When I got back recently from China, I posted this:

Coming back from China I feel like Doc at the end of the movie: wild-haired and raving.. “where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

Seriously, it was like taking a time machine 10 years into the future. Kept thinking, how come no one ever told me about this?

Americans & Europeans need to decide which decade – or perhaps century – they’d like to work in. China is barreling into the future already.

In a little over a week in China, I experienced what felt like a few months’ worth of sights, sounds, and ideas. I was invited there by Kevin Kelly, cofounder of Wired magazine, who I’ve always admired and pointed readers to many times over the years. We visited four cities and presented at two Internet companies and one conference. (I spoke about customer experience, a topic of great interest for the fast-growing Internet economy there.)

China is too big, and moving too fast, for anyone to give a summary. I only got a tiny glimpse. But I can tell you that I saw a lot that hasn’t been covered in the media. If there’s a headline from my trip, it’s this: We don’t know what’s going on in China, and the narrative being presented by the (western) media is grossly insufficient for understanding it.

With that said, here are four pictures from my trip from each of the four cities I visited.

Shenzhen: At left, a photo from downtown Shenzhen. (Yes, that Shenzhen – with the Foxconn factory and all the headlines.) This is inside the Shenzhen public library, on a weeknight at 7pm. Spacious, modern, spotless, and quiet – it was packed with Chinese, most apparently in their 20s, bent over books, journals, or computer screens, studying. Across the street – actually across a lovely public park – is what is billed as the world’s largest bookstore, where the scene was repeated: crowded with eager readers.

I wish this image would help Americans rethink their image of China, or at least Shenzhen: it was the least polluted city I saw, and visiting Foxconn (Kevin Kelly wrote about our Foxconn visit) – and touring a competitor’s assembly line – showed no sign of the apocalyptic industrial wasteland I had been promised by media reports. Sometime I’d like to do a column just on what I saw in Shenzhen – including the genomics facility that I found equally surprising. More to say, another time.

Yiwu: The “city of small commodities,” according to the website, and they’re not kidding. The center of this small town, a couple hours away from Shanghai, is a set of buildings housing a commodities market with tens of thousands of stalls like the one pictured at left. Every small item – every comb, knitted belt, pen, every plastic dollar-store item you can dream of – has a stall, or set of stalls, or an entire wing of a building. It’s like something out of Douglas Adams: the infinite wholesale trade show of the universe! In one building, the entire first floor – with hundreds of stalls – is devoted exclusively to socks. Walking through here is a mind-bending experience of physically traversing the database of every small item the human race manufactures today.

Hangzhou: This is a provincial capital about a hundred miles (180 km) southwest of Shanghai – a favorite for Chinese tourists and a tech hub, serving as the headquarters for Alibaba Group (where we spoke) and a number of other tech firms. At left: we toured the China Academy of Art, whose Hangzhou campus was chiefly designed by Wang Shu (the first Chinese winner of the Pritzker Prize). At dinner with Wang Shu that night, we learned about his intent to use found materials, and traditional Chinese forms, to create a new architecture – sustainable, and specifically Chinese – for the 21st century. I’d like to think Wang Shu’s thoughtful, reasonable vision would win out over the competing trend of breakneck, unsustainable development – but I don’t think that will be the case.

Beijing: We gave two presentations here, including one at a Tencent event alongside Pony Ma, the young founder of the company. I had been to Beijing before – impressive, bustling, modern – and it is all of those things. But I was surprised by the high degree of air pollution, which I understand is present on most days. (This post describes the tension surrounding the American embassy’s installation of air-quality monitors. Even more context in this excellent James Fallows piece.) At left, a stand at the Beijing night market featuring roasted scorpions. I opted for some delicious crab dumplings.

For his part, Kevin Kelly put together a clever video showing his Asia trip (which included China and several other countries) as a series of one-second scenes. If you have two minutes, I’d recommend it as an insightful glimpse into Asia today.

As for media coverage of China, my favorite source is The Atlantic’s James Fallows, whose book Postcards from Tomorrow Square, sourced mostly from his Atlantic columns, gives the most accurate depiction of what I saw on my trip. (His wife Deb Fallows wrote Dreaming in Chinese, which I’d also recommend.)

For companies in New York, I do have a fuller presentation about my China trip and some conclusions about how to stay competitive (and co-operative!) as China continues to grow. Drop a line.

Finally, we’re continuing to explore China business issues in The Councils, which is open (and free!) to online execs at customer-facing companies worldwide. You can apply for membership.

  1. Nice quick summary on your trip (always enjoy your work) and the Fallows material is great. I spent 2.5 years in Beijing (returning to Seattle at the end of Dec 2011). The US press & visitors tend to get China wrong a lot (in both directions – overly hyped as the future and overly criticized for poor development, control, etc.). It is a mixed picture. I wrote a blog about my reflections that were prompted by a NY Times piece on computing in China in Dec 2011. See it here: http://dubfuture.blogspot.com/2011/12/china-will-overtake-us-in.html

  2. And not a word about extreme poverty and the destruction of rural life, or horrendous human rights abuses.

    Or perhaps, being a european, i have simply picked the wrong decade to be concerned about these things?

    Nobody can deny that there are some amazing things going on in China (and there always has been, for thousands of years). It would seem they do a great line in rose tinted glasses.

    • @ Jez, my thoughts exactly. I had a long response to this, but you did a much better job of succinctly responding.

      “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” – Thoreau

      @Mark, I understand this was your personal snapshot, and I love your work but while reading this post, “But at what cost?” was what kept coming to mind.

  3. @Jez, @David – I feel compelled to come to Mark’s defense. I live half my time in Beijing and meet Chinese who have made a U.S. trip. They visit NYC, Wash D.C., and San Fran and are amazed by these great cities – and they should be! No need to point out to them that NYC was built on land stolen from Native Americans, Wash D.C. by African slaves and San Fran by unwilling Chinese. Face it, the U.S. and China are both complex and amazing places.

    • @Stephen
      Fair comment and point taken. I wasn’t actually trying to be too negative, I love Creative Good but it is interesting how the thought did come to mind. My family visits China quite often, albeit to somewhat different areas and they see they are in both awe of China and still taken aback by the gov’t control (they are working with Chinese in alternative education).

  4. I read your news this morning. I was glad you had a good trip and that you pointed out we in the west so often don’t know the picture through what the media presented. I’m also sorry to say it appears you saw a very nice part of China. The parts that are doing well financially, in the world eye. China does some things very well but sadly there are many other sides to the picture.

    The sides where children live in poverty, in homes that are falling down around them, in crowded under resourced and under staffed orphanages, I could go on but wont. Suffice to say there is much more to the picture than the areas you saw…


    David Ryan
    Executive Director
    ChinaHeart International
    Love & compassion in action for
    China’s Poor, needy & orphaned

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