Go to Shenzhen, Young Man


China's on the mind of two major American mags this month, the Atlantic and Esquire, with equally interesting but characteristically distinct takes on the phenomenon of China's superbusiness center, Shenzhen. The city grew in the past few decades from a sleepy fishing village of 70,000 people to to a manufacturing center to boggle the American journalists' mind, with a population 25 times that.

James Fallows' Atlantic piece (sample only–full text only for subscribers) is a sober business journalistic survey of the fantastic factories and the fixers who arrange things for Western companies who need things manufactured (and shipped from) there.

One of those fixers is an Irishman, Liam Casey, who first tried to make it in Southern California, which he loved. But he couldn't get a long-term work permit to stay. So he went to Shenzhen and started a company doing the aforementioned fixing and had sales last year of $125 million and employs 800 people.

This leads to my favorite declaration in the piece. Fallows writes:

I might as well say this in every article I write from overseas: The easier America makes it for talented foreigners to work and study there, the richer, more powerful, and more respected America will be. America's ability to absorb the world's talent is the crucial advantage no other culture can match–as long as America doesn't forfeit this advantage with visa rules written mainly out of fear.

But the whole article is filled with specific details about what it's like living and working in Chinese factory culture and how American companies and consumers interact with the Chinese industrial machine, often without even knowing we're doing it. (The saga of how certain consumer products ship direct from a Chinese factory to an American's door is particularly telling.)

Colby Buzzell of Esquire gives a whole different take on Shenzhen in an August feature (not online, alas), "Digging a Hole all the Way to America." It's an adrenaline- and booze-filled tour of the Shenzhen demimonde, the sort of dark and grim but simultaneously glorious and highly energized world that arises around a place so filled with growth, dynamism, cash, criminality, young folk from around the world on the make, and the concomitant vices both exhilarating and damaging that come with all that.

As one gang of young expats making a killing in China, madly accumulating both cash and sex partners, put it, Shenzhen's a fascinating place where people "might not have any rights, but they definitely have more freedom here." (In the context of what one can usually accomplish and/or get away with in day to day life despite living in an ostensible socialist dictatorship.)

While neither story really addresses the still-awful political tyranny in China, both considered together make it sound like Shenzhen should be the make-good destination of choice for daring young Americans with a high tolerance for risk. (Me, I'm staying in southern California, like Fallows' Irishman wanted to.)

Certainly, it seemed strange having in Esquire this feature on Shenzhen and the Pacific Rim future beneath a cover story on a presidential candidate who is already past, baby, past, John Edwards. (What were they thinking? The story was remarkably similar to their cover story earlier on John McCain–a politically contentless rim job about what a beautiful, wonderful Great Man this is, with the implication hanging that he'd have to make a Great President.)