and shape the execution and outcome of entrepreneurial urbanization on the ground. By contrast, many others, like the one led by Pengcheng, contest the government’s monopoly by formulating an alternative usage and vision for urban development and imagining a different global Shenzhen.

In what follows, we demonstrate that the glauthoritarian process carves out three urban spaces: physical and nonphysical (both social and digital) ones where nonprofit organizations can form and operate. However, the Shenzhen government’s agenda to promote both global capitalism and authoritarian rules has received divergent responses from nonprofits. We examine how the pursuit of the global provides opportunities and constraints for formal civic organizations in those three forms of space, on the one hand, and how different nonprofits either support or contest the government’s cosmopolitan vision by shaping the configurations and functioning of physical, social, and digital spaces in Shenzhen, on the other. While nonprofits largely consent to the idea that Shenzhen is a global finance and technology center for middle-class professionals, many of them challenge the government’s vision by fighting to alleviate the inequality associated with hierarchical city land planning that prioritizes capital accumulation; to resist party-state encroachment on the business sector; and to uphold individual liberty and citizens’ rights. These different ways of engaging in city-making end up generating new forms of social relations, altering the conventional spatial meaning of social trust and “local communities.”

In this research, we adopt a structuralist definition of civil society as “a sector of organized human action composed of collective actors beyond the family and distinct from the state and the market” (Viterna, Clough, and Clarke 2015, 175), in order to recognize those complex and often contradictory orientations, roles, and functions of civic organizations. Among variegated groups that shape the contours of civil society in the region, we particularly focus on formal civic organizations that are legally registered as nonprofit organizations (shenhui zuzhi) with the Civil Affairs Department. Unlike informal organizations or networks, the registered status of these organizations allows them to operate publicly in the urban space that the state and capital are trying to define.

Between 2018 and 2020, we conducted 203 in-person surveys and structured interviews with nonprofit leaders in Shenzhen. The survey and interview lasted 1–7 hours with an average length of 2.5 hours. Participants were recruited from among 510 nonprofits randomly selected from a list of 9,139 registered nonprofit organizations from the Shenzhen Municipal Bureau of Civil Affairs in 2017. This sample contains an array of nonprofits of different sizes and from different working domains, such as human services, health, education, environment, sports, arts, and culture. The 40 percent response rate reflects the challenges of random sampling. Recruitment was a long process. We spent 1.5 months in Shenzhen attending numerous community gatherings, workshops, and conferences of nonprofits in order to build local connections and advertise our research project. We made every effort to persuade nonprofits on our list to participate by repeated phone calls, emails, and WeChat messaging. When those approaches did not work, an invitation was delivered in person. It usually took several such contacts to convince a nonprofit to participate. Additionally, we conducted 48 expert interviews with local government officials, academics, nonprofit sector leaders, and activists recruited through personal and professional networks.

Supplementing survey and interview data, we have been following the WeChat public accounts of nonprofits in our sample during the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in December 2019. We have extracted more than ten thousand posts where organizations documented their activities and challenges during the pandemic. Most contained more than six hundred Chinese characters plus other media formats and linkages. WeChat is an integrated social media platform, the fifth most popular social network app worldwide. As an open ecosystem, it not only develops its own complementary applications (i.e., Official Accounts, WeChat Pay) but also serves as a technological foundation to allow third-party applications (i.e., maps, ride-sharing apps) to build on it through the open APIs. WeChat thus functions as an “everything app” with features such as news, games, banking, food delivery, taxi hailing, bill payment, and user communication. The WeChat data supports our explorations of urban digital space, in addition to the configurations of physical and social spaces revealed by survey and interviews.

Our sampling strategy has several limitations: First, official records can be incomplete and sometimes inaccurate. Since the registration list that we used included inactive organizations and those that had moved out of the city or become commercial entities, we replaced such organizations by randomly drawing replacements from the original list. In this way, our sample organizations were all active and functioning. Secondly, formal civic organizations comprise a fraction of civil society. The observations we generated from this sample show only the dynamics between the state, the market, and formally organized civic activities, since our sampling method excluded informal, non-registered civic organizations. This limitation is less severe in Shenzhen than in other cities in China, as it was the first city in the country to reform registration regulations, in 2004, and had drastically relaxed the restrictions and procedures by 2010. Informal grassroots organizations in the city face much fewer obstacles in obtaining legal status because of this change (Spires and Dai 2018). Thirdly, while our response rate was high for research on civil organizations in China (Zhan and Tang 2016) and nonprofit studies in general (LeRoux and Langer 2019), and response rates across different organization types were similar, with one exception, we cannot eliminate the possibility that differences between the studied organizations and those that chose not to participate could potentially produce bias. For instance, education nonprofits, including privately owned nonprofit schools (minban xuexiao) and day cares (minban youeryuan) had a low response rate, and these organizations could have a more important impact on urban life than our analysis here acknowledges (Small 2009).

Due to our analytical focus on cities rather than countries, we chose Shenzhen as an outward-looking, market-driven, entrepreneurial global city, famous for its relatively open political environment. As a young city with special economic zone status, it carries much fewer socialist traditions such as top-down centralized state control. Compared to other major Chinese cities, Shenzhen’s local government is quite small. In 2020 the ratio of government employees to the total population in Shenzhen was 1:41 (Shenzhen Municipality Bureau of Statistics and Survey Office of the National Bureau of Statistics in Shenzhen 2021, 3, 63). In contrast, in Shanghai, the percentage of government employees in local communities was 23.2 percent (1:4.3), and in the migrant enclaves, 8.4 percent (1:12) (Ouyang et al. 2017). In Beijing, the density of government workers is believed to be even higher, although official data are not publicly accessible. The much smaller government in Shenzhen comprises many more liberal-oriented officials who allowed our research activities to proceed amid an increasingly tightened political environment.

As the experimental-spirited vanguard in social reforms, the financially well-off yet understaffed municipal government eagerly promotes the development of civic organizations to share the task of social service provision. The small size of government and the large population create a huge gap between the number of public institutions and the demands of Shenzhen’s urban residents.3 Meanwhile, the affluent municipal government has a revenue exceeding 800 billion yuan (USD 118 billion) in 2017, with a year-on-year increase of 11.1 percent.

This section presents exploratory findings on how nonprofits respond to and intervene in the dialectic interactions between the city government, business sector, and city residents that created and transformed inequality of physical, social, and digital space. Throughout the analysis, we highlight how Shenzhen’s transition from a world factory to Asia’s Silicon Valley—with its changing position in the global economy—has affected its urban civic dynamics. The local state practices and modern imagining are deeply influenced by its desire to compete well and move up the hierarchy of world cities, which is now propelling the Shenzhen government to emphasize a prosocial civil environment conforming to liberal values in order to attract and retain investors and high-tech labor forces. Such pursuit of a cosmopolitan future opened opportunities for nonprofits. With divergent standpoints and approaches, nonprofits contribute to the particular configurations of physical space, certain definitions of desirable talents, and technological aspirations of social innovation in Shenzhen. Either explicitly or inexplicitly, they maintain, enhance, and/or contest the glauthoritarian urbanization project.

