Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Visit to China

I just returned from a week in China. A couple of days in Shenzhen (via bus from Hong Kong) with a quick visit to Guangzhou, and a couple of days in Shanghai and environs (mostly, the latter). Since it was a business trip I can't really say anything about what I was up to specifically.

I can say that it was not what I expected. Shenzhen is a bustling metropolis. In addition to being a manufacturing hub - especially outlying areas - what I didn't know is that it's a popular destination for Hong Kong hipsters and other local tourists. Shenzhen attracts them with it's lower priced spas, clubs, restaurants, and golf courses. The night life is non-stop; I couldn't even come close to keeping up (might have had something to do with 18 hour work days).

Everything is new, roads, buildings, cars. Lots of cars by the way (GM, Volkswagen, and Toyota mainly). You still see people hauling things around on bicycles and scooters but cars, buses, and trucks dominate the traffic.

Even in areas far from the "scene", though, one fascinating thing is that everyone seems so young. Shenzhen is without a doubt a boom town. I am guessing that young people from all over China are attracted there for work. The streets, even in areas that can't be tourist attractions, feel like a college town -- people strolling, eating, laughing, talking, late into the night, all well under 30.

We also visited a global engineering firm with an office in Guangzhou. It was a beautiful building, with better equipped and organized labs than equivalent organizations in the US. It was bustling with engineers, scientists, technicians, managers, and support staff; all well educated, competent professionals; and again, 80% under 30 I would estimate.

We are encouraged here in the US to think of Shenzhen and places like it in China as areas where people are exploited and oppressed. No doubt, this exists. But the vibe on the street didn't track with this idea. People seemed awfully glad to be there. There was, if anything, a sense of hope, opportunity, and optimism. People seemed and acted more freely than anywhere I've seen in the US. Now of course I'm not talking about their ability to engage in political activities. I'm only discussing how it felt to intersect briefly with their daily lives.

Everything in Shenzhen is new. Shanghai is old. Well parts of it are old. Everything else is new. Shanghai central has a very noticeable post-colonial, Western influence.

Shanghai feels much less rambunctious than Shenzhen, more established. Hard to explain but it just feels older and more laid back even though it is very busy. I didn't spend much time in Shanghai except in my hotel bed, and one night out at a club, which was a bizarre experience involving a band fronted by 3 tiny Chinese women which performed uncannily good covers of Dr. Dre and Guns n' Roses (among others...)

We traveled from Shanghai, on a new highway, about 1 1/2 hours out into the countryside, and it was beautiful out there - rice farms, nice houses. A lot of new development out in the countryside...business parks, condos that look like they were airlifted in from LA, world-class hotels.

This was in contrast to the highway from Shenzhen to Guangzhou -- also new, but through a gritty, grey megapolis dominated by belching smokestacks and abandoned looking (or were they half-built?) apartment complexes; punctuated by wide, lazy canals populated by massive self-propelled barges.

So there is another part of the story to China, but I didn't see it close-up. As part of my work, I did see several manufacturing plants. Of course, we are very selective about who we work with so they may not have been representative. But, they were top notch and working conditions were not very different from the US.

China is thinking big. I saw from the air (flying on one of China's new, Southwest airlines inspired domestic carriers) a project laid out in the countryside that encompassed perhaps 20 miles on a side, a series of concentric, 4 lane ring roads bisected by equally sized radial roads, each coming to an absurdly precise end at a farmer's field; the innermost ring surrounded a perfectly circular, enormous lake. Who knows what it was all about but it was planning on a scale I've never seen. If you build it, they will come, I guess.

So, to touch on energy. Obviously China is using a lot of energy now. The way it is growing, it will need much more in the future. Nothing new there. But I guess I saw a couple of positive things. Shenzhen has stopped issuing licenses for motorized scooters, to cut down air pollution (those 2-cycle engines are nasty). To me, this is indicative of a growing environmental awareness. Shanghai is advertising itself as the "solar city", and indeed, has a "100,000 solar roof" initiative. There is also some PV manufacturing in Shanghai. There are billboards advertising the Prius, and in fact I saw a couple on the road in China - one near Shenzhen, one near Shanghai. So one can hope that this development will be used as an opportunity to do some technological leapfrogging.

A couple other things. I don't think people would complain about exploitation if a company outsourced to Greece. Yet the general level of development and workplace conditions I saw in and around Athens (when I lived there) was significantly worse than what I saw in Shenzhen and Shanghai. I think that we hear a lot of propaganda about China. People are understandably upset about manufacturing jobs moving over there. Of course people are paid much less, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are exploited. The cost of living is also much less expensive. But anyhow, it sometimes seems like when China gets painted as being horrible to workers and the environment, that's to an extent a smokescreen for a protectionist agenda. Of course all is not peaches and roses in China, but again, there are a lot of places that we don't hear about which are similar. Finally, lest we forget, the US is hardly perfect on the "workers rights and environmental protection" scorecard.

Taken as a whole, what I would say is that as far as what I saw, China is well positioned to kick our butt. Their infrastructure is brand new and expanding; ours is disintegrating. Their educational system is producing highly educated, technically trained workers, who are rapidly gaining practical experience in the workplace. Our educational system is falling apart and it's rare that you find younger people with high levels of responsibility. China's manufacturing capabilities seem to be rapidly catching up to the US.

Finally, the food is really, really good. Just stay away from the water cockroaches and fermented tofu (take it from me).

2 comments:

ALJ said...

"Taken as a whole, what I would say is that as far as what I saw, China is well positioned to kick our butt. Their infrastructure is brand new and expanding; ours is disintegrating. Their educational system is producing highly educated, technically trained workers, who are rapidly gaining practical experience in the workplace. Our educational system is falling apart and it's rare that you find younger people with high levels of responsibility. China's manufacturing capabilities seem to be rapidly catching up to the US.

Finally, the food is really, really good. Just stay away from the water cockroaches and fermented tofu (take it from me)."

I agree with your hypothesis on China not necessarily being a threat (although folks in Shanghai I found to be somewhat rude on occasion), but this is a rather pessimistic view of the U.S. Our education system is actually improving (L.A., Chicago, and New York are pouring millions or billions into public education) and the private sector higher educational colleges are still doing well (although the U.S.' share of foreign students is dropping rapidly perhaps do to Visa problems and that the rest of the world seems to be catching up with U.S. private colleges). We still put out qualified college students, but not necessarily where we used to (eastern europe and asia now beat us in computer programming), but the I.T. revolution is fairly over in the U.S. and that the once programmer savy now choose for degrees in math or more conceptual fields or your field is hardly a bad thing. I might add that the wages paid to workers in manufacturing in China are high enough that they often can save and go to college, the only major problem I see with your impressions is age. In actuality China has far fewer young people than old due to the 1 child per family laws that are still around. While India is still booming out children, China faces perils of being a country where large portions of the population become to old to work every decade or so. Anyway, have enjoyed your blog a great deal. I bought my first german solar powered toy set the other day to play with and my students here in Taiwan are twiddling away on it regularly.

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