Friday, 6 May 2016

The Amazing Race 28, Episode 11

Bali (Indonesia) - Shenzhen (China)

Highrises under construction in Shenzhen.

[Highrises under construction in 2005 along the north (Shenzhen) side of the channel separating the Hong Kong “Special Administrative Region” from the Shenzhen “Special Economic Zone”. The area of the New Territories on the Hong Kong side of the channel (behind me) is open farmland, much of it rice paddies. The smog was even worse than it looks in this photo.]

The instructions given to the teams at the start of this week’s episode of The Amazing Race 28 were to, “fly to Shenzhen, the Silicon Valley of China”.

Shenzhen isn’t Silicon Valley, though. There is still some manufacturing in Silicon Valley, mainly of military hardware that the Department of “Defense” requires to be made in the USA. But Silicon Valley today is more about software and the design of hardware that is made elsewhere, often in China. And when it comes to electronics, “made in China” most often means “made in Shenzhen” or the surrounding Pearl River Delta region. The iPhones and Macbooks designed in Sunnyvale are mostly assembled in Shenzhen.

Why Shenzhen, and not someplace else in China or another poorer country with even cheaper labor? Shenzhen is one of the most expensive cities in China, along with Beijing and Shanghai. Things aren’t made in Shenzhen if they could be built elsewhere. But Shenzhen has by far the world’s largest concentration of manufacturers of electronic components and accessories, tools, equipment, facilities, suppliers of ancillary services, and workers with specialized skills.

Do you need electrical connectors? Of course we have them in stock. We make them here. What size do you need? What type? How many thousands?

Do you need custom circuit boards fabricated ASAP? No problem. Our manufacturing plant is just down the road. We specialize in rapid prototyping.

Does your injection molding machine or CNC machine tool need repairs? In Shenzhen, the technician is likely to be dispatched from within a few miles, not from someplace hours away. And there is undoubtedly a stockpile of spare parts nearby as well.

Shenzhen’s factories and workers’ dormitories are notoriously skittish about allowing in foreign visitors who might see signs or hear stories of sexual harassment, dangerous working conditions, and other forms of exploitation and abuse. But you can get a hint of what’s being made in Shenzhen in the consumer electronics trade shows and electronic component bazaars, many of which are open to the public even if they only sell in wholesale quantities. Just remember that most of these aren’t end products for sale, but inputs used in the making of other things..

Whatever your new idea in consumer electronics, the path of least resistance that gets your gadget to market fastest with the least seed money leads to Shenzhen. Shenzhen is to electronic hardware as Los Angeles — with its set builders and warehouses of props and people who keep antique cars mainly to rent them out for use in period films — is to the film and television industries, or Seattle and Wichita are to aircraft manufacturing, or Detroit used to be to automobiles. You could make these specialty products somewhere else, but you’d have to be much more self-reliant or take the time and invest the money to recreate an entire industrial infrastructure to do so.

Cheap labor is what attracted foreigners to set up factories in Shenzhen, at first mainly under Hong Kong overseers, after China’s central government designated the then-village of Shenzhen as the country’s first “Special Economic Zone” for foreign investment and export-oriented manufacturing in 1980. Today, it’s the self-reinforcing industrial ecosystem of electronics manufacturing that drives Shenzhen’s continued dominance in spite of what is, by Chinese standards, the exceptionally high cost of doing business there.

Hong Kong struggles to find a continued role for itself in an increasingly Shenzhen-centric region, while Shenzhen increasingly bypasses Hong Kong in its relations with the rest of China and the rest of the world. Shenzhen has its own international container seaport, its own international airport, and (perhaps most threatening to Hong Kong) its own banks as well as access to capital from banks in Shanghai and elsewhere in China. Shenzhen today is a much larger city than Hong Kong by any measure, including wealth. It’s one of the three largest concentrations of wealth in China, along with Beijing and Shanghai. The teams on The Amazing Race 28 were able to fly to Shenzhen on a nonstop flight from Bali because there are enough rich business people in Shenzhen who can afford to fly to Bali for their vacations to make such a flight profitable.

But while Indonesia allows in Chinese tourists despite the historical ethnic and economic class conflict between Chinese and other ethnicities in Indonesia, many other countries still treat Chinese would-be tourists as would-be illegal immigrants. The racers’ first destination in Shenzhen was “Window of the World”, a theme park that owes its existence to some of the contradictions facing the new Chinese upper classes.

Window of the World features one-third to one-sixth scale models of a bucket list of tourist icons around the world: the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the Statue of Liberty, the Sydney Opera House, the Great Pyramid, and so forth. It allows visitors to feel like they have travelled around the world, even if they can’t get visas to visit most of the countries where these icons are located. Today it’s foreign countries’ visa rules, not those of China, that trap many Chinese citizens who could, and otherwise would, be travelling abroad. “Window on the World” is an unsatisfactory substitute for a trip abroad, but it’s the closest thing to “foreign” travel that foreign governments, including that of the USA, allow most Chinese citizens.

Next the racers were given a choice of tasks that included a simulated commute (note that this demo is actually illegal on the sidewalk in the UK where it was filmed) through part of Shenzhen’s central business district on electric unicycles.

What’s that, you ask? An electric unicycle (“EUC” to the cognoscenti) is sort of like a cross between a hoverboard and a Segway, but with only one wheel. Whereas a hoverboard has a single platform for your feet in the center, between two small wheels at the ends of the board, an electric unicycle has a single larger, Segway-sized gyroscopically stabilized wheel in the center, between your legs, with platforms hanging off each side of the wheel for your feet. Unlike a Segway, there’s no steering and speed control column. You steer and control forward and backward movement entirely by leaning. Like hoverboards, they go by many names and are sold under many brands.

Are electric unicycles the next big consumer electronics gadget fad? Possibly. They take longer to learn to ride than a hoverboard — more like learning to ride a bicycle for the first time than learning to ride a Segway — which is what made them an interesting challenge for the teams on The Amazing Race. But they are faster and have a longer range than hoverboards, and the larger wheel makes them capable of being ridden over rougher surfaces, including unpaved ones, and up and down curbs and even stairs. Don’t try these stunts without skateboarder-style knee, elbow, wrist, and hand protection! Evemn on smooth pavement, host Phil Keoghan introduced this segment of The Amazing Race 28 wearing fingerless cycling gloves to protect his palms against scrapes in case of falls.

In many ways, electric unicycles are a perfect symbol of Shenzhen: Not only are most of them made in Shenzhen, but they exemplify the way that, as described in this insightful article by Joe Bernstein last year for BuzzFeed News, Shenzhen’s concentration of manufacturers, suppliers, subcontractors, and service providers allows it to keep pace with fickle tastes and fads in consumer electronics: selfie sticks one year, miniature drone helicopters the next, then hoverboards, then electric unicycles.

What will come next? Shenzhen is geared up to build it, without even knowing what it will be.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 6 May 2016, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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