China

Go to Shenzhen, Young Man

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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.)

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  1. Detroit proper has gone from about 1.85 million residents to about 950,000 people…

    http://www.demographia.com/db-det2000.htm

    …so what’s Shenzhen got that Detroit doesn’t?

    “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.”

    I’m sure every damaging thing you wanted to find in Shenzhen could also be found in Detroit.

    So what’s the difference? Were the people of Shenzhen better educated? Did they have more in the way of preexisting infrastructure? Did the people of Shenzhen have a better health system?

    Are Detroit’s labor unions really that destructive?

  2. Um, eww. Thanks for that image.

  3. Average High Temperature:

    Shenzhen: 72 degrees

    Detroit: 58 degrees

    Nuff’ said, next thread.

  4. It’s the weather?!

    Really?

  5. Detroit grew like that during its heyday, too. That’s what industrial boom towns do.

    Let’s hope Shenzen doesn’t turn into Detroit!

  6. Sadly, my native city of Pittsburgh has gone down the same route.

    I don’t know how it is in Detroit, but the politicians in Pittsburgh have made the region into a terrible business environment. People could afford those high taxes when they were pumping out steel. Now, not so much.

    To make matters worse, they are increasing government’s tentacles every year.

    I would guess China has no problem letting Shenzhen grow in prosperity. That way, when the world criticizes the Chinese tyranny, they can point to Shenzhen and say, “look, Communism works!”

  7. 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.

    I wonder why he couldn’t get an extended work permit. This is easily my favorite quote on the issue since the most recent immigrant panic was stoked by the demagogues. Why do people keep forgetting this simple fact every time a handful of screaming heads get all chicken little about it?

  8. I would guess China has no problem letting Shenzhen grow in prosperity. That way, when the world criticizes the Chinese tyranny, they can point to Shenzhen and say, “look, Communism works!”

    That, and a system like that survives by eating the productive. And like joe said, that’s how it goes in a boom town. The problem is when the boom is over, the system keeps on eating.

    Detroit has the distinction of having real estate value decrease as you approach the town center. I don’t know much about what turned Detroit into an industrial boneyard. It was more than weather and unions, right?

  9. King Rat,

    I’m guessing it was weather (more specifically, the southern migration brought about by A/C, unions, rising fuel costs, blind reliance on a single good (cars), competition from other countries like Japan (which was relatively non-existent until the 80’s), emissions standards reducing the quality of the primary product, rise in global trade stifling relatively land-locked cities, the Detroit Tigers, high crime, poor governing…

    Just to name a few.

  10. Correction:

    competition from other countries like Japan (which was relatively non-existent until the 80’s in the automotive industry)

    P.S. is King Rat a reference to the China Mieville novel of the same name?

  11. So the CIA thinks they can infiltrate the mountain of General Klahn! Take him to … Detroit!

  12. This week’s weather in Detroit looks much better than Shenzhen’s. Shenzhen is brutally hot in the summer. Tropical climate and all.

    That said it is a beautiful city full of incredible architecture and and unbelievable amount of energy. If the article says that the population of Shenzhen is 1.75 million, that is counting only the city center. There are many, many more people than that. And, I’ve heard counts as high as 500,000 immigrants (mostly illegal) coming in from the countryside each year.

  13. Taktix,
    First things first, I took King Rat from a Modest Mouse song of the same name. Not having read China Mieville, I had no idea there was also a book by a self avowed Marxist called King Rat. Think I’ll find a new moniker, and perhaps a new band to listen to. Thanks for the heads-up.

    Anyway, thanks for the quick list of the culprits of Detroit’s Downfall. Maybe the Tigers should be a little higher on the list, though.

  14. (Cuts head off prisoner with his sword hand)

    “Now! Take him to Detroit!”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C1M0zU2IihI

    well, close enough

  15. 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.

    Hell, that sounds like Charlotte, NC since about 1985. Except instead of a fishing village to an industrial boomtown it went from a tobacco town to a banking/service boomtown.

  16. If I weren’t married, I’d pack up my fancy law degree and move my ass to China in a heartbeat. Land of milk and honey where the streets are paved with gold.

  17. …so what’s Shenzhen got that Detroit doesn’t?

    Detroit was pretty a one-industry town – when the auto industry started suffering, so did the town. Shenzhen is a high-tech hub, has a trading port, has a manufacturing sector, and benefits from its proximity to Hong Kong.

  18. (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.)
    I never read them, but I have a feeling that it would be similar to GQ’s “We Sit Down and Have a Drink with John Kerry” article back in 2004.

    As an aside, “rim job” is a great fucking phrase. Accusing someone of giving a “hand job” is damning enough, implying that they’d debase themselves to please their subject, but saying someone gives a “rim job” turns the act into something that is physically and sensually displeasing for the suck-up, an act that they would do for the sheer reason of making their subject happy, by any means neccesary.

  19. No offense to any of you out there who actually enjoy preforming analingus, of course.

  20. “daring young Americans with a high tolerance for risk”

    How old is too old? Or was “young” an error/oversight/cliche?

    just wondering

  21. where is the link to the esquire story?

  22. “Detroit was pretty a one-industry town – when the auto industry started suffering, so did the town. Shenzhen is a high-tech hub, has a trading port, has a manufacturing sector, and benefits from its proximity to Hong Kong.”

    I’d point out that cars have been selling like hotcakes over the period of Detriot’s decline and that most of those are built here in the USA, or at least that’s my understanding, but more to the point, why couldn’t all of those idle assets in Detroit have been converted to some other use?

    …in Shenzhen, and elsewhere, didn’t they have to build all of that stuff from scratch?

  23. The post-WW2 migration of industry was not the consequence of taxation or government.

    Except to the extent that government activism changed places like North Carolina from backwards hellholes into locations that business owners considered worth relocating to when they needed to start over outside of their central-city location.

    Industry fled big cities because the old industrial areas lacked truck access, parking, commuter access, and the land necessary to expand.

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