Glauthoritarian Physical Space: Urban Spatial Hierarchy and Community Embeddedness

Like other global cities (Caldeira 2001), Shenzhen comprises a hierarchical system of urban space. It has ten functionally specialized districts divided by physical, administrative, and social boundaries. Most other Chinese cities inherited a large amount of work-unit (danwei) compounds from the socialist era that functioned as places for work and public housing as well as urban services ranging from schools to funeral homes. In Shenzhen, by contrast, the city government was one of the earliest to work with private developers to promote large, private infrastructure projects and commodity estates where most people nowadays live. While allowing global and local market forces to continue unfettered, the municipal administration regulates sociospatial segregation at the district level. Each district hosts drastically different types and scales of industrial, commercial, and residential enclaves containing economically or administratively classified groups subjected to various governance regimes.

While scholars have recognized the significance of spatial hierarchy in enabling growth while upgrading selected urban spaces to project a prosperous city (Lindtner 2020), this section interrogates nonprofits’ conflicting roles in perpetuating and disputing such divisive and segregating arrangement. The spatial pecking order intertwined with economic and social inequalities delimits where and how nonprofits can operate. Glauthoritarian urbanization entails restraints and pressure imposed by both the government and the real estate market. In response, some nonprofits embrace the unequal configuration of metropolitan spaces while others explore ways to counter it.

Glauthoritarian spatial hierarchy is reflected in the geography of nonprofit organizations and social bonds (see table 1). Comparing across districts, nonprofits are concentrated in the wealthy, resourceful city centers, and nonprofit density drops sharply in peripheral areas. The top-tier districts (in darker blue in table 1) directly border Hong Kong and accommodate mostly highly educated professionals. Futian and Luohu, where the municipal government bureaus are located, are considered two of the central districts for politics and commerce. Nanshan, the home of massive technology companies such as Tencent, Huawei, and ZTE, ranked top in GDP output. It has become the city center in recent years. The second tier includes Bao’an, Longhua, and Longgang (in lighter blue), which are adjacent to the center, with a heavy presence of manufacturing industries as well as a larger population of migrant workers.4 The other four districts (in white), on the outskirts, are the products of rapid urban expansion in recent decades. The combined population in the peripheral districts is one-tenth that of the rest of the city, and total GDP is only one-eighth. Since Shenzhen’s size is 30 percent larger than London, for example, social interaction across districts is not easy. Traveling from central to peripheral districts takes hours through long tunnels in the mountains, which move one from crowded skyscrapers to dusty construction sites, factories, and shantytowns. Home prices range from USD 500 to USD 6,000 per square foot.

Table 1. Information on Shenzhen’s ten administrative districts (compiled from Shenzhen Yearbook 2021)
District Land Area (sq. km) Nonregistered Population (10,000 persons) GDP (billion RMB) Migrant Population Ratio District-Level Organizations Participating in Survey 
Futian 78.66 80.42 475.4 52% 19 
Nanshan 187.53 94.62 650.2 52% 
Luohu 78.75 63.87 237.5 56% 14 
Bao’an 396.61 360.52 384.7 80% 17 
Longhua 175.58 195.11 249.3 77% 15 
Longgang 388.22 289.73 474.4 72% 11 
Yantian 74.99 12.81 65.8 60% 
Guangming 155.44 95.94 110.1 87% 
Pingshan 166.31 43.37 80.1 78% 
Dapeng 295.38 11.26 34 72% 
District Land Area (sq. km) Nonregistered Population (10,000 persons) GDP (billion RMB) Migrant Population Ratio District-Level Organizations Participating in Survey 
Futian 78.66 80.42 475.4 52% 19 
Nanshan 187.53 94.62 650.2 52% 
Luohu 78.75 63.87 237.5 56% 14 
Bao’an 396.61 360.52 384.7 80% 17 
Longhua 175.58 195.11 249.3 77% 15 
Longgang 388.22 289.73 474.4 72% 11 
Yantian 74.99 12.81 65.8 60% 
Guangming 155.44 95.94 110.1 87% 
Pingshan 166.31 43.37 80.1 78% 
Dapeng 295.38 11.26 34 72% 

This uneven distribution of people and resources can be partially ascribed to some district governments’ varying developmental priorities. The pressure of global intercity competition is transmitted to every level of city administration. Although districts have relative regulatory autonomy, the administrations are expected to compete with each other in formulating new policy tools and bettering urban development. Both Futian and Luohu districts modeled themselves after other Western cities and invested heavily in social innovation as part of their “good governance” identity and image. In line with our understanding that the Futian district has been particularly eager to jump on the newest trend to outperform others, in expert interviews, informants from Futian frequently dropped buzzwords such as AI, blockchain, impact investing, and ecological urbanization. Its newest strategic plan proclaims its goals to “become a socialist model urban district with first-class urban governance and top-ranked urban development providing high-quality public goods to the people by 2025” and to “set the standard for global cities by 2050.”5 Nanshan district, however, is lagging behind the two second-tiered districts because it did not stress nonprofits’ roles, except for service delivery, until 2018.

District governments deploy both administrative and spatial tools to shape the geographic distribution of nonprofits. On the one hand, district officials control nonprofit registration within their jurisdiction. On the other hand, they selectively provide space free of charge to certain nonprofits since government agencies are the largest landlord in Shenzhen. Among our 203 sample nonprofits, the spaces that they utilize mainly come from two sources: 30 percent of offices are commercial rentals, and 28 percent are provided by government agencies for free (see figure 1).

Figure 1. Providers of nonprofits’ office spaces.
Figure 1. Providers of nonprofits’ office spaces.
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Figure 2. Grouping by organization’s areas of activities.
Figure 2. Grouping by organization’s areas of activities.
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As one of the most expensive rental markets in China, Shenzhen’s real estate prices could easily cripple nonprofits. “Space is the most important thing for my organization,” said the director of a small community sports association. “A shared space is good enough as long as it is stable.” The director of a community art organization expressed similar concerns: “I would burn the highest incense every day [i.e., be very grateful] for anyone who could provide me free space. Without it, we could not organize any activity.” The director of a senior association told us, “We have no fixed location. We gather on the street. If it rains, we use the covered space in between skyscrapers.” He was not alone; almost 10 percent of nonprofits in our sample do not have office space. Another 42 percent of our organizations relocated during the three years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, governmental registration requirements and the pricey real estate market often place nonprofits between a rock and a hard place. The ED of a senior care nonprofit described his struggles to maneuver in the physical space demarcated by the local state, market, and community thus:

Nonprofits do not have ample funding to survive in the commercial rental market. A decent space often costs a fortune, but affordable places may not fulfill the official registration requirements or fire safety laws. To make matters worse, we often face the “NIMBY effect”—some residents would love to have a senior service organization right around the corner, but many who have no need for such care vigorously oppose us settling in the neighborhood.

