China Makes, The World Takes

A look inside the world’s manufacturing center shows that America should welcome China’s rise—for now.
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MR CHINA: Liam Casey stands beside workers assembling laptop computers

“Mr. China” is an established jokey honorific, like People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive—2003.” Since the days of Marco Polo, successive foreigners have competed informally for recognition as the person who really understands the country and can make things happen here. The hilarious 2005 memoir Mr. China, by Tim Clissold, describes the heartbreak and frustration of a young British financier who thought he could figure out the secrets of success in China when it was first opening up to Western commerce.

Liam Casey has succeeded where Tim Clissold was frustrated, but he is careful not to sound overconfident. “Just when you think you know what’s happening here, that’s when you’re in danger,” he says. “You see some new product on the market, and you wonder where it was made—and it turns out to be a factory you drove by every day for five years and never knew what was going on inside! You can be here so long and know so little.” But for my purposes he is Mr. China, because he is at the center of the overlapping flows of humanity bringing the world’s work to China.

When not dining or sleeping at the Four Points, Casey runs a company he owns outright, with 800 employees (50 of them are from Ireland, America, or one of a dozen other nations; the rest are Chinese) and sales last year of about $125 million. He is of medium height and fit-seeming in a compact way, with thick dark hair and a long face that generally has an impish expression. He has a strong Irish accent and dresses informally. He walks, talks, and moves so fast that I was generally scrambling to keep up.

Casey grew up on a farm outside Cork, had no formal education after high school, and first worked as a salesman in garment shops in Cork and then Dublin. He got involved in buying garments from Europe, with a friend set up a Crate & Barrel–style store in Ireland, then decided to travel. At age 29 he arrived in Southern California and worked briefly for a trading company. He says he would be in America still—“Laguna, Newport Beach, ah, I luvved it”—but he could not get a green card or long-term work permit, and didn’t want to try to stay there under the radar.

(I might as well say this in every article I write from overseas: The easier America makes it for talented foreigners to work and study there, the richer, more powerful, and more respected America will be. America’s ability to absorb the world’s talent is the crucial advantage no other culture can match—as long as America doesn’t forfeit this advantage with visa rules written mainly out of fear.)

So in 1996, just after he turned 30, Casey went to Taipei for an electronics trade show. It was his first trip to Asia, and, he says, “I could see this is where the opportunity was.” Within a year, he had set up operations in the Shenzhen area and started the company now known as PCH China Solutions. The initials stand for Pacific Coast Highway, in honor of his happy Southern California days.

What does this company do? The short answer is outsourcing, which in effect means matching foreign companies that want to sell products with Chinese suppliers who can make those products for them. Casey describes his mission as “helping innovators leverage the manufacturing supply chain here in China.” To see how this works, consider the great human flows that now converge in southern China, which companies like Casey’s help mediate.

One is the enormous flow of people, mainly young and unschooled, from China’s farms and villages to Shenzhen and similar cities. Some arrive with a factory job already arranged by relatives or fixers; some come to the cities and then look for work. In the movie version of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, two teenaged men from the city befriend a young woman in the mountain village where they have been sent for rustication during the Cultural Revolution. One day the young woman unexpectedly leaves. She has gone to “try her luck in a big city,” her grandfather tells them. “She said she wanted a new life.” The new life is in Shenzhen.

Multiplied millions of times, and perhaps lacking the specific drama of the Balzac tale, this is the story of the factory towns. As in the novel, many of the migrants are young women. In the light-manufacturing operations I have seen in the Pearl River Delta and around Shanghai, the workforce is predominantly female. Signing on with a factory essentially means making your job your life. Workers who come to the big coastal factory centers either arrive, like the little seamstress, before they have a spouse or children, or leave their dependents at home with grandparents, aunts, or uncles. At the electronics and household-goods factories, including many I’ve seen, the pay is between 900 and 1,200 RMB per month, or about $115 to $155. In the villages the workers left, a farm family’s cash earnings might be a few thousand RMB per year. Pay is generally lowest, and discipline toughest, at factories owned and managed by Taiwanese or mainland Chinese companies. The gigantic Foxconn (run by its founder, Terry Guo of Taiwan) is known for a militaristic organization and approach. Jobs with Western firms are the cushiest but are also rare, since the big European and American companies buy mainly from local subcontractors. Casey says that monthly pay in some factories he owns is several hundred RMB more than the local average. His goal is to retain workers for longer than the standard few-year stint, allowing them to develop greater skills and a sense of company spirit.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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