Wednesday, May 10, 2006

History Lesson on Wenzhou

This is part of an article that appeared in the Smithsonian. Portions of the text were removed. It provides some information and history about Wenzhou.

"A Tale of Two Chinas - As the red-hot Chinese economy feeds the world’s appetite for consumer goods, the one-time workers’ republic is more than ever a nation of haves and have-nots".
By Stephen Glain

Chen Chuang and Dai Wei located their factory in Wenzhou (pop. seven million), China’s unofficial shoemaking capital, because of the city’s ready supply of laborers. The factory produces some 100,000 pairs of shoes a year—deck shoes to cross-trainers—making a profit of about three yuan, or 37 cents, a pair. Chen, who wears a T-shirt with “Welcome to the Love Hood” on it, says he would have been miserable in the state-run rubber factory that employed his father. “Our future is much more interesting,” he says. “We work for ourselves, and we are more successful because we can survive with such small margins.”

In less than a generation, Wenzhou, a port city on the East China Sea about 200 miles south of Shanghai, has transformed itself from a charming backwater to a showcase of China’s new commercial vitality. Wenzhou churns out not only shoes but also pharmaceuticals, garments, sporting goods, optics, kitchen appliances, valves, paint and metal works. Construction cranes rake across work sites manned by crews on double and triple shifts. The city’s annual per capita income of $2,500 is almost double the national average of $1,300. Gated communities of opulent villas have mushroomed in the suburbs, while entire neighborhoods of dilapidated hutongs—wooden homes and courtyards that have stood for centuries—await the wrecking ball. Traffic along the city’s main thoroughfares is a frenzied ballet in which bicycles, wagon-pulling tractors and carts pedaled by coolies (derived in part from the Chinese ku li, or “bitter labor”) vie with Cadillacs, BMWs and even Hummers.

In Wenzhou, I found China’s bold future, where newly made fortunes and go-go consumerism have transformed lifestyles but at a cost to the environment. “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.” The old Chinese proverb alludes to how much can be achieved beyond the meddling reach of the state, and it is nowhere more appropriate than in Wenzhou.

Wenzhounese are known for their resourcefulness in turning what could be a geographic liability—isolation due to the forbidding Yandang Mountains—into an asset. Neglected for centuries by the central government, Wenzhou’s citizens began pioneering a more nimble, private-enterprise economy long before Beijing launched its “market- socialist” reforms in the early 1980s under Premier Deng Xiaoping, who ended more than a quarter-century of totalitarian restrictions under Mao Zedong. “People are defined by their geography, and Wenzhou was once an island, always remote from the cities,” says Chen Youxin, a 73-year- old semiretired government historian who edits Wenzhou’s official statistical yearbook. The city was a tiny kingdom with its own language and culture until, he says, it participated in a failed rebellion against a Han dynasty emperor in the second century b.c. In retaliation, the emperor exiled Wenzhou’s entire population to the present-day eastern province of Anhui, and replaced it with people from the northeast who were among China’s most cultured and educated. By the tenth century a.d., Wenzhou had emerged as an enclave of art, literature, handicraft and scholarship. Wenzhounese became shrewd and self-reliant, Chen says. Centuries before the state began experimenting with private enterprise, the Wenzhou economy revolved around a nucleus of small, family-owned businesses financed by gao li dai, or high-interest loans from one family member or friend to another. Often capital is pooled among members of a meng, a fraternity of sorts of half a dozen or more male friends. The meng might help a member finance a home, find medical attention for a loved one or ensure that the seats at his wedding are filled—a real bonus in a country where guests are honor-bound to give newlyweds money. Last year, according to the Chongqing Morning Post, a provincial newspaper, Wenzhou residents spent nearly 11 percent of their income on wedding gifts, the highest in China.

The Wenzhou shoe market and factory complex takes up several city blocks. Inside a honeycomb of small shops and factories, pedestrians compete for sidewalk space with scooters, construction crews and boxes stacked outside crowded showrooms. The streets are slick with oil and garbage. Rows of squat warehouses roofed in corrugated steel or terra-cotta tile front sewage-choked waterways.

Pan Wenheng and his wife started the Wenzhou Rui Xing Shoe Factory 13 years ago with an initial investment of $6,230. The factory now turns out a thousand pairs of shoes a day. In its warehouse, canvas moccasins for Chinese buyers and leather loafers and lace-ups bound for Italy and Germany are stacked in black boxes on wooden pallets. The company generated sales of $4.6 million last year, according to Pan, whose laborers earn between $125 and $374 annually. “We work from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.,” he says. “We Wenzhounese work harder than anyone else in China.”

A few blocks from Pan’s factory, Wong Tsinhuei is cutting linoleum for a storefront. Wong says he makes ten times the amount he could earn back home in Shaanxi Province. He says he came to the city five years ago with his wife and three sisters, who work as chambermaids. They’re among the 300 million people who left rural villages to find work in cities since Beijing lifted restrictions on personal movement in the mid-1980s—one of the largest migrations in human history. “I work every day if I can,” says the 38-year-old Wong, an expert furniture-maker who began an apprenticeship at the age of 18. Wong says he makes about $200 a month, and he and his wife, who earns about $100 herself, send more than 15 percent of their income to family members back home.

The abundance of cheap labor in China has kept the prices of most consumer products low. Chinese people can now afford such commodities as televisions, refrigerators and personal computers, which were once considered luxury items. But services such as healthcare, which was jettisoned by the government to the free market decades ago, are costly and of uneven quality, and rent can absorb half of an average worker’s wages. Still, many of China’s itinerant workers have the same ambitions as their counterparts in other market economies. “There is no way we could make this kind of money in the village,” Wong says. “But we won’t stay here forever. Our dream is to make enough to build a big new house and lead a quiet life back in Shaanxi.”

Getting rich may be an article of faith in Wenzhou, but it is not the only one. Religion, both Western and Asian, is enjoying a revival in a city known, because of its many Christian churches and Buddhist temples, as the Jerusalem of China. Organized faith has rebounded since the 1980s, when the Communist Party relaxed Mao-era prohibitions on religion. “Communism has become bankrupt as a worldview,” says Daniel Wright, author of The Promise of the Revolution, a book about his experiences living in rural Guizhou Province, one of China’s poorest regions. “Since the early 1980s, you’ve had a vacuum that religion has partially filled.”

One of Wenzhou’s oldest Christian establishments is the Cheng Xi Tang Methodist Church. It was built by British missionaries about 120 years ago, and its cherry-wood pews and lofty pulpit would make any Anglican congregation in Surrey proud. Yu Jianrong is the parish priest. He was attending a seminary in Nanjing when it was shut down in 1958 in the backlash that followed Mao’s “Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom” campaign inviting public criticism of the Communist Party. (The movement turned out to be a ruse to expose and punish dissidents, clerics and intellectuals.) The genial Yu was forced to work in an electronics factory, and the Cheng Xi Tang Church was turned into a cinema. The church reopened in 1979. “There were 200 people then,” he told me. “Now thousands come every Sunday.” The parish bookstore offers Chinese- and English-language Gospels, prayer books, self-help books and Holy Land tour guides. There are even Chinese-language copies of They Call Me Coach, the autobiography of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, a pious Christian. Business is brisk.


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