Given the struggles nonprofits face, free space from the government is a precious gift. According to senior associations and volunteer groups, the most precious space comes from local party committees, as these committees’ offices usually occupy the most expensive central space within residential communities. The ED of a music association said that some nonprofits “work really hard” to build government connections in order to obtain such advantages.

However, nonprofits in possession of government-bestowed physical space are particularly cautious about the glauthoritarian project. Such space comes with an obligation to engage in ideological training workshops. Local government agents are also more likely to assign nonmission tasks to nonprofits that are near them. An affluent business association had actually moved out of government-sponsored free space because, as the ED put it, “to maintain independent operation is important.”

Nonprofits have complicated relationships with the challenging spatial arrangement in Shenzhen created by both the government and real estate developers. On the one hand, physical space models the ways in which an organization interacts with its beneficiaries and the public. The ED of a nonprofit dance troop complained: “If we could have a better space for activities, we would definitely have more beneficiaries coming.” Office-based work, defined as having beneficiaries coming to where the organization is located, is a primary mode of operation for nonprofits, especially those working in education and research, health, law, advocacy, and politics, as well as intermediary organizations (see figure 2).

On the other hand, nonprofits explore various ways to overcome physical confinement and create social bonds across enclaves. About two-fifths of the nonprofits, 39 percent, spent more time reaching out to beneficiaries and members than receiving them in their offices, and 35 percent behaved oppositely.6 Thirty-four organizations are 100 percent site-based, and twenty-four organizations are 100 percent office-based. Eighteen organizations do more than half of their work virtually.

Another way to maneuver for space is to register with the municipal rather than the district government, which 54 percent had done. Nonprofits registered at a district level are not allowed to operate outside the district boundaries, but municipal-registered organizations can operate throughout the city. Almost three-quarters (74 percent) of them are located in the top-tier districts (see figure 3). The nonprofits concentrated in the top three districts also build more connections across heterogeneous enclaves by conducting citywide site-based work (see figure 4). By contrast, office-based organizations tend to be confined to serving local neighborhoods and districts. These strategies of utilizing space show nonprofits’ dexterity in breaking spatial constraints set up either by the real estate market or the state, and in the meantime perhaps unintentionally contest spatial hierarchy created during glauthoritarian urbanization.

Figure 3. Registration status of 203 sample organizations.
Figure 3. Registration status of 203 sample organizations.
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Figure 4. The geographical range of organizations’ work.
Figure 4. The geographical range of organizations’ work.
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Figure 5. Frequency and intensity of interactions between staff and beneficiaries.
Figure 5. Frequency and intensity of interactions between staff and beneficiaries.
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Figure 6. The perceived significance of interactions with beneficiaries/members.
Figure 6. The perceived significance of interactions with beneficiaries/members.
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Figure 7. Nonprofits’ areas of activities.
Figure 7. Nonprofits’ areas of activities.
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From a different angle, Shenzhen nonprofits challenge us to reconsider the spatial meaning of interpersonal relations and community-based activities. Scholars from various traditions celebrate civic organizations working at the neighborhood level as channels of social integration and “authentic antidotes” to capitalist alienation and bureaucratic dehumanization (Marwell and McQuarrie 2013, 128). In Shenzhen, however, office-based organizations serving neighborhoods are bigger than site-based organizations, with 64 percent more funding and more support from the government. Physical proximity to beneficiaries does not translate into popular terms such as grassroots and social integration across lines of difference.

Ironically, even though office-based organizations interact with beneficiaries more frequently and intensively (figure 5), site-based organizations put more emphasis on connecting with beneficiaries and members (figure 6). In an urban space carved out by the state and market, site-based organizations especially need to follow the logics of capital or to rely on existing institutional infrastructure in order to maintain, expand, and deepen their interactions with targeted populations. Twenty percent of our sample organizations reported that they utilized intermediary organizations to reach their beneficiaries. These intermediary organizations are mostly affiliated with either large corporations (mostly businesses in technology and online media) or the government (e.g., local government agencies, government-sponsored nonprofit federations, nonprofit incubators). With such connections, site-based organizations try to navigate the confined space in between state and market to interact with beneficiaries. But success is not guaranteed.

The case of a disability organization struggling to recruit people with special needs to join its free ride-sharing program, “Uber for all,” illustrates the challenges the spatial constraints that stem from glauthoritarian urbanization impose on nonprofits registered at the municipal level when they seek to connect to beneficiaries. The organization began by collaborating with China’s largest ride-sharing company, hoping its massive user network would facilitate the project launch. However, the tech firm soon abandoned the project due to the “low projected profitability in the long run.” “Of course user growth is slow,” the director, Mr. Chen, lamented. “Disabled people in Shenzhen simply do not go out except to go to hospitals. The city has nowhere for them to go.” The city’s accessibility infrastructure lags far behind the rapid urban development. “But this is exactly why our project is important,” said Chen. His nonprofit later searched for help from the government-organized Federation of Disabled People, but was disappointed. “The federation supported our idea,” Chen said, “but when it comes to using their beneficiary networks, they firmly rejected us.” His organization was still pushing for the project when we conducted the interview. He described a new plan he was seeking to implement: “Let’s go to the communities one by one. We no longer rely on federations or companies or whatever; we are finding our own way to reach beneficiaries.”

Glauthoritarian Social Space: People, Organizational Sites, and Social Connections

Civic organizations are regularly applauded as representing collective commitment by the people to improving human well-being for the people. But who are the people? The answers are even more dubious in global cities, which are typically fragmented as a mélange of political, cultural, and especially social spaces occupied by various strata of residents. Scrutinizing the “people” of nonprofits—beneficiaries, members, leaders, staff, and volunteers—we capture a microcosm of urban life that reflects the interweaving of global and local structures and interactions in a migrant city.

The expansion of the white-collar professional bourgeoisie and working-class migrant laborers are both critical parcels of the Shenzhen social landscape. While the former’s struggle in an uncertain glauthoritarian context registers as the center of civic life, the capitalist exploitation of the latter becomes marginalized if not forgotten. Not only do nonprofits want to hire more professionals, they also want to serve professionals working for knowledge-based industries, as they see them as a key part of the city’s cosmopolitan future.


