Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: Shenzhen: The Death of a Dream

The dream is over. I repeat, the dream is over.

For those of us who grew up studying American history, we can all remember back to those lazy days in May. School was almost finished for the year and your teacher was busy mumbling something about Manifest Destiny. We sat in our stuffy history class rooms, starred out the window and dreamt of summer bliss. Ah, Manifest Destiny and the Gold Rush of the mid 1800s. A brief: in the mid-late 1800s hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people moved from the east coast of the United States to take their chances in the wild west, basically anywhere west of Virgina, were mythes of free land and gold wealth circulated like wild fire.

Ah, free land is good, but it was the gold that really caught people's attention, while it was true that you could make a decent living mining or prospecting for gold - it was most often the case that unless you struck it big or had some connections, life was most likely better back in the east or settling and farming somewhere on the interior where the government was giving away free land.

Oh, but the excitement of possibly striking it big. What is it about human nature that makes us love to roll the dice?

I recently made a trip to Shenzhen in an effort to better understand this bizarre city and designated Special Economic Zone of China. Shenzhen was essential created out of thin air in 1980 during an Opening and Reform period led by Deng Xiaoping a reform minded Chinese leader who wanted to set the country in a new direction after years of mismanagement by Mao and his followers. Before that Shenzhen had just been a sleepy fishing village on the border of a British held Hong Kong. In fact, prior to 1980 Shenzhen had been purposely underdeveloped by the Chinese government for fear that the British would attempt a further land grab. The building began in 1980 and no one really knew what to expect.

Fast forward to 1990. Shenzhen has become a manufacturing hub and it's close proximity to Hong Kong has made it a location that international businesses are willing to use to manufacture products and ship them around the world suing Hong Kong's first class port facility. Hong Kong, Taiwanese, Korean and Japanese investment was massive. Suddenly, labor became the biggest problem as these companies couldn't find enough people to work for them. It was at about this time that the rumors began.

The 1990s will really be remember as the hey-day of Shenzhen, because this is really when Shenzhen became China's wild west. Rumors of people going from rags to riches began to circulate among the farming villages in rural China, as far as Sichuan and Gansu provinces.

Everybody had a friend who knew somebody who went to Shenzhen and got a job as a factory worker, was promoted to a manager and then made it big, bought a house and maybe even has a driver. And so the masses fled. Anyone over the age of 17 who could scrap together enough money jumped on a bus to Shenzhen to roll their dice. The results have been mixed of course.

With money clearly flowing in to Shenzhen much of it was not re-invested on people: workers were cheap and exploitable and there were daily bus loads of people arriving willing to replace anyone doing anything. The result was working conditions were brutal, where ever money could be saved, it was. People were hurt on the job and given no compensation, perhaps maybe a bus ticket home if anything. People quit and some in search of other alternatives turned to crime. With so many migrant workers in and around Shenzhen, theft and gangsterism were easy career choices for those with loose morals. Shenzhen really was beginning to look like the wild west.

Enter 2006, the year I visited Shenzhen with the intention of getting under its skin. I had visited several times before but never with enough time to really learn about what's going on.

Shenzhen is a growing metropolis. Skyscrapers are being built in every direction and five star hotels are littered throughout the city. This is a far cry from the fishing village that existed 26 years ago. Shenzhen has a lot to boast about, and an interview with the mayor proved that, the city was flooded with investment, numbers were up and things were running smoothly. Shenzhen is also home to China's largest middle class and the city has the highest average salary of anywhere in China. Those are incredible statistics for a city that was created out of thin air, or as the locals call it "A city with no history".

But with the growing middle class come representation and that is causing a problem that I will save for another discussion.

What wasn't addressed by the mayor, or his followers is what is happening to the low class migrant workers. Well they are still turning up by the bus load, even though the good times have past. Most migrants who show up in Shenzhen now have to borrow money to leave their village, and borrow money to live in Shenzhen for a few weeks while finding a job. Then they have to borrow more money to pay a "job agent" to get them an interview with one of the big factory bosses so they can get that long awaited job. By the time these young men and women even start working, they can often be in debt US$200-500 which can be more than 6 months salary once they start working. It's safe to say the situation is bleak.

Once in the job most workers don't last long. Hours are long and conditions are harsh, but the excitement of moving away from the family and having a chance to live one's own life is thrilling, for a time being. After 6 months or a year, sometimes two, people move back home or move in to other industries or are lucky and find office jobs in the city center. But there are many who fall between the cracks and begin a life of crime or, in an increasing number of cases, a life of prostitution.

Howard, my writing partner, managed to speak with a woman who had come to Shenzhen with dreams of gold rush riches, but her reality was much different. She had worked for a factory at the beginning, her job was fairly easy to find but her boss was impossible. She hated it. A combination of debt and limited work opportunities lead to prostitution, and this is where we found her. In Shenzhen there is a neighborhood that is exclusively for prostitutes and in fact it's called "prostitute village". She was a virgin when she began, and had no idea of even how to use a condom or even have sex for that matter. She had been working there for a year now. She wanted to go home.

For the people in rural China, the harsh life in Shenzhen hasn't affected their spirits. They still want out, anything is better than being at home on the farm, where in many cases they can't even find a wife let alone a job. As for the gold rush, other cities in the Pearl River Delta and along coastal China are now becoming mini gold rushes. Shenzhen is no longer the only game in town, and that is a good thing. As cities and companies compete for China's massive labour market, they will have to increase the standard of working conditions, which will hopefully mean less people falling through the cracks; it will also mean more expensive shirts, shoes, lighters, watches and just about everything we touch, use, read or program in our day to day life.

After my stay in Shenzhen it was clear that among the low class migrant workers, the sense of euphoria had long passed. All that was left was increased debt, no savings, poor working conditions and no prospects at home to return to. In a country growing at 10.5% its amazing that there are so few options for the migrants workers from rural China; enter the complete neglect of education and healthcare in the countryside since 1980.

China's economic boom is now moving in multiple directions and manufacturing is just one of them. While Shenzhen's best days are far from over, it's time as being a buzz word for wealth and prosperity amongst those in rural China is fading fast. Shenzhen is no longer a mythical place where anything can happen. It's just a city, and for someone who is un-educated and un-skilled, it can be a brutal place; just like any other normal big city.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

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