China is at the midpoint of its urbanisation—the largest scale in human history. The recent smart city movement is influencing the discourse and practice of China’s urbanisation, with numerous cities claiming to build smart cities and/or adopting some forms of smart city strategies and initiatives. A so-called ‘latecomer’s advantage’ is being exploited to advance their pursuit for a smart city status, not only to catch up with overseas counterparts, but to overtake them and become international leaders. This local-level enthusiasm strikes a chord with the central government’s strategy of building an ‘innovative nation’ to drive its economic transformation towards a knowledge economy. This converging central-local interest is creating a ‘smart city mania’ across the nation, which, however, has not received due attention in the international literature, and thus deserves critical examination and reflection to inform policy debates. To address this gap, this study investigates the state of smart cities in China, based on a case study of Shenzhen, China’s fastest-growing, experimental city. Shenzhen grew from a fishing village into an international metropolis in 40 years, and has now won a nickname of ‘China’s Silicon Valley’ or ‘China’s smartest city’. This study analyses the state of Chinese smart cities and the pursuit for a smart Shenzhen from the perspectives of the smart city as a concept, as an urban development paradigm, and as an urban regime, drawing upon the international smart city literature. It concludes that a technology-centric approach to smart cities in China, as illustrated by the Shenzhen case, have advanced innovation capacity and economic growth through capitalising on a ‘latecomer’s advantage’. However, this ‘latecomer’s advantage’ may translate into a ‘latecomer’s disadvantage’ for this approach’s lack of institutional adaptation, and for its insufficient attention to social and environmental problems covered under the shiny economic boom. This latecomer’s disadvantage is likely to impact the long-term sustainability of Chinese cities.
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