Around the world, the definitions and meanings of “the people” vary from city to city depending on factors such as class, religion, ethnicity, and immigrant status (Garrido 2019). In Shenzhen, one of the deciding factors is people’s household registration status (hukou). The “migrants” in the city are people who work and live in Shenzhen while being denied permanent residency rights and most of the associated social benefits. Most are from rural areas. Shenzhen has been built on the blood and sweat of millions of migrant workers; those migrants and their children cannot stay for long because educational opportunities, health-care access, and property rights, among others, are reserved for people with Shenzhen hukou.7 They work in factory compounds and live in nearby urban villages in the second-tier districts that account for less than 10 percent of the total building areas in Shenzhen (Huang 2017). Walking around these areas in the summer, we must carefully avoid exposed electric cables hanging everywhere and free-flowing sewage while trying not to be knocked down by the smell of sweat, cigarettes, and mold.

The composition of nonprofits’ beneficiaries reflects developmental priorities in glauthoritarian urbanization. Migrant laborers are not the main focus of Shenzhen nonprofits, which are tilting toward areas that promote businesses and professions, culture and recreation, and social services for urban permanent residents. Organizations working in these areas account for 67 percent of the sample (see figure 7). A typical organization in our sample serves more hukou holders than nonholders. Since government contracts are the biggest source of income (38 percent) for nonprofits in our sample, the fact that government service contracts exclude non-hukou holders has certainly encouraged nonprofits, especially social service organizations, to focus on hukou holders. However, the institutional environment is not the only factor here, especially when individual donations (26 percent), earned income (18 percent), and corporate donations (11 percent) together account for 55 percent of nonprofits’ funding sources. The leader of one service organization proudly explained to us that his organization no longer serves unskilled migrant laborers, saying:

Our beneficiaries are top-notch talents, many of whom work in high-tech industries. They have such high academic credentials. We have had to improve ourselves accordingly…. It’s no longer about how to resolve the problems of basic life necessities but spiritual pursuits and other higher-level needs.

The organization’s change in targeted beneficiaries reflects the accelerated demographic changes in Shenzhen. Since the early 2010s, the city government has been offering hukou and lucrative benefit packages to attract more highly educated professionals in a race against other rising Chinese cities. In 2020 alone, the population with hukou increased by 18.7 percent. The city government especially favors people with doctoral degrees under thirty-five years old. Emphasizing middle-class professionals as part of the city’s image and branding is utilized in other metropolitan areas in the Global South (Roy 2011). As Chinese president Xi Jinping said during his visit in 2020 to mark the fortieth anniversary of Shenzhen’s becoming China’s first special economic zone, “Shenzhen should implement a more open-talent policy to attract and retain scientific and technological leaders, tech-savvy young people, and high-level innovative teams, talents from all over the world on par with international standards.”8

Many nonprofit executives we interviewed emphasized the “talented people” (ren cai) whom they see as the future of Shenzhen. These statements challenge the traditional idea that civic organizations represent the marginalized (Goldstein 2017; Small 2004; Warren and Mapp 2011). The head of an environmental organization said, “In the future, Shenzhen only wants high-tech talent. It’ll be just like Silicon Valley. A good environment is the precondition [for attracting those professionals]. Making the city green is designed to make the city more attractive.” Business and industrial associations, unsurprisingly, were particularly enthusiastic about serving white-collar professionals whom they see as key to Shenzhen’s economic growth as a cosmopolitan megacity. As the ED of a fiber industrial association commented:

Convincing talent to take root here is hard…. Good policies alone aren’t enough. We must provide good service to help keep them here. Our members are worried about losing talent [to other cities and countries]. When I took some of our members to visit Russia this year, I found out that Russian fiber enterprises are worried about losing their talent to China. It’s an international competition.

The visibility of different populations in the civic space is hence not even. For instance, a Shenzhen nonprofit typically does not serve elders (see figure 8). A good portion serve minors, but once that group is excluded, those serving adults largely serve people who have a college degree. Only eight (4 percent) in our sample work exclusively with members or beneficiaries with no college degree.

Figure 8. Age of a typical beneficiary.
Figure 8. Age of a typical beneficiary.
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Figure 9. Education of a typical beneficiary.
Figure 9. Education of a typical beneficiary.
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Nonetheless, a handful of nonprofits do provide valuable spaces of bridging and bonding for urban residents of heterogeneous demands and interests. These spaces are coded as homogeneously middle-class social spaces, in line with what the state and the capital market seek for their economic development agenda. In our sample, the average percentage of employees without Shenzhen hukou is 30 percent. Only 32 percent of organizations have matching hukou status—that is, both staff and beneficiaries have Shenzhen hukou, or neither has. Nine percent of organizations in our sample rely on staff members with hukou to serve beneficiaries without hukou, while 4 percent of organizations rely on staff without hukou to serve beneficiaries with hukou.

Migrant laborers were once a salient force shaping the civic life of Shenzhen. However, the economic transformation of the city and national political changes in the whole country have drastically reduced the significance of these laborers. In the early 2000s, the vast inflow of migrant laborers gave rise to the emergence and rapid development of grassroots civic organizations advocating for labor rights. Many liberal-oriented officials in Shenzhen also tried to grapple with massive labor unrest by experimenting with various reforms, including allowing community-based unionism, which was strictly banned in the rest of the country (Lin 2021). Several labor advocacy organizations were allowed to register as nonprofits in the early 2010s, which is indicative of a relatively open political environment. However, a series of campaigns were launched around the country against labor activists at the end of 2015, which marked the start of a gloomy and long winter for social movements in China. The space for local reform in Shenzhen has been severely curtailed as the Chinese Communist Party at the central level has been tightening its political control. As the city was leaving its reputation as the world’s factory behind, it was also the first to bear the brunt in 2017 when the US-China trade war began to take shape. The economic crisis on the horizon further pushed the city government to prioritize economic growth at any cost, which extinguished the last hope for any labor reform. Both of the labor advocacy nonprofits we selected in our random draw declined our requests for an interview in 2018, and both closed in 2019.

Most of the attention to migrant populations in nonprofits is in education, and such organizations are bringing people from different backgrounds together, building trust and social bonds, and fostering behaviors and opportunities that help migrants to achieve social mobility. The president of a private elementary school we interviewed prides himself on leading an organization that offers high-quality liberal arts education to children from migrant families who are excluded from public education systems. He told how he would stand at the front gate to high-five or shake hands with each student every day, welcoming them to campus. “Children need to learn the importance of dignity and equality,” he told us. “I want to show my respect for them. Authorities do not have to be hierarchical.”

Leaders and Staff

The internal composition of nonprofits further uncovers the sector’s propensity to mainly represent and serve the interests of middle-class professionals. While such propensity is aligned with glauthoritarian urbanization’s emphasis on promoting capitalist development, the nonprofit sector’s close relationships with the business sector propel nonprofits to defend and bolster market influences, even against the government. However, fierce market competition in turn makes it challenging for nonprofits to hire and retain professional employees.

