National Geographic : 2007 Jun
the city government bought the land-use rights for one million dollars. Three years later, Lishui flipped the land to Yintai Real Estate for 37 mil lion dollars. Given that corruption is endemic in Chinese real estate, the actual price may have been even higher. In such an environment, everybody gambles on growth. Most of the city's massive investment in infrastructure had been borrowed from state owned banks, which also loaned money to the developers-Yintai had borrowed over 28 mil lion dollars for its Jiangbin venture. If the real estate market went cold, the whole system was in trouble, and the central government had recently instituted new laws intended to slow down such expansions. But the money kept pouring in-during the past five years, the aver age price of a Lishui apartment had risen sixfold. On paper, it looked untenable, but the Chinese economic and social environment is unlike anything else in the world. Real estate laws are skewed in the government's favor, and migration and the export economy create a con stant demand for expanding cities. After the hard times of the 20th century, the average cit izen is willing to tolerate unfairness as long as his living standard improves. In Jiangbin, I met Zhang Qiaoping, whose family had formerly farmed one-third of an acre on the site. The government paid him $15,000 for a plot of land that was worth at least $200,000. Zhang wasn't happy, but he hadn't protested; instead, he invested in a small shop next to the site. Most customers were construction workers. There wasn't much money trickling down to the low est levels, but Zhang had tapped into enough to support his family. Some peasants even made it to the top. Yin tai is owned by the Ji family, whose patriarch had been a farmer before engaging in small-scale construction work in the 1980s. Eventually, he expanded into real estate, and now his three sons help manage the company. I met the youngest, Ji Shengjun, at the nightclub he owns. Flanked by his bodyguard, the 26-year-old was drinking Matisse scotch mixed with green tea, and listen ing patiently to the entreaties of a pretty young 110 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * JUNE 2007 Amedical clinic appeared before my sixth trip. Sidewalks and streetlights by the seventh. Trees and bus stops by the eighth. woman. Ji wore Prada trousers and a Versace shirt; his Piaget watch had cost $10,000. He told me that Yintai expected to profit 19 million dol lars from Jiangbin. The apartment complex would feature a musical fountain bigger than a football field. The pretty young woman was beg ging Ji to help her acquire a visa to Portugal. a negotiated child Much of China's economy depends on peasants who have left the land, and that was also true at the Yashun factory. Boss Wang and Boss Gao come from rice-growing families; Mechanic Luo was born on a cotton plot. A former orange grower worked the metal punch machine, and the chemist had grown up with tea, tobacco, and peanuts. The assembly-line women knew wheat and soybeans. The accountant came from pear country. Despite their varied rural backgrounds, now everybody concentrated on the production of exactly two things: underwire and bra rings that weigh half a gram each. Even the bosses were willing to work like peas ants-every day, the men spent long hours on the factory floor. Each had invested his life sav ings in the business-cash-and only Boss Gao had borrowed a little from the bank. There was no management board, no investment sched ule, no business plan. They began production without a single guaranteed customer. Through out March and April, Boss Wang traveled to bra assembly plants, bearing gifts: Chunghwa cigarettes, Wuliangye alcohol, yellow croaker fish (a Wenzhou favorite). But potential customers were slow to make orders, and by summer the factory had over one million bra rings in storage. They laid off most unskilled workers and slashed the technicians' salaries in half.