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It's a weekday night in Shenzhen.
The good citizens of the PRC have come to
this park to get fitter, happier and more
productive.

All under the watchful, approving gaze of
Deng Xiaoping, the revered granddaddy of
China's free market reforms.

The scene tells you much of what you need to
know about Shenzhen.

It's China for sure. But it's also something
different.

It's a city of imports: young, hardworking,
smart, and often freer-thinking people,
plucked from all around the country.

They've come here to toil during the day,
improve themselves at night, and to get
ahead.

It's ambition that is the lifeblood of
Shenzhen.

Its factories; its markets; its startups;
its surging tech empires.

And it's stuff like this: an orgiastic
explosion of LEDs that are the greener, and
of course more futuristic, version of
fireworks.

Can your city do that?
No. Your city sure as shit can't.
But here's the story of why Shenzhen can.
And why everyone - especially the folks in
Silicon Valley - should be aware, and
probably a little frightened, of what's
coming for them.

You get in the metal tube. Zoom up 115
floors at a ridiculous speed to the top of
the Ping An skyscraper.

Then you find a window, and marvel at the
sublime bigness of Shenzhen.

Forty years ago all this was farmland and
dirt roads, a minor hub for rural goods
trading just across the border from Hong
Kong.

Now, it's the hot, steamy, frenetic home to
13 million people

that just about everyone on Earth calls the
Silicon Valley of China.

Everything here moves at what's known as
Shenzhen Speed.

It's a phrase that describes an unyielding
pace of change, and I came here to feel it
firsthand.

To do that, it's an Instagram pose with the
cityscape, a quick scan for government spy
drones,

and then a car ride, to see where just about
everything we use gets made.

You hear about factories in China all the
time. Today I'm lucky enough to actually go
visit one

that's located about an hour outside of the
center of the city.

They're gonna let us see what life is like
inside one of these factories.

There are grim factories. There are decent
factories. And then there's this place, run
by Grandsun Electronic.

It's safe to say this is not what I
expected.

The plush surroundings are intended to make
customers from all parts of the world feel
comfortable.

But inside it's more like you'd expect:
dozens of workers moving at Shenzhen Speed,

making fancy headphones for an Australian
company called Nura.

How did you guys end up in Shenzhen? I guess
that's the thing to do these days.

Yeah. Shenzhen is known as a place that
people come to to make things.

You don't come here to mess around, you come
here to get things done.

They have the supply chain here - a supplier
that can make any component of the
headphones you need.

And of course there's the labor cost, which
is not as cheap as it used to be but still
reasonable.

The production line has been running at
basically maximum capacity since we started.
And yeah we can do 500 a day normally.

What are the little noises we hear in the
background?

You're hearing them make sure they assembled
the speaker correctly.

So that's like a test noise?
Yeah that's right.
But what is life like for the people who
make these wonderful toys?

To get a taste of the factory experience, I
join the mad dash for lunch.

Mmm, cafeteria food.
How's the food?
How long have you worked here?
It's tough to say anything terribly new
about the life of the Chinese factory
worker.

Most of these people have come from China's
hinterlands, often leaving their families
behind in their rural hometowns.

They'll spend about two years on average in
Shenzhen,

busting their butts working overtime to save
up as much money as they can.

Is it a step up from hardscrabble
subsistence farming? Probably.

Are there still safety nets? Yep.
But I can tell you one major lifestyle
advantage the Chinese have over us gweilos.

When we first started working here, after
lunch we couldn't really get anyone's
attention.

Eventually we cottoned on, everyone's just
sleeping at that time of day.

That said we embraced it very quickly.
What is your preferred sleeping apparatus?
I'm pretty Spartan, so either on the desk or
under the desk with a bit of bubble wrap for
a pillow.

Trust me, it's good.
Luke is just one of many entrepreneurs who
come to get their gear made in Shenzhen.

There's a flourishing scene here for
hardware startups that want to move fast and
make things.

Many of them can be found here, at a startup
incubator called Hax.

The idea here is simple: help startups build
a prototype,

then connect them with factories that can
start cranking out their products by the
thousands.

Take Jamie, here an affable chap who's part
of a British startup called Carv.

We make a digital ski coach. So effectively
it's like an insert you put into your ski
boot and it teaches you how to ski better.