Nonprofit leaders in Shenzhen overall are themselves highly educated professionals driven by passion and desire to better society (see figure 10). Only 29 percent of Shenzhen residents with hukou have a college degree or above, but 74 percent of executives we interviewed do, and more than half a percent of those who have a college degree have advanced professional degrees such as MD or PhD. These eight leaders are currently heading professional health-care associations, nonprofit research institutes, entrepreneur networks, book clubs, and a religious organization.

Figure 10. Educational level of Eds.
Figure 10. Educational level of Eds.
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About two-thirds of EDs emphasized the significance of selflessness and sacrifice in their work. “To be a nonprofit leader, you should not prioritize your personal interest,” the head of a research society said. “It’s only the leaders with a public spirit and the willingness to serve the people who are capable of getting it done; an egotistical, self-centered person would never achieve anything.” Many explicitly talked about how they had already achieved economic security and making money was no longer important to them personally. Beneficiaries consisting largely of middle-class professionals require nonprofit EDs to come from an elite background. The head of a chamber of commerce stated: “A nonprofit leader must be able to see the big picture from a strategic point of view. They should be a leading figure of industry to lead us forward.”

Managing the ever-growing presence of an authoritarian state is high on nonprofit leaders’ agendas. Besides expertise and authority in the relevant field, nonprofit executives also accentuate the importance of relational expertise in helping organizations to succeed. The director of a business association describes how he envisions an ideal nonprofit leader: someone who “appreciate[s] the industry [and] knows how to lead, how to rally and motivate people, how to cultivate a good relationship with the government and how to make our voice heard.” The director of a nonprofit advocating for community building said relational expertise is important due to the local nature of policies. “Interpreting policies,” she explained, “you need to consider the realities of a given neighborhood or community. A good leader reads and internalizes the policies and then taps into her very rich firsthand experience connecting with people and authorities.”

To understand nonprofit leaders in Shenzhen is to contest the simplified conventional portraits of nonprofit organizations “as a bulwark or counterweight to market influence” (Reckhow 2020, 225). Fifty-six percent of the leaders have worked in corporations. Figure 11 maps nonprofit executives’ work experience prior to their current positions onto organizations’ fields of activities. Each circle represents a sample organization with circle size displaying its annual budget (in 10,000 RMB). The concentration of circles suggests correlations between certain career trajectories and nonprofits’ activities. Overall, leaders with previous experience in corporations tend to work for business and professional associations, and those with previous experience in nonprofits in the field of culture and recreation. Social service organizations are commonly headed by individuals who previously worked at for-profit companies or other nonprofit organizations. The general pattern suggests that the business sector may exert significant influence on the nonprofit sector through the dispositions that leaders carry over from their previous work.

Figure 11. Nonprofit EDs’ prior work experiences and areas of activities.
Figure 11. Nonprofit EDs’ prior work experiences and areas of activities.
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Leaders of business and professional associations as well as educational organizations were particularly outspoken about the urgency of defending the private market against the intrusion of the state. The ED of an industrial association was burdened with worries:

The state enterprises advance, the private sectors retreat (guo jin min tui). [If the trend continues,] private enterprises would cease to exist… You girls [interviewers] are too young to know what the planned economy was like. There were only state-run enterprises. National policies are turning back the wheel of history. What’s going to happen next? Would we be allowed to exist anymore?

Such sense of crisis is commonly shared by the leaders of nonprofit day cares, afterschool programs, and vocational schools. Many used the term death to depict how the national government could abolish the whole private education market—for-profit and nonprofit together—overnight. The idea that national policies are the most uncertain element in their environment is widespread. When asked to list threats to their organizations, 54.1 percent of nonprofit leaders listed national political changes, much higher than changes in funding resources (39.2 percent), staff retention (35.1 percent), and economic recession (18 percent).

When it comes to staff retention, however, competition from the business sector poses the biggest threat. In hiring, EDs generally focus on professional capabilities rather than altruism and passion. Most of our sample organizations are small to medium sized; the average organization has eleven employees. As one social service organization described: “We only have a handful of people. So there’s no such thing as an unimportant post with us. Everyone counts.” Another nonprofit director said: “It is probably true that everyone does this out of love and enthusiasm. They’re keen on charity work. But you can’t demand people come in without paying them, can you?” Resisting the call of for-profit work for professionals proves difficult especially when the sleek modern facade of Shenzhen comes with a high price tag. “We need talent,” said the head of a nonprofit working for children with special needs. But, she noted, the dire reality in Shenzhen is that 70 percent of graduates trained in special education will eventually leave the nonprofit sector. “The truth is [nonprofit employees’] salary is simply not comparable to the efforts and energy they’ve invested,” she said. The ED of an art organization had a similar complaint:

There is indeed a huge salary gap [between nonprofit and for-profit positions]…. Retaining the male members of our staff is especially difficult since they must take care of their families and they need more money. Female employees are somewhat more reliable in this regard, but of course with them there are the issues of marriage and childbearing to consider.

Our sample of nonprofits supports this statement, as 60 percent of staff in the organizations in our sample are indeed women.

A high staff turnover rate is particularly detrimental to nonprofits that rely on connections built over the long term. Frequent changes in staff may interrupt significant ties with beneficiaries and sponsors. “Trusting relationships need time to be built,” said a nonprofit director, “and these ties are our most valuable asset.”

With a limited pool of professionals, Shenzhen nonprofits eagerly embrace businesslike management tools with hopes of increasing organizational capacity. Nonprofit leaders and staff frequently receive managerial trainings in drafting mission statements, management strategies, budgeting, and legal compliance (see figure 12). “We are cultivating our own talents,” said the director of a professional association proudly. “My organization adopts a lot of human resources models, borrowed from consulting firms, to make a quantified and detailed assessment of our staff.”

Figure 12. Trainings for nonprofit EDs and staff.
Figure 12. Trainings for nonprofit EDs and staff.
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All in all, Shenzhen nonprofits are influenced by and sometimes eagerly accommodate market forces to negotiate with the authoritarian state. In these negotiations, with glauthoritarian forces, neither the market nor the state can define the urban social space unchallenged.


Shenzhen nonprofits’ high staff turnover rate is partly compensated by volunteers. As part of its efforts to project a competitive global city image, the Shenzhen government implemented a credit system that allows permanent residents to volunteer in exchange for points that they can utilize in gaining more social benefits. Nonprofits themselves are also promoting volunteerism; 37 percent of organizations have hosted at least one event per year promoting the citywide movement of volunteering. An official report indicates that the city has 1.86 million volunteers and more than 1 million social service programs involving volunteer participation in 2020.9

Most of our sample organizations (77 percent) acknowledge the importance of volunteers in carrying out their missions (5+ on a 7-point scale). The median number of volunteers used by our organization is 40. Seven organizations have more than 1,000 volunteers per year; the largest has 43,000 volunteers. Many have regular volunteers who come daily to the organization. These largest volunteer-recruiting nonprofits are in the field of sports and recreation, social services, emergency relief, and advocacy.

