Thursday, June 10, 2010

Can You Name the Third Largest City in China?

Shenzhen, China, population 14 million, is one of the largest cities you've probably never heard of. But the electronic goods you are no doubt surrounded by--and perhaps are using to read this very post--most likely were created and assembled here. Motorola, Sony, Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Nokia . . . the list goes on and on.

It's amazing that so few of us westerners have been here or even heard of it, especially considering it's next door to the much-visited Hong Kong. In fact, you can literally take the subway right up to the border, hop off and walk through border control, then hop on the other city's subway on the other side.

But aside from business folk, you don't see too many people doing that. And the portal between the two cities can feel like a passage to another world.

It's a city of the young. As soon as kids are old enough to leave their village, the brightest and most ambitious, most entrepreneurial, flock here to try and make a new life for themselves.

As one person told me, "Shenzhen is where you go to become whoever it is you want to be."

It's part of a Special Economic Zone established by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, as part of the larger "Reform and Opening" initiative. Really, it's capitalism meets communism, and that makes for a wicked, fascinating, hopeful, and often heartbreaking combination.

It's a tale of two cities.

The interior, where we stayed, is bright and modern, with an ultra-sleek subway system, networks of high-end malls, and Starbucks, KFCs, 7-11s and McDonalds spreading everywhere ("like germs," said one local resident).

High-rises are going up--and old ones coming down--everywhere you turn. And in Shenzhen, "old" means more than five years. Consider that in 1979, this place was little more than a fishing village. 30 years and 14 million people later, it feels like everything and everyone was made just yesterday. That's probably because they were. At 32, I'm not just older than this city, I'm also older than most of the people who live here and run this place.

In between all those high-rises it's still China. Fortune tellers dot the sidewalk beside the metro. Old grandmas pull wooden carts loaded with rice and drinking water. Babies wear split britches rather than diapers and are held over bushes when they need to pee. Police officers are everywhere, usually on bikes with flashing red and blue lights.

When Mike and I walk along the side streets, we are the only white faces, even here in the city center. Folks are not shy about staring. One group of school boys called out "hello," and when we said "hello" back they collapsed into giggles.

To live or work in inner Shenzhen, you need special papers. There is a wall that separates inner Shenzhen from outer Shenzhen, which is where all the factories are, and there are a series of checkpoints that locals tell us are becoming less and less strictly enforced. Whenever we drove through them we saw police officers with big machine guns, but were never stopped or saw others being stopped.

Once you pass through to the other side, the construction of roads and building escalates to an unimaginable frenzy. It feels like it's going so fast, there might even be workers five feet ahead of you laying the very cement you'll be driving on.

It also gets considerably less clean.

But everyone is working very, very, very hard to build a better life for themselves.

This obviously bootlegged book was being sold in a stall outside one of the many Wal-Marts in Shenzhen.

And if they can't achieve it in their lifetime, then there is always the hope that maybe it will be different for their children.

Once you go here and meet the people, who are warm and friendly and full of hope, you not only begin to share in that dream--you start to realize the true depth of interconnectivity and responsibility we in the west have to help make those dreams come true.

1 comment:

SM said...

Fascinating! I love that travelmonkeys is up and running again!