So you get like real time feedback through
headphones, like, that was a bad turn, that
was a bad turn, that was a better turn.

You have one here, don't you?
Yeah yeah, let me show you.
So yeah, these are motion sensors that have
full motion sensing.

Crazy.
Like many startups here, Carv began life as
a humble Kickstarter campaign.

Now, just a couple of years later, they're
pumping out 5000 units of their product
every month.

Do you think you could have brought
something like this to life in the UK if you
had been accepted by an incubator there?

Or now that you've been here you've seen a
new world I guess?

I think it kind of depends a little bit on
how much of a shoestring you're on.

Here in Shenzhen it's so much cheaper - in
many different categories it's cheaper,

like in the product development phase to get
different materials 3D printed or machined.

You get it here for kind of half the cost
and twice as fast. And sometimes seven times
as fast.

To get a feel for that high speed energy, I
hop across the street with Jamie to the
famed Huaqiangbei markets.

Yeah. So this is the biggest electronics
market in the world, probably.

They're an important resource for the young
entrepreneurs here,

and a fantastic place to get your senses
overloaded.

Such as a hive of activity in here!
Aw man it's great, so this is the energy
right. You just walk through the market and
it's like, bang! You know like, OK.

This is where factories have come to display
their wares to potential buyers,

who is me and a lot of the other people
here. Kind of a storefront for factories.

OK. And if I make smartphones or TVs or
anything like that, I kind of come here to
see the latest and greatest stuff?

Exactly. You want to find a manufacturer,
you come to Huaqiangbei.

It's also a great place to find that missing
part for your prototype,

which is why you run into other crews from
Hax roaming the aisles.

Buying some screws?
Buying some springs. Have you tried -
there's a spring woman front if you want
one. Just on the left as you go out.

The fact that I can get a component in,
like, an hour is like absolutely phenomenal.

That's like - that is Shenzhen Speed. That's
why we're here.

Here's how Shenzhen works.
You put up a, "damn, things are going well
here" skyscraper.

Then you put up another one right next to it
- because you can.

And then, to really drive the point home,
you do all of this next to a metallurgic
marvel of a stadium.

We're talking about a boomtown the likes of
which the world has never seen before.

And things are just getting started. Because
inside the big stadium is the real action.

It's a scene of smarts creativity and hustle
being collectively mainlined.

It doesn't look pretty. It doesn't smell
great. It might even be inhumane.

But all of this is aimed at making China the
dominant technology force of the future.

And Silicon Valley should be very very
afraid.

Welcome, friends, to RoboMasters.
This is a robotics competition that draws in
hundreds of engineering students from around
the world.

As you'll soon see I don't really understand
the intricacies of the game.

But the gist is that you build some robots,
choosing from six different types.

Like the Engineer, which heals other bots,
or the Hero, which does extra damage.

Then you put them in a stadium and have them
fire plastic bullets at each other to score
points.

It's fun for the whole family... if your
family is a bunch of insanely competitive
gearheads

They're shooting, be careful, they're
shooting.

Oh shoot, it's got the gun on me.
For contestants, this can be an intense
experience.

What's your life been like for the last
week?

The average sleeping time is like three or
four hours.

How do you do it every day and keep doing
that for weeks? It's crazy.

Drinking Red Bull.
Once these kids arrive for the competition,
they basically don't leave the stadium for
two weeks.

And fighting robot battle after robot battle
takes its toll.

When was the last time you had something to
eat?

Yesterday.
So you haven't eaten today?
No.
But it's all worth it, because the reward,
if you're lucky, is a job at DJI,

the sponsors of the competition and the
world's top maker of drones.

If you're a talented young roboticist,
coming here to Shenzhen to work at DJI is
the dream. So the stakes are high.

How are you doing? Are you guys winning?
I hope so.
There are plenty of Chinese tech companies
that produce nothing but cheap knockoffs.

DJI is not one of them.
The company was started in 2006 by a college
student named Frank Wang.

He made components for drone hobbyists, and
then decided to go ahead and make a full on
drone empire.

I think the core value of DJI is, we're
always trying to innovate something new.

For example when we created drone, there are
actually no flying camera. We created this
concept of flying camera.