The institutionalization of volunteering, bolstered by the municipal administration as one feature of Shenzhen’s successful participatory governance, to some extent makes up for the deficiency of nonprofit employees. Visualizing the size of staff relative to the size of volunteers for our sample organizations (figure 13), it is evident that volunteers outnumber paid staff greatly.

Figure 13. Size of staff and volunteers.
Figure 13. Size of staff and volunteers.
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Glauthoritarian Digital Space: Civic Technology and Urbanization

Climbing the high-tech ladder became a key area of cosmopolitan competition around the turn of this century. Along with the decline of traditional manufacturing industries, many global cities such as Tokyo successfully secured their status in the world economy in the 1990s by transitioning to high-tech manufacturing design and higher-value-added goods production. This practice quickly turned into a major trend in the 2000s when the concept of the “smart city” swept across the world. Local governments and city managers have been increasing their investments in information communication technologies (ICTs) and digital infrastructure, not only to attract foreign direct investment but also to narrate cities as an advanced form of urban economic, cultural, and social space. Far preceding global city ranking that emphasizes ICTs (Akçura and Avci 2014), the Shenzhen government formulated its “Urban Development Strategy” in 1989 that oriented its future competitiveness and urban character toward high-tech industry as well as international trade and finance.10 With the rise of tech giants such as Huawei and Tencent in the early 2000s, the city began to change from a world factory to Asia’s Silicon Valley, and every year since 2003 more people in Shenzhen have filed patents than in any other city in China.11 Shenzhen residents even filed more patents than residents of the San Francisco Bay Area in 2013.12 Locals take pride in their city’s role in China’s technology ambitions.

While the desire for better and faster technological development has swept the country (Du 2020; F. Yang 2017), Shenzhen is unique in its emphasis on nonprofits’ participation in technosocial innovation. For instance, the municipal government has proactively engaged in promoting high-tech competition among nonprofits to boost its image of social innovation through technology. For example, government agencies include ICT adoption in their requirement for government contract recipients as well as their accreditation system. Nowadays ICTs are a ubiquitous part of the Shenzhen nonprofit sector, far beyond communicative purposes. Almost all organizations in our sample (93 percent) use social media in their operations; 33 percent adopt office automation software and computer machinery; 31 percent participate in online crowdfunding; 26 percent run various datasets of beneficiaries, members, and other stakeholders; 16 percent have a knowledge management system in place; and 17 percent even design and develop their own apps (see figure 14). Such an adoption rate is higher than what the current nonprofit literature has recorded around the world (McNutt et al. 2018). As many scholars are analyzing how to persuade nonprofits to use social media in the Global North, participants in our research widely agreed that WeChat was something that “nobody could live/work without.” As the head of a painting and calligraphy club described: “This is an information age! Of course we need more [tech instruments]. Given the amount of money we have now, at least we can afford social media.”

Figure 14. Digital practices adopted by nonprofits.
Figure 14. Digital practices adopted by nonprofits.
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Nonprofits’ use of WeChat in Shenzhen especially pushes us to reevaluate the existing scholarship’s predominant focus on social media’s external communicative function in civic life (Ihm and Kim 2021). Like Google and Facebook, WeChat integrates apps across multiple domains: financial services, video-on-demand services, video gaming, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing. This born-in-Shenzhen platform provides a new organizational space for nonprofits to operate remotely, which is vividly revealed in a statement by the head of a volunteer association:

WeChat covers everything…. You name it: Service provision, volunteer recruitment, fundraising, communicating with beneficiaries, transparency, outreach, evaluation, etc. We don’t need to print out our organizational brochure. Most of the time we use the business card on WeChat.

This explains why the ED of a pharmaceutical industry association calls WeChat an “internal management tool”:

When I send several working groups out to provide service to three hundred organizations, WeChat can help us to keep the project on track and figure out what each group accomplishes every day, including how many organizations they visit, which routes they take, what feedback they receive, etc.

In turn, Shenzhen nonprofits make use of this digital infrastructure to form a new space where their beneficiary can receive services and cultivate social interaction. We documented a wide range of ways in which nonprofits build communities on WeChat. Civic engagement takes on a virtual form when nonprofits involve volunteers and beneficiaries in their governing practices. The ED of a volunteer organization stated: “We use WeChat for transparency. We post our budget, expenses, and leadership transitions and results in the WeChat discussion group, and everybody can add comments.” Nonprofits also utilize WeChat to create new social capital. While expressing concern about the alienation that people often feel in a megacity like Shenzhen, the ED of a nonprofit drama club said:

It is all about building trust. If people just come to our event like watching a show and then leave, they are not going to stick around. We want to become cinema enthusiasts’ friends. If you are interested in our shows or you want to give us comments or advice, you are welcome to join our social group so we can communicate anytime you want…. Shenzhen is such a fast-paced city. People don’t have time to make friends. We provide this platform so they can join us, have fun, make friends, and even find dates.

Notably, these interactions activate multidirectional connections not just between nonprofits and their members but also among members.

Such utilization of WeChat indicates how ICTs, especially social media platforms, are becoming a managerial instrument in shaping urban life, which has a profound impact on nonprofits’ operation and their endeavors in building social relations and generating social trust. In fact, the portrait of Shenzhen as an emergent innovation powerhouse has become part of China’s techno-optimism projecting specific ideas about progress and modernity (Avle et al. 2020; Lindtner 2020). For instance, the acclamation of ICTs has been enacted as a major source of normative pressure (DiMaggio and Powell 1983) that pushes nonprofits to become more and more digitally savvy. Embracing technology is considered a popular trend and valued behavior that brings social acceptance and legitimacy to an organization. “High-tech is the future direction of our society,” said the head of an environmental organization. “We cannot go against the larger trend. We must accommodate some technological demands.” Digitally aligning themselves with others seems to be a natural option for many nonprofits. The ED of an association for women small business owners widened her eyes in surprise while we asked her what she thinks about social media. “Of course it is important. Don’t almost all nonprofits use it?” she said. Another ED of an industrial association equated the absence of website activities to “social death”: “Your organization does not really exist if people cannot Baidu it on the Internet.”13

The pressure of pursuing ICT tools is reflected in nonprofits’ trainings and further reinforced by these trainings. One-third of our nonprofit executives and their staff members have attended training sessions in social media use; 25 percent of EDs and 31 percent of staff have received trainings in other ICTs. Fifty-seven percent of staff trainings are paid for by nonprofits themselves, and 24 percent are partially subsidized by the government. Responding to such normative pressure, nonprofits invest heavily to enhance their digital capacity. Twenty-three percent of our organizations have used consulting services for digital transformation such as adopting social media tools. These services are either provided to nonprofits free of charge (51 percent), or organizations pay for them (45 percent) out of their tight budgets.

