5 Years Later…Back Home in Shenzhen.

After a few years in school, being back in Shenzhen, where I lived for almost a decade, has been an enjoyable readjustment. I moved back into our own home in Futian and now conduct PhD research in an office very close to where my own office was a few years back. My routine hasn’t change that much. But Shenzhen has.

A couple of general observations.

First, the pollution seems to be much less than it was before. There have been, so far these last two weeks, multiple days of clear blue skies. Streets seem to be cleaner and less covered with trash. To me this is major. As people are actively planning career moves away from Beijing because of pollution (Doing Business in China: Pollution puts a Chokehold on Business Owners) this is a positive for Southern China—which I’ve always claimed was better for Business than Northern China anyway (further from Beijing and it’s controlling govt, closer to HK and it’s legal rights and int’l connections, longer history of development and capitalism, a “freer” attitude, int’l business history, etc.). Of course this decrease in pollution can be seen as either a victory for govt regulations and clean-up efforts, or a sign of the slowing down of the economy and the shift of manufacturing away from Guangdong Province. It’s probably some of each. Either way, it’s cleaner.

Second, in the last ten years the subway in Shenzhen has grown from 2 lines with about 20+ stops to 10 lines with more than 200 stops. I’ve had some personal history with the subway that wasn’t all that positive, but I have to admit that it’s quite convenient now. I use it every day that it rains–which is a couple days a week right now–when I’m not on a bike.

Third, when I lived here before bikes in the city were illegal. Now? You can’t get out your front gate without tipping over rows of public bikes—Mobike, Bluegogo, ofo, etc. There are literally tens of thousands of bikes parked on the streets—and thousands more moving through the streets at all times of the day. With a swipe of your phone and about 1RMB per ride, you can grab a bike off of any street curb and leave it at any other curb. fullsizeoutput_3a35They’re everywhere. Right now it’s “cool,” “new,” and trendy—not to mention convenient! Not sure how long it will last though. We’ll see what happens in 8-12 months when all these bikes start breaking down and rusting out; piling up on corners and against trees and buildings. There are already alleys that I pass when I jog in the AMs where I see piles of broken bikes. But there is real optimism as the smartest of these bike companies have already eliminated parking frames, tubes in the tires, chains, and other removable and breakable parts. Fewer things to break or steal means more use and fewer repairs. And of course, they’re selling advertising space on the bikes as well.

Fourth, to paraphrase Fletch, “Awww. Come on, guys. It’s so simple. Maybe you need a refresher course. It’s all WeChat now days!” WeChat: all day, every day, until the sun goes out. On their bikes, while they do taiqi or run in the park, while driving, on dates, while eating, while talking on the phone to others—everyone seems to be using WeChat. It has become the norm for a billion people. It’s increasing a culture of atomization—as if Chinese citizens were not already atomized enough in cities (living next to others but without any connection to the people around them). Ironically, foreigners seem to be using even more than Chinese!

The obsession with WeChat is understandable, because it’s SOOOOoooo efficient and convenient. You can do almost everything on WeChat—pay utility bills, pay for groceries, rent a bike, buy movie tix, chat, watch movies, use it as a facebook/snapchat equivalent, order coffee/flowers/books, order take-out food, check your bank balance, “see” a doctor, read the news, translate documents, park you car, take/edit/share photos, lock doors, monitor your kids at school, use maps, shop online, etc. It’s every single app on your US iPhone in one single app. That means there’re only one password and one bank account and one interface to EVERYTHING in your life. Every store you go into asks, “Cash or WeChat.” WeChat has replaced credit cards and is quickly replacing cash (except for in the subway). It’s amazing, and more than 1 billion people are using it everyday, all day long. As China grows, WeChat will too.

Of course, it’s also very scary.

The same company that has built WeChat (Tencent) is also working with the govt on China’s social credit system (Sesame). The govt is tapping into this digital resource to expand the enforcement of it’s new (started just last year) personal income tax. Not just everything you pay for, but everywhere you go, everyone you talk to, and everything you search for is recorded in one place. What could go wrong with that?!

