National Geographic : 2008 May
BY PETER HESSLER PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRITZ HOFFMANN THE GENESIS of a Chinese factory town is always the same: In the beginning nearly every body is a construction worker. The booming economy means that work moves fast, and new industrial districts rise in distinct stages. Those early laborers are men who have migrated from rural villages, and immediately they're joined by small entrepreneurs. These pioneers sell meat, fruit, and vegetables on informal stands, and later, when the first real stores appear, they stock construction materials. After that cell phone companies set up shop: China Mobile, China Unicom. They deal prepaid phone cards to migrants; in the southeastern province of Zhe jiang, one popular product is called the Home sick Card. During these initial stages there's rarely any sign of police. Government officials are prominently absent. It's not until plants start production that you see many women. Assembly-line bosses prefer young female work ers, who are believed to be more diligent and manageable. After the women appear, so do the clothes shops. It's amazing how quickly a shoe store emerges from a barren strip of factories, like a flower in a broken sidewalk. In the early days garbage accumulates in the gutters; the government is never in a rush to institute basic services. Public buses don't appear for months. Manholes remain open till the last instant, for fear that early settlers will steal the metal covers and sell them for scrap. Over a two-year period, I traveled repeatedly to Zhejiang, watching factory towns rise from the farmland. Every time, I rented a car and fol lowed a brand-new highway that connected the boomtowns of tomorrow. I drove the road for six months before noticing any clear indication of local authority. That's when I began to receive 176 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * MAY 2008 speeding tickets-$20 each, three or four every journey. They were issued by automated cam eras, usually in places where the posted speed limit mysteriously dropped without warning. I collected violations in factory towns all across the province: in Jinhua, known for producing brassieres; in Lishui, maker of synthetic leather; in Qiaotou, famous for buttons and zippers. Fines were deducted from my deposit at the Prosperous Automobile Rental Company. "It's a good business for the police," the rental compa ny boss told me. Later I learned that individual cops invested in cameras as private entrepre neurs with a stake in profits. The boss told me to memorize the camera locations, but I was never able to do that. It was hard enough to manage every trip so I always returned the car with an empty tank. That was Prosperous Automobile's business strategy: Whenever they rented out a vehicle, they made sure it had just enough fuel to make it to a gas station. If I returned a car with so much as a gallon in the tank, it would be siphoned off and sold-another profit in the cutthroat world of Chinese business. THE POET John Greenleaf Whittier, who mar veled at the early industry of Lowell, Massachu setts, described the "city springing up, like the enchanted palaces of the Arabian tales, as it were in a single night." Today it's the factory towns of China that seem to be conjured up from another world. The sheer human energy is overwhelm ing: the fearless entrepreneurs, the quick-moving builders, the young migrants. Virtually everybody has been toughened by the past; families remem ber well the poverty ofthe Mao period. Meanwhile most Chinese have seen their living standards rise in recent years, often dramatically. This combina tion-the struggles of the past, the opportunities of the present-has created a uniquely motivated population. It's hard to imagine another place where people are more willing to work.