Many nonprofits are not convinced by the positive connotations attached to technosocial development. Rather, the business sector’s obsession with technology further enhances nonprofit leaders’ fear of being left behind by the ever-changing digital cityscape. While asked to list the greatest threat/risk facing their organization, several EDs listed technology. The ED of a counseling organization talked about how her organization must compete with tech companies moving into the traditional psychotherapy area:

It used to be all about human skills…. But companies have come up with new ways of psychological evaluation that technologize this area… Now we have hypnosis machines that speak like humans.

Notably, the Chinese word for threat (wei ji) means both danger and opportunity. Like most others, this counseling organization was thus committed to catching up on the latest technological trend as evidence of their competitiveness and legitimacy. Similarly, in describing technological demands as a threat, the ED of a senior care service organization emphasized that his organization was trying to play the game:

Some large entities rich in financial resources began to branch out into this area, which negatively affects our competitiveness. I think we’d be eliminated if we failed to ride the wagon of technological innovation. Today’s large nursing institutions or newly founded ones all have high-tech integrated into the care and assistance of elders. It’s absolutely necessary. We will lag behind if we don’t find a way to use internet.

A few nonprofit leaders deemed technology the greatest danger their organizations faced. The head of a traditional cultural center said:

If one can get everything done just by lying on the bed, this is very bad for us because instead of meeting in the offline world, people are “seeing” more of each other in the online space. We need to focus on building more real-world communities. When it comes to technology and money, are you the sovereign or the dominated? The problem is, nowadays, people are not utilizing technology; rather, they are being used by technology itself. You cannot control for how long you are going to use your phone; you are being used by your phone because you simply don’t have the capacity or the ability to be the sovereign.

However, neither the government nor tech companies can decide the configuration of digital urban space as many nonprofits strategically make use of social media to whisper discontent with and resistance to political authorities. While the city government intends to turn nonprofits into civic subjects that are technologically savvy in being enterprising and entrepreneurial, our WeChat data show that the investment in ICTs has also allowed innovative expressions of opposition during the COVID-19 pandemic. A cultural organization was collecting stories of common people during the crisis and posted them on its WeChat official account. These personal narratives express feelings of entrapment, panic, anxiety, and boredom, and were in sharp contrast to the victorious and glorified tone of governmental media. For example, one member of a social service organization said in a post: “I’m tired of chanting slogans. I’m feeling inexplicably panicked. And now after so long, I feel numb.” Another post said: “During the pandemic, I retweeted many WeChat posts and I feel increasingly puzzled… I don’t know if the truth I hold onto today will still be true tomorrow.” These voices of discordance were absent from the mainstream discourse, which was filled with stories about the sacrifices of frontline workers and a brave, united nation. A few nonprofits took a more radical step by criticizing the government for its inaction to stop the pandemic when it first erupted and published memorial articles about the whistleblower who passed away after warning people about this unknown deadly pneumonia. Many nonprofits with close connections to the government expressed disappointment in the governmental measures against the pandemic. For example, one large social service organization posted on the public trust crisis: “Inefficiency is just another way of wasting resources.” It proposed to “introduce the power of the market” in handling health emergencies.

During the pandemic, however, the digital disparities among nonprofits in their ways of employing social media platforms were quickly growing. Among our sample, 139 nonprofits (68.5 percent) had adopted WeChat public accounts for organizational use before the pandemic, but only 47 (34 percent) of them were able to take advantage of the platform’s configurable and programmable features to create customized miniprograms. This small group is composed of larger and more formal nonprofits serving their beneficiaries, most of whom are business owners and white-collar professionals. Indeed, we found that organizations serving vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, the disabled, and impoverished migrant workers are more likely to be stuck with lower-end fixed technical features such as “sharing” and “liking” buttons, “chat groups,” “transferring money,” and so on (S. Yang, Zheng, and Long 2022). As the virtual urban space takes shape, nonprofits are influencing the crystallization of a digital pattern of spatial segregation.

ICTs’ prevalence within the nonprofit sector highlights contradictions and complexities underlying successful stories of technological transformation or promises of innovative social interventions. On the one hand, many nonprofits are contributing to the usage of ICTs as managerial tools in shaping service delivery and social relations. On the other hand, many are contesting such narrow applications by, for example, exploring social media platforms’ political functions. Both processes are intertwined with the production of digital inequality in Shenzhen.

Examining the various roles of nonprofit organizations in making a global Shenzhen, this article has unpacked the unfolding of “glauthoritarian urbanization” in the city’s civic life. Our analysis highlights how urban governance agendas advancing both global capitalism and authoritarian rule have forged a unique urban landscape that is shaping and shaped by nonprofit organizations. On the one hand, nonprofits are key organizational sites for illuminating the multiple processes underlying the formation and transformation of urban space. On the other hand, nonprofit organizations mediate the negotiations between local state, market, and urban residents as the city government as an entrepreneurial agent promotes the commodification of place as a nexus of capitalist accumulation, production, and consumption while trying to guard the urban place as a secured object of political control.

From the image of the Shenzhen nonprofit sector captured by 203 randomly sampled organizations here, we present several observations: First, urban physical space that nonprofits form and operate is configured in a glauthoritarian process to accommodate global capital flow and an authoritarian agenda of urban development. Some nonprofits accommodate the urban spatial hierarchy generated during this process while others try to challenge the spatial inequalities. This glauthoritarian process has a greater impact than physical proximity on beneficiaries and the ways in which organizations are (dis)embedded in local communities. Second, nonprofits offer a social space for people whom they work for and work with to interact in, a space that is dominated by the vibrant civic life of consumption-driven, performance-oriented, and anxious middle-class professionals facing intensified domestic and international competition. Simultaneously, the voice of an equally salient migrant population has been muted in this space during the process of city-making. Third, advancement in digital infrastructure, an urban development priority pushed by both the state and the market, has a spillover effect in the nonprofit sector by creating new patterns of inequality in virtual urban space. At the same time, the digital space of nonprofits also provides new opportunities for people to express discontent and resistance.

These observations combined, this article aims to shed light on the contradictory and ever-changing relationships between state, market, and nonprofits in making a southern global entrepreneurial city. By the agency of the nonprofit sector, the city administration orchestrates various contradictory trends in urban development: it wants to cultivate an image of a participatory, transparent, efficient bureaucracy to gain legitimacy from a transnational capital market; a highly modern, convenient, experimental-spirited elite hub attracting global talent; and a people-centered, social-welfare-oriented, benevolent local authority catering to state centralization and the rise of populist politics.