Fifth, the censorship is more extensive, but seems to be somewhat random. Sometimes my school email works, but most of the time it doesn’t. Ditto, but even more so for Gmail. Once or twice a week I can pull gmail. And google maps worked great last Sunday night but never before or since. A VPN works well, but that means that emails are not synced across devices—a pain, but better than not getting emails at all.

I think that there is a real conflict in the hearts of Chinese people about this censorship. A good friend said to me last night, “There is only good news in China. Nothing bad. Only ‘China government blah blah blah.’ It’s really developed and convenient now but we don’t know any of the real news. We have lots of TV and internet but we really don’t know anything about China.”

She’s right. It’s amazing how much news about China is blocked in here. Articles that are blocked that I’m linking to this AM include some foreign comments about China’s One Belt One road (OBOR) development in Thailand/Mekong region (Reuters), a questions about the slowdown of the Chinese service economy (Financial Times), all of the WSJ, Bloomberg, the NYT, as well as access to many scholarly document services. The entire Google universe is also blocked—maps, groups, email, search (but not google drive!?). Of course Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram are all blocked as well.

Sixth, while the economic numbers are not bad, there seem to be a worsening case of under employment here. Younger people in “my” office are talking about how glad they are to have a job.

For the first time in the PRC’s history millions of students that have been competing educationally since before first grade have now graduated. The result of that intense decades-long competition is highly qualified students going to relatively poor quality universities and increasingly getting degrees in fields that are not necessarily employable. China needs lawyers, engineers, accountants, computer technicians, and other technical people. And they can’t produce enough of those. And as they try to copy/compete with the West they’re also starting to produce increasingly more history, philosophy, and area studies majors. The result is massive under employment in China right now–even for technical grads like engineers. Increased rates of college admissions and graduation combined with inadequate schools have produce too many poor quality graduates. Student with less-than int’l standard degrees can’t find full employment even in a good economy. Add to this the reality that economy has indeed slowed down (regardless of what the govt says) and what you get is coffee from 20-somethings with MA’s and foot massages from 20-somethings with BA’s.

For example, I just got a foot massage in a shop next-door to a Starbucks in downtown Shenzhen. The guy working at the counter in Starbucks has a masters degree, but he’s not the manager, and the girl that gave me a foot massage has a bachelors degree in Japanese. Both of these people spoke very comfortably with me in English. Neither of them are doing what they went to school for; both of them moved to Shenzhen for better opportunities after graduation but neither have been able to find degree-related work in more than a year of searching. The manager at Starbucks is completely frustrated. He doesn’t know what to do or where to go—he can’t afford a car or house (read: can’t get married) on a Starbucks salary. The girl at the foot massage place, on the other hand, isn’t happy about her job, but couldn’t find anything else. She’s happily resigned though; she’s is making like $35 an hour with tips (yes, everything that she touches is below the knees). The money is so good now that she thinks that she’ll continue to do foot massages for a couple more years before she goes to get a job in her major; and she only wants to find a job in Japanese so that she can “find a decent husband” and have face, because “nobody wants to marry a masseur.” I suggested to both of them that they start looking at jobs in other countries since there are so many businesses that are looking for educated Chinese/English (Japanese) speakers outside of China.

It seems that China is still losing its best and brightest because it can’t employ many of them domestically. Add to that most older people that are financially successful are actively moving their family and money out of the country (hence the govt’s limitations on the moment of capital abroad). Students with debt in China is also starting to become increasingly common event as well. Debt, underemployment, unrealistic expectations for marriage (a house and car), and the need to care for aging parents is going to frustrate an increasingly large number of young Chinese.

I was talking with foreigner here and she mentioned that while she’s not working in her major either, she’s making good money and the opportunities and adventure in China are enticing enough that she wants to stay.

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