That's basically true.
DJI's first runaway hit, the Phantom,
brought camera drones to the masses for the
first time in 2012.

Since then they've made bigger drones,
smaller drones, teeny tiny drones,

and some specialty ones, like this crop
dusting drone.

All its products have sold well. Most of its
major competitors have flown away in tears.

The company rakes in billions of dollars a
year and has thousands of employees all over
the world.

And now, they want to pay it forward.
Our founder, after DJI become a little bit
successful -

Yeah a little bit.
Yeah. He started to think that it's time to
host his own robotics competition.

We want engineers to be recognized as
superstars.

And this competition, we hope it become very
popular, and the people end up being
inspired by these engineers.

It's not just the competition itself.
There's also a RoboMasters documentary, a
RoboMasters reality show, and even a
RoboMasters anime.

With this media blitz, DJI hopes to foster a
new generation of innovative engineers

who can then join the drone empire and make
it even stronger. Or maybe start the next
DJI.

In other words, what we have here is less of
a friendly little robot fest and more of a
plan for world domination.

Looks like it's up to me to sabotage this
thing.

Does that make me seem scarier?
Mm, a little bit.
I've managed to infiltrate this team from
Zhejiang university.

This is almost too easy.
We're going up against the University of
Washington.

Chinese teams usually destroy American ones,
but my incompetence should even up the odds.

You guys, don't shoot me, OK? I'm number
one. I'm number one.

I'm number four.
Oh yeah.
Prepare your teams.
Let the robo-slaughter begin!
And what do I gotta try to do? Where am I
going after the game starts?

I need to go out now.
Don't leave me!
Are we red or blue?
Are we winning? How come nobody's talking?
I couldn't really tell what was happening,
was it close?

No.
So we kicked your ass.
Yeah, you guys smashed us.
OK. Thank you. It was an honor to play with
you guys. That was fun. Thank you.

I'm sorry America. I tried.
A few days later I return to the stadium to
witness the final round of competition.

It's South China University of Technology
versus China's Northeastern University.

The winners will take home tens of thousands
of dollars, the respect of their fellow
nerds,

and most likely a job offer from DJI or
another up and coming company.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, the
future drone makers of the PRC.

There's no disputing that Shenzhen has
become one of the most important places in
the world of tech.

Nowhere else has quite as potent a
combination of tech know-how, cheap
manufacturing costs, and sheer speed.

But it goes further than that. Living in
Shenzhen is in many ways like living in the
future.

And not necessarily a utopian future. More
like the other kind.

Consider Zowee.
Zowee operates a factory much like any other
in Shenzhen.

They make cheap smartphones and other
electronics.

Like other top manufacturers, they've built
a complex where workers can live right
beside the factory line,

work around the clock for a couple of years,
and hopefully buy a better life for their
families back home.

The factories here are clean, and the work
is precise.

But things are changing quickly in a way
that does not favor the common man and
woman.

All the rest of these lines are staffed by
about 80 people.

But right here there's new machines coming
online that are going to build a smartphone,
end to end, completely by robots.

The end goal of something like this is to
get the quality of the products higher,

to bring costs down for less labor and
ultimately to keep China as the
manufacturing hub of the world

and fend off low-priced competition for
places like Southeast Asia.

The factory of the future looks like this.
It's a closed-off loop where robots pass
components among each other,

and finished products pop out at the end.
All those workers have been replaced by one
lonely final inspector.

It's a strong sign that the future of
Shenzhen is less for these guys...

...and more for these guys.
Zowee actually builds these automation
machines itself.

Behind me are some of China's best and
brightest engineers, hard at work building
the machines you see out on the floor today,

and the ones that are coming tomorrow that
are going to automate the entire factory
line.

Nowhere will face more turmoil than Shenzhen
as the robots rise and send millions of
workers to the unemployment line.

But it's not just the working class that's
facing a dark future.

There are dystopian innovations that seem to
touch every facet of life here.

I ran into one example of this while
attempting to rehydrate.

Can I use this? No? OK.
No, this, no.
Doesn't work?
After some investigation I discover what's
going on here, and it has to do with these
things: QR codes.

You know the drill. You scan the code, and
something pops up on your phone, like a
promotion or discount.

