The View From Your Recession

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A reader writes:

I went through my first recession during my freshman year of college after 9/11. I remember the most tell-tale sign of the slowdown was that construction sites, ubiquitous in Florida, slowed or stopped entirely. I'm living in Shenzhen, China, now during an even bigger recession.

Except it's not really a recession. China will likely be pulling 5-6% growth this year. While the IHT and other major papers carry a story a week about how bad the Pearl River Delta is doing, I just haven't seen it.

Everyone talks about things slowing down but few people are talking, or seeing, things closing up. Projects I saw started a year ago are finally begin to shape up as the scaffolding comes down and beautiful "gardens", apartment complexes, emerge. New projects are breaking ground and cranes are almost as ubiquitous as they were three years ago. My best friend here - a Hakka man in his late-20's who grew up able to eat meat just once a month - turned down a sales job paying, literally, 8x more than he makes now because he's convinced his current one-man operation is going to explode any day now.

As a foreign teacher I'm making more than I ever have. I'm making $35 an hour doing private lessons preparing a brilliant student to study in the US. I can treat a few friends to an exceptional dinner for half that. Four hours a week pays the rent for my 29th story apartment. My sister, a single mother who just got her Bachelor's degree, is making $8. Enough for a Happy Meal and Big Mac dinner, perhaps.

A final note is that it's surprising how well China's Maoist legacy acts as a safety net inside a capitalist economy. Shenzhen and cities like it, effectively, have half of their population living not as citizens, but as long-term temporary workers. Most of these workers who are getting downsized now will be returning to homes and farms in the countryside because they mostly were not allowed to sell. Most never made permanent residence because the archaic "hukou" household registration system ties delivery of government goods and services to those hometowns. If it works out well, they'll be going back to a rent-free home with decent savings and severance to start their own projects, where their children have free education and increasingly subsidized health-care. As terrible as these policies looked during the boomtimes, they're looking increasingly wise today.

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