Falcone's Crossroads

Where This Meets That

China: Look Closer

I looked out the middle row driver’s side window as I crossed the Jiangyin Suspension Bridge by van.  The goliath crosses the Yangtze River, nearly a mile wide at this narrow point.  Concrete towers 60-stories tall support main suspender cables a meter wide.  Jiangyin Yangtze River BridgeIt is an incredible and iconic feat of engineering and the sixth longest suspension bridge in the world today.  But you must see it up close, or you might not see it at all.

As I recall the poor visibility up and down the river caused by industrial smog, I can’t help but to view this as a microcosm of China as a whole.  Here in the States, we tend to lose China in a fog of controlled births, poisoned toys, and Cold War-style posturing.  A closer look, however, reveals a marvel of growth and cultural dynamism.

An entire generation has grown since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.  This generation has never known anything but the tremendous growth, progress, and increased cultural openness that China’s modern industrial revolution is providing. As a result, it would appear that there is no turning back  for China.

I would be remiss to say that the industrial explosion that is so rapidly modernizing urban China reflects a nationwide phenomenon; rural mainland China lags well behind the more coastal industrial centers.  This gap brings millions of Chinese in from the mainland each year to seek employment from the countless manufacturers in the coastal regions.  Here, they share dormitories with others with similar plans to make enough money to get their start in working life or to make enough money to return home to the families they’ve left far away in less promising provinces.

They are hard-working people, spending perhaps 12 hours per day wrapping fine copper wires around tiny plastic cores or using razor knifes to precisely cut and remove thin strips of film from printed circuit boards.  Mindless work that makes our lives here in the States immeasurably easier.

They are husbands, mothers, sisters, brothers, daughters, and sons.  Their smiles are warm, their attitudes inviting.  But all these traits are lost from afar.  Lost in the legacy of a forbidden empire and the politics of a people unnerved that China holds $800B of their national debt (i.e., us) and whose growth shows no signs of slowing.

During this, my first, visit to China, I was amazed at how comfortable I felt immersed in the squall of the Chinese metropolis.  I heeded the advice of those who’d traveled here frequently in the past, to keep my wallet in my front pocket and to avoid any seedier parts of town (good suggestions for Atlanta, too, by the way).  However, I never felt the slightest bit more threatened than I have in any other mass of humanity.

You’ve probably heard about the traffic; it certainly lives up to its reputation. The image that sticks best in my memory came my first night in China as I rode from Shanghai to Wuxi:  a man was working his way through traffic on his motorcycle after dark, and seated to his back, facing the rear, was a boy who couldn’t have been older than 3 gripping the seat between his legs with his left hand while his right gripped a sippy cup.  Three or even four people riding a single motorcycle are a common sight, traffic signals are largely taken as suggestions instead of law, and horn blasts seem to signal every gearshift.  Amidst this environment, however, I couldn’t help but recall the three silly traffic citations I’ve received stateside over the past nine months and somewhat romanticize the Chinese driving system as a result.

Chinese Fast FoodIn fact, I was hard pressed to “know” that I was in a Communist country at all simply by being there.  McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Starbucks, and even Dunkin’ Donuts are all fairly commonplace.  Negotiating in the marketplace is as free market as it gets (and a heck of a good time!), and, as far as I could tell, employment was not state-conscribed in any way.

Then I would mention my children to a Chinese counterpart, and she would happily ask their names and ages and what they like to do.  Not thinking, I would respond by asking if she has children, too. She would smile and answer, “Yes. One.”

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7 comments on “China: Look Closer

  1. arkmouse
    October 21, 2010

    If the work they are “hard working” and doing “mindless work” for cheap pay (I assume) . . . is that why industry in our country is outsourcing to them because we do not have this type of worker? I assume your company must outsource or you wouldn’t be there, what do they do for your company? Is this something we can’t do? Something that is not cost effective? I am just curious. It must be an amazing trip. Carol

  2. rahbyrt
    October 21, 2010

    Steve, as a fellow traveler to China (and all varieties, including Mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan) it is difficult to seriously define the People’s Republic as a communist nation. The entitlements of universal healthcare, education and housing are fading from Chinese culture as quickly as the once-prevalent images of Mao. A single party capitalist state, perhaps, but hardly the Worker’s Collective as envisioned by Marx, then Lenin, and ultimately tried and failed by others. Truth be told, America has more worker protections and social entitlements than “Communist” China. How weird is that?

  3. rahbyrt
    October 21, 2010

    Dear Carol, although you asked the question of Steve I’d like to impose a response. I am an executive of an American manufacturer of electronics. We also outsource to Asia. We have one foot in North America, another in Asia. It is time to end the myths of cheap Asian labor/expensive American labor. If cheap labor was the beginning and end of foreign manufacturing, there would be no outsourcing. The cost of transportation, including the administrative costs of customs, duties and currency exchanges, and certainly time time and expenses of freight, would not make cheap labor alone cost effective. What is not discussed but vey much are factors are the expenses born upon American companies that simple do not exist in many other countries. these include:
    No social security
    No EPA obligations (check-out Steve’s atmospheric observations)
    No Workers Compensation
    No payroll taxes
    Often no property taxes
    Often low-to-no lease payments on state-owned factories
    And many, many other business incentives unthinkable in the U.S.
    The American worker, as of this writing, is still the most productive workerin the world. But when you include the costs of running a company in China versus the U.S., hourly wage is not biggest savings factor.
    Besides, the Chinese have learned that there’s something even better than cheap labor, and that’s no labor. A visit to almost any Chinese factory will find state-of-the-art process automation and minimal human handing.

  4. arkmouse
    October 21, 2010

    rahybyrt, I appreciate your comments and it gives me a better understanding of what is happening in outsourcing. What I hear you saying is we have put so many restraits on businesses that the only way to provide products at a reasonable cost is to outsource. Thank you.

  5. Steve McCormack
    October 21, 2010

    Thanks for your insights Rahbyrt; I agree for the most part. However, I’d point out that countries like Korea and Taiwan seem to emphasize the process automation moreso than China; China’s labor is still cheap enough that the ROI is much higher than with manpower than pure automation.

    Carol, you’ve taken Rahbyrt’s points correctly. At a certain scale, a business must outsource to remain competitive. At my last employer, for example, we were manufacturing cell phones in the U.S. at a labor cost of something like $70 per phone before moving them to Mexico to cut the labor cost down to $14 per phone. Sure, we could have kept it in the U.S. and trumpeted “Made in America,” but it just can’t compete at the bottom line.

  6. Pingback: Chinese Eyes « Falcone's Crossroads

  7. Pingback: Friday Five – Random Asia Pictures | Falcone's Crossroads

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This entry was posted on October 21, 2010 by in Philosophers' Row and tagged , , , , , .
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