Our observations cast doubt on the prevalent tendency in the existing literature on civic organizations that overlooks the interplays of globalization, urbanization, and intercity competition and their impact on societal actors and the configurations of civic life. Much research takes for granted that local communities and social relations are contained within fixed and natural geographic boundaries and thus separated from those outside those boundaries. The operation of nonprofits in Shenzhen, by contrast, illuminates how urban power dynamics, including various government policies, economic processes, and cultural imaginations, are “locally” situated while projecting and resonating “extralocally.” This accounts for how the Shenzhen government would facilitate the development of nonprofits in the first place. This also explains many nonprofits’ emphasis on professionals as their employees and serving beneficiaries as well as their obsession with technological advancement. Our preliminary findings show that nonprofits and their distinctive social agencies are often not emergent from local realities but formed in relation to global capitalism and national authoritarian politics. Many of the opportunities and challenges confronting Shenzhen nonprofits—such as high-speed economic development, the transition toward digital platform development, and the expansion and segregation of enclaves, among others—arise from the city government’s outward-focused stance and concerted efforts in enhancing the city’s competitiveness at the national and international levels.

Our analysis also extends critical urban studies by demonstrating how civic organizations can maintain, enhance, and/or contest the glauthoritarian urbanization project by shaping the ways in which capitalist development is interdigitated with authoritarian power. Scholars have recognized that Shenzhen is an important site where certain neoliberal practices and authoritarian elements are combined to construct capital-centric projects (Lindtner 2020; O’Donnell, Wong, and Bach 2017; Zhang 2012). We further advance this line of inquiry by analyzing how the Shenzhen governments promote their competitive advantage by boosting “social innovation” through nonprofits. Seen as part of “world-class” criteria, civic organizations may simultaneously consolidate and challenge the operation and consequences of glauthoritarian urban development.

Although many dynamics discussed in this article seem unique, they do not suggest that Shenzhen represents a singular model or type. Rather, we contend that Shenzhen is a common case of southern city development that connects and combines different elements that are commonly held apart, such as the authoritarian and the liberal, the East and the West, the atomized and the communal, and most importantly, the global and the local. Divergent modes of calculations and practices from the global, national, and local levels coexist in uneasy, ambiguous, contingent, and often utterly chaotic interrelationships. Similar dynamics are common in Africa and Asia (Günel 2019; Murray 2017). “In the case of global cities, the dynamics and processes that get territorialized are global” (Sassen 2005, 27). The civic dynamics in Shenzhen are the distinctive local crystallization of trends sweeping the globe.

In highlighting this case, we are responding to the call for more studies on cities in the Global South in order to retheorize the urban beyond the concentration of theoretical production based on cities in western Europe and North America (Bunnell et al. 2012). While Shenzhen, like many other southern cities, began its urban development by studying and mimicking Western practices, it is creating its own models and templates for other cities now. In the past, traditional great cities like London, Paris, and New York—as the centers of metropoles—were always treated as the producers of global models. Southern cities are arising as a frontier for policy innovation and theoretical creation.

Furthermore, this article shows that nonprofits in global cities are a battleground for reimagining and remaking the civic sphere as traditional logics of space, capital, and identities are dismantled and reorganized by allowing exceptions to national politics within bounded territories. For example, it was the Shenzhen government that chose to incorporate civic organizations into a vision of metropolitan modernity amid increasingly conservative national political structures. The emphasis on attracting world-class professionals in Shenzhen cultivates middle- and upper-class white-collar urban residents who want to assert certain control of the public realm against the state’s commands. But these professionals’ desire for a better quality of urban living has taken over the civic space in Shenzhen and pushed migrant laborers out of the cities. In a city characterized by drastically uneven distribution of people and resources, the concentration, composition, and organizational features of nonprofits contribute simultaneously to sustain and to change such hierarchies through generating civic (in)visibility.

There are no competing interests with respect to the work and authorship of this research.

We thank the entire global Civic Life of Cities Lab for comments on successive drafts of our paper. Our research is supported by the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University and the Sociology Department at the University of California, Berkeley.

Yan Long ( is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a political and organizational sociologist studying the interactions between globalization and authoritarian politics across empirical areas such as public health, civic action, comparative urban politics, and digital technology. Long’s research has appeared in the American Journal of Sociology, Social Science & Medicine, Journal of Public Administrative Research and Theory, and Qualitative Health Research, among others, which has earned her seven national awards. Long is the author of the forthcoming book Authoritarian Absorption: The Transnational Making and Unmaking of AIDS Politics in China, published by Oxford University Press. Yan has a joint degree in sociology and women’s studies from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Before joining UC Berkeley, she was a postdoc fellow at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and an assistant professor of international relations at Indiana University.

Wei Luo is a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. Her research sits at the intersection of organizational theory, economic sociology, and comparative historical studies. She is currently working on the Civic Life of Cities Project, focusing on the development of civic organizations in Shenzhen, China, from a global comparative perspective. Luo’s ongoing book manuscript traces the parallel development of family and banking practices over time, recounting the emergence and operation of modern financial organizations in inland China from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. Prior to Stanford, Luo received her PhD in sociology at Yale University and MA in social sciences at the University of Chicago.


Notice of the Futian District Government on Issuing the Administrative Measures for Building a Highland on Social Impact Investing, no 9, issued on March 28, 2018.


Shenzhen government, accessed on January 13, 2022,


Public institutions in China, such as the social welfare system, public schools, and hospitals, are established according to the size of the registered population only.


Almost three-quarters (71 percent) of the Shenzhen population consists of nonregistered migrants (Shenzhen Municipality Bureau of Statistics and Survey Office of the National Bureau of Statistics in Shenzhen 2021, 3).


“Outline of the Futian District 14th Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development and Objectives for 2035,” 2021-8-03, accessed on January 15, 2022,


In the survey, we asked participants to specify the proportion of their organization’s work as office-based (“beneficiaries coming to us”), site-based (“we come to where beneficiaries are located”), or virtual (“via phone or internet”). We labeled all where virtual work consists of less than one-third and the percentage of office-based work is larger than site-based work as “office-based” and all others as “site-based.”


By 2020 Shenzhen had a population of 13.4 million people, only 36.8 percent of whom have hukou registered in the city.


Xinhua Agency, October 14, 2020.


China Global Philanthropy Institute, “Annual Report on Development of Voluntary Services in Shenzhen,” 2020.


Building and Construction Bureau, 1998.


“SZ Ranks No. 1 in Patent Applications,” Shenzhen Daily, April 23, 2020.


Tina Wadhwa, “One Area Leads the World in Filing Tech Patents—and It’s No Longer Silicon Valley,” World Economic Forum, August 2, 2016.


Baidu is the most popular search engine in China.

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