In the years when I was visiting and learning about factories in China, my dominant emotion was, I can’t wait to tell people about this! Of course everyone “knew,” in general terms, about the rise of Chinese manufacturing and the country’s role as workshop-to-the-world. But the experience of seeing the factories that turned out computers and smart phones and everything else was so different from hearing about “low-wage Chinese sweatshops” that I thought, people really have no idea.
Sure, low wages and lax-to-nonexistent regulatory and environmental standards were big advantages. But it was mainly the speed of the industrial ecosystem in places like Shenzhen that was so amazing. And the density of all elements of the supply chain — if you needed a certain kind of keyboard or connector, there were five suppliers to choose from within an hour’s drive.
And one more underappreciated element was essential: the new tools of connectivity and logistics that allowed a customer in Chicago to shop online for a smartphone, and have the customized specs conveyed instantly to a production line in China, where the order would be put together and then taken to the airport in Hong Kong for airfreight back to the U.S. These new tools really mattered: China had had low wages for a very long time (and they were beginning to rise fast in these factory zones); it had abused the environment for years (and was trying to clean up). But it was only the knitting-together of information and logistics that allowed Chinese factories to be so directly incorporated into the world production-and-marketing system. That’s the story I told nine years ago in “China Makes, The World Takes,” centered on a company that had pioneered this kind of connection.