All text and photos © 2008 Peter Newbury.
Globalization (its beginnings present even when the British, Portuguese and Americans were trading with China via clipper ship in the 1800s) has only increased the amount of goods shipped from China and the amount of money shipped into China. Over the last few decades, China has become a factory to the world and investment in Chinese infrastructure has been rampant. With that degree of sudden financial influx, traditional restrictions and rules disappear to be replaced by short-term Darwinian survival of the quickest and most ruthless. Shenzhen was a fishing village that essentially won a development lottery two decades ago when China decided to let more international investment through the door, but only in restricted places. Amusingly, in those twenty short years Shenzhen has experienced the same shifts as many cities in America have over 100+ years - from a quiet village to a large factory town to a massive knowledge/tourism economy. Many factory buildings in Shenzhen have been abandoned in favour of less expensive areas, leaving drab hulks less than ten years old standing empty, creaking, watching hordes of people pedal, drive and preamble past their closed gates. But even with the factories moved elsewhere, Shenzhen is the major shipping hub (with its multiple ports) for the region and so still has a finger on the pulse of physical consumption.
Extremely rapid business growth in localized areas has created rapid growth of cities and constant construction. I've spent a few days driving around the city with friends (hello Jinrong and Teresa!) and the amount of fresh pavement, changing signs, and brand new buildings is astounding. When Jinrong drives to an area she hasn't been to recently (ie more than a month), she gives herself an extra 30 minutes just in case the roadways have changed, again. If I think about the number of buildings that had bamboo and green fabric coating and spread that over the massive extent of Shenzhen, then over similar cities in China, that result, plus China's manufacturing output, is undeniably why China's thirst for raw materials is so evident on the world stage. The pace of that consumption and growth is a major global concern and I would guess that the Chinese government is also trying to figure out how to regain control yet not stifle the economic 'benefits'.
China typifies the application of 'fast and loose' theory on congestion. Things get done quickly and effectively, but far outside the safety standards, regulations and expectations that have become the norm in North America. I'm not sure if this theory comes from a lesser value placed on human life, or an environment less conducive to legal wrangling, or if it naturally springs from a society that might harbour a greater acceptance of personal risk and result (all of which echo the old Wild West). Whatever the reason, from the bowels of this 'fast and loose' theory spews frenetic activity. Some examples...
Even with the American-style cars and roads, American-style rules don't come into play. In the States, whatever lines are painted, etched, taped or indicated somehow are followed with a honk at anybody who would dare violate a lane. Chinese traffic, much like South American and Middle Eastern, sees the lines as mere suggestions, and thus usually ignored. Much like sharp elbows in a market lineup, sharper fenders get right-of-way. I've ridden with the conservative, cautious driver who stayed clear of every vehicle (he was hired to drive westerners around). I've ridden with the dodge, dash and jibe driver that pushes for every inch he can get, even when the backseat is almost occupied by the front corner of a bus. I've ridden with the zen driver who would slowly meander back and forth through traffic, seeming to use his mental state to pry vehicles apart and let him through. But they all ignored the lines.
Shipping ports in the region are much the same. Chaotic cargo ships, tugs, barges and ferries slide past each other in a dance of people and goods. Thankfully, they don't spare themselves quite by inches as the cars do, but it can be an hours-long diversion to be perched above a busy harbour watching the criss-cross of old and new, big and small, worn out and freshly painted. Seattle's harbour is sedate by all accounts, even with the summer cruise ships, ferries, massive cargo ships and small private boats. Occasionally Coast Guard gunboats accompany the ferries to (ostensibly) ward off any potential terrorism threats (including sailboats that don't turn around soon enough). I can't image the heart attack those anxiously over-protective people would have in a Shenzhen harbour.
As an engineer, I deal with the 'factory' much of the time. I may not be working there, but I have to plan for and push the results and capabilities of the machines and people. Many factories in the States have long been on a clean kick, keeping the floors shiny, the machines dusted and the materials neatly stocked. Many Chinese factories run to a different drummer. As long as it runs (decently) and too many people don't get sick and they can find some sort of material to work with, all is well. It's pretty impressive how much can get done at pace when things are run just a little 'fast and loose', though it does make my engineering work more challenging and we have to apply constant pressure to keep the quality level consistent.
It will be interesting to see where the 'fast and loose' theory leads as China continues to increase the number of cars and factories and containers. It's also very interesting to see the 'fast and loose' theory of mercantilism (an ancient Chinese secret) played out against the backdrop of China's relatively new and more confining political system.