National Geographic : 2007 Jun
20 percent chose family. The other 20 percent couldn't make up their minds. From the beginning, an element of despera tion helped create the Wenzhou business tradi tion. The region has little arable soil, and the mountainous landscape made for bad roads to the interior. With few options, Wenzhou natives turned to the sea, developing a strong trading culture by the end of the Ming dynasty, in the 17th century. But they lost their edge after 1949, when the communists came to power and cut off overseas trade links, as well as most private entrepreneurship. Even in the early 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping's free-market reforms began to take hold, Wenzhou started with distinct disad vantages. Residents lacked the education of peo ple in Beijing, and they didn't attract the foreign investment of Shanghai. When the government established the first Special Economic Zone, whose trade and tax privileges were designed to spur growth, they chose Shenzhen, which is near Hong Kong. But Wenzhou had the priceless capital of native instinct. Families opened tiny workshops, often with fewer than a dozen workers, and they produced simple goods. Over time, workshops blossomed into full-scale factories, and Wen zhou came to dominate certain low-tech indus tries. Today, one-quarter of all shoes bought in China come from Wenzhou. The city makes 70 percent of the world's cigarette lighters. Over 90 percent of Wenzhou's economy is private. The Wenzhou Model, as it became known, spread throughout southern Zhejiang Province. Although nearly 80 percent of all Zhejiang entrepreneurs have a formal education of only eight years or less, the province has become the richest in China by most measures. The per cap ita incomes for both rural and urban residents are the highest of any Chinese province (this excludes specially administered cities such as Shanghai and Beijing). Zhejiang reflects China's economic miracle: a poor, overwhelmingly rural nation that has somehow become the world's most vibrant factory center. Over the course of a year, I traveled repeated ly to Zhejiang, every time renting a car in Wen zhou and driving into the province. In the same 96 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * JUNE 2007 Datang makes one-third of the world's socks. Songxia produces 350 million umbrellas every year. Xiaxie does jungle gyms. way that a pilgrim treks across Spain, stopping at the shrines of obscure saints, I passed the birthplaces of products that are usually taken for granted. From the airport, driving south along the coast, I started with hinges-a stretch of road where the vast majority of billboards advertised every possible variation of the piece of metal used to swing a door. A mile later, the ads shifted to electric plugs and adapters. Then I reached a neighborhood of electric switches, followed by fluorescent lightbulbs, then faucets. Deeper in the province, the shrines became more elaborate. At Qiaotou, I stopped to admire the 20-foot-high silver statue of a button with wings that had been erected by the town elders. Qiaotou's population is only 64,000, but 380 local factories produce more than 70 percent of the buttons for clothes made in China. In Wuyi, I asked some bystanders what the local product was. A man reached into his pocket and pulled out three playing cards-queens, all of them. The city manufactures more than one billion decks a year. Datang township makes one-third of the world's socks. Songxia produces 350 mil lion umbrellas every year. Table tennis paddles come from Shangguan; Fenshui turns out pens; Xiaxie does jungle gyms. Forty percent of the world's neckties are made in Shengzhou. Everything is sold in a town called Yiwu. For the Zhejiang pilgrim, that's the promised land Yiwu's slogan is "a sea of commodities, a par adise for shoppers." Yiwu is in the middle of nowhere, a hundred miles from the coast, but traders come from all over the world to buy goods in bulk. There's a scarf district, a plastic bag market, an avenue where every shop sells elastic. If you're burned out on buttons, take a stroll down Binwang Zipper Professional Street.