Thursday, January 24, 2008

Asia Journal, Part 4

DAY 5 – Monday – Shenzhen, or “China is weird!”

Theme Song –“All Night Worker” – Downliners Sect

I couldn’t sleep again, waking at about 5, so I wrote my 20 postcards and took them downstairs to the concierge to mail at 6 a.m. Paddy is sitting on a couch in the lobby, staring blankly into space. This creeps me out; is he making sure we haven’t come in too late, like some infernal den mother? I slink by without his seeing me, even though he’s practically the only person in the lobby other than the ubiquitous bellboys in white.

We have a day of factory and facility tours lined up today. We go to Shenzhen, on the mainland about an hour from Hong Kong. The border crossing is only mildly more stressful than going to, say, Canada, mostly because of the girl in a surgical mask that points a digital thermometer gun at your forehead. It’s just a precaution against SARS and Avian Flu, certainly, but it’s a reminder of the disastrous potential inherent in huge populations, not to mention truncated individual liberties.

Shenzhen is always smoggy, dusty, and under construction. Every time we come here, it’s grown significantly bigger. Right now, there are about 10 million people in Shenzhen: it’s roughly the populations of New York City and Houston combined, and most of this growth has occurred in the last 25 years. It was a sleepy fishing village until it was designated the first “Special Economic Zone” or SEZ, under Deng Xiaopeng, due to its proximity to Hong Kong. As the first SEZ, Shenzhen is one of the first places modern China experimented with capitalism, and in many senses, it is the cradle of the Chinese economic revolution. Chances are, you have something in your home right now that was made in Shenzhen: they make everything from iPods and cameras to hairbrushes and handbags.

To meet a native of Shenzhen, someone who was born and raised there, is unusual. Most of the millions in Shenzhen are from the provinces, and they came seeking jobs. Some find fortune, but most find factories: manufacturing jobs are plentiful and, relative to many jobs inland, well-paid. Not all Shenzhen transplants stay, though. Like young Americans in NYC or LA, they come for a taste of the big time, but many ultimately decide it’s not for them. They save their wages, with the intent of moving back home to settle down.

Like most cities in south China, Shenzhen is full of drivers actively flouting the rules of the road. If traffic is moving too slowly in one direction, drivers just start using the oncoming lanes. They back up on the freeway if they miss an offramp. Cabbies make left turns if they have the right of way or not. Steamrollers and semis share the road with mopeds and bikes. At present, traffic in China is so awful, I cannot imagine what it will be like if all the people that want cars actually get them.

Factory tours are confidential, so I won’t give details, but rest assured, they are eye-opening. Factories in China are enormous, with dormitories, canteens, rec facilities, and titanic workspaces. Even with the labor equation changing rapidly due to the One Child Policy, and the number of migrants declining, labor is still China’s best value. Manufacturing is mostly people-powered, rather than highly automated. In a Chinese factory, you get a very clear picture of just how many people are involved in making the stuff you take for granted every day. Every worker handles a small portion of the finished product. For example, consider an item of apparel like a woven shirt: each component or detail of the shirt is probably one worker’s job. Each pocket, cuff, placket, and embellishment corresponds to one person at a sewing machine. Add up the details and you have an idea of how many people are involved at the assembly level. Double it and you’ll have some sense of how many people are involved at the mills that made the fabric and trims. Triple it and you’ll have a sense of how many people are involved in the logistics of getting it onto a ship and on its way to you: sourcing agents, consolidators, dockworkers, truck drivers. Throw in a few more people for good measure: designers, prototypers, shop floor supervisors, clerical staff, testing lab employees. Now you have a sense of how many lives you affect through the goods you buy. It’s amazing we can pay what we do for consumer goods, but thanks to a certain amount of currency tweaking on the part of the Chinese government, we pay very little. And because we demand low prices, we fuel the growth of Chinese manufacturing and cities like Shenzhen. Is it the best way to do things? Probably not, for a variety of reasons, but a big one is the enormous inefficiency of shipping goods halfway around the world: it's simply not an effective use of resources. But because of Western demand for value-priced consumer goods, it is the way it’s done.

Driving back through Shenzhen on our way back to Hong Kong and the hotel, I note the changes since my last visit, and how they reflect the increasing influence of the West. There are more KFCs than before, and a Gucci boutique -- a real one, not one selling fakes. The world's largest golf resort, with 216 holes, is in Shenzhen. Yet there is still the guy carrying live chickens to market on his moped, workers in broad bamboo hats sweeping sidewalks with straw brooms, and a portrait of Chairman Mao smiling benevolently from the wall of a building under demolition. As our intrepid hostess Fanny noted last time we were here, after our van was nearly run over by a semi, trash truck, and steam roller at the same time, "China is weird." Fanny, a native Hongkongese, meant it in the sense that China is nothing like Hong Kong: provincial, backwards, 'weird.' But China is also nothing like it was just a few years ago, evolving at such a pace this city of ten million sprouted up almost instantly, and that it is just as suddenly the manufacturing muscle for most of the world. That, to the Chinese, must be weird indeed.

DAY 6 – Tuesday – Hong Kong

Theme Song – “Check Out”– Pretty Things

Today we had our last meetings in Hong Kong, which all went well, despite Skippy's best efforts to disrupt them. In the evening, he managed to insult both our hosts and his own team at dinner. I am thrilled we are ditching him tomorrow and going to Tokyo.

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