America laughed these things off years ago,
but here, they run the entire economy.

Cash and credit cards are history. Instead,
you scan QR codes to pay for everything:

restaurants, groceries, even buskers.
On the surface, this is all good. It's the
easy, convenient mobile payment system of
the future.

But there's also a dark side.
The Chinese government can peer into the two
dominant payment systems, AliPay and WeChat,
as it sees fit.

It's already started tracking behavior as
part of a plan to rank citizens

and measure how good and obedient they are.
The tech revolution may have brought
prosperity to Shenzhen,

but it's also brought more and more
insidious intrusions into people's lives.

To dig deeper into life under the Chinese
deep state, I've assembled a team of
extraordinary foreigners

who work at tech startups in Shenzhen.
Hopefully a few beers will encourage them to
open up about their thoughtcrimes.

Living in a very tightly regulated Communist
country - Does that bother you or you don't
care?

Like, the presumption at least that I got
before I came from Australia

is sort of like moving into sort of like a
militarized state kind of thing, like things
are gonna be really intense.

But like you take a beer, just like walk
down the road, hang out in the park, fine.

Do that back in my hometown in Australia,
straight to the cophouse.

But then, play spikeball on the grass, and
then all of a sudden the cops come and stop
you.

Well and you got - you jaywalked and you had
facial recognition

The craziest thing, I actually got this.
Yeah. So I was jaywalking in Nanxian, and
all of a sudden I got a fine to my WeChat.

Was it instant?
It was about twenty seconds after.
I had money in my balance and it just went
straight out.

What!
It just came straight out.
Didn't even authorize it. That's crazy.
It's true. Try to jaywalk in certain parts
of Shenzhen,

and the government's facial recognition will
spot you.

There's even a Board of Shame showing the
faces of recent offenders.

I'm surprised and very very worried that
they have your face in the face recognition
system-

They have everyone's though, I mean when you
go across the border they take that picture.
Yeah exactly.

Yeah, so it's all in the system. They know
where you are.

That's scary.
It gets even scarier, because Big Brother is
watching what you do online, too.

Most of the websites we know and love are
blocked in China,

replaced with Chinese equivalents that the
government can monitor: a sort of mirror
universe internet.

I asked my friend Diane, a Shenzhen native,
to help break this down.

Appropriately enough, she took me to this
restaurant staffed entirely by robots.

That's some gnarly-looking chicken - is that
chicken?

Mmm... robot food.
I wanted you to help me out with one thing.
So if I sort of call out a U.S. tech
company, can you tell me the Chinese
equivalent?

Because you can't get Instagram or anything
here, so.

So let's do a few.
So, Google would be -
Baidu, right.
And Amazon -
is like, both JD.com and also Taobao.
OK, and YouTube?
Ah, Youku. Youku, Iqiyi.
Facebook?
Facebook, we have WeChat.
WeChat.
Yeah. Do you feel like you're in a different
universe?

All the online stuff is such a big part of
our lives, and it seems like China has
created its own world.

Yeah, that's definitely like that.
But like I said, for like Instagram, I was
surprised to see even -

Instagram got banned from China but all the
young people, they're there.

Still go. Yeah.
It turns out it is possible to access the
freedom-loving internet here,

via what's called a VPN: an alternate
internet connection that bypasses the
government's blocks.

And you don't get in trouble if they see
that you're on the VPN all the time?

For personal use, I don't think that's like,
a big deal.

The future will be interesting for how the
different worlds are like collaborating
together.

Yeah, and definitely the young generation,
they're...

They're not like just, oh, I'm satisfied
just to kind of stay inside. Yeah, they're
more curious.

The came to Shenzhen hoping to find some
kind of ground truth,

a clear picture of what China's growing tech
prowess will mean for the rest of us.

Honestly though I'm as confused as ever.
This city is full of energy, desire, and
creativity.

But exactly how those traits are channeled
in the years ahead remains an open question.

My hope is that the best parts of our human
nature get a chance to thrive,

and that 1984 can wait a few more decades to
arrive.

And on that note, I leave you with this
dashboard dog,

because it's obviously good and pure and
very happy.

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The People's Republic of The Future

415 Folder Collection
wcchen1203 published on July 5, 2019
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