Surprises in Shenzhen

If I told you I went to Shenzhen (China) recently, what first comes to mind? Fishing villages, blocked Internet access, iPhone factories, smog? If you’re an average US citizen (and given the current political climate), you probably don’t have a favorable opinion and might be wondering why anyone would visit at all.

I’ll admit I felt the same way before this year. The last time I had even been in the same province was almost 13 years ago — back then Shenzhen was just farmland you travelled through from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. Who would bother stopping by?

Fast forward to 2018 and I found myself with an opportunity to visit Shenzhen on business. The four days I spent there completely changed my perception of China overall, and I’d like to see if I can change yours as well.

Because China is an insular country in many ways, outsiders tend to have their understanding of it shaped by media and hearsay in their home countries. This leads to a lot of myths and misconceptions — here are a few common ones and how Shenzhen completely shatters them.

Myth: Most people are poor and barely getting by

Since China is known to have such a low cost of living, one might assume that its citizens don’t make very much money. Coupled with the belief that China is a “second-world” or developing country and you might imagine that there are lots of people in slums everywhere.

While it is true that poverty is still a major issue in rural areas, China has actually made immense progress in lifting up the vast majority of its citizens. Since 1978, market reforms and rapid urbanization has led to a decrease in the poverty rate from 88% to below 4% — representing over 800 million people. In Tier 1 cities like Shenzhen, there seems to be enough wealth to support extravagant lifestyles.

Yes, there are actually locals who shop here

So yes, you can still get a decent meal for less than US$3 but people are also able to purchase designer handbags for thousands.

Myth: Chinese cuisine isn’t that interesting

If your only exposure to Chinese food is Panda Express and Chinatowns, then I completely understand why you wouldn’t think it’s anything special. And if you’ve visited places like Kuala Lumpur or Ho Chi Minh City, I can also understand why Chinese food would seem boring in comparison.

Shenzhen completely shocked me in this regard. The fact that it is populated almost entirely by migrants from other parts of China results in a bonanza of fusion cuisine. Hundreds of restaurants in every district were all competing to create new and delicious dishes I had never heard of. In some sense, I experienced more variety here than even in Taipei!

From street food stalls to fine dining, it was all super tasty

Myth: It’s not safe to walk around at night

Last time I was in China, I was constantly warned to watch my bag and tourist scams were pervasive. Streets at night were dark and mostly empty.

Shenzhen today seems both vibrant and safe for nightlife. There are pedestrian-only zones throughout the city where restaurants, shopping, and entertainment abound. I had to scan my bag at every metro station, I saw police on literally every block, and I knew the CCTV system was monitoring everything. A bit Orwellian perhaps, but citizens don’t seem to have a problem with it.

Pedestrian-only zones spring to life at night

Myth: China’s technology is copycat and inferior

The lack of any real copyright enforcement in China has led to the stereotype that no innovation can happen there. This really couldn’t be further from the truth in Shenzhen.

First, it’s important to recognize that innovation is defined differently in China. Taking a product from another company, dissecting it, improving it in some way, and then reselling it is widely seen as a valuable economic activity. If you want to learn more, this documentary does a fantastic job of explaining this phenomenon:

Second, China’s internet economy has evolved in unique ways due to the Great Firewall effect (protecting companies from the influence of Google/Facebook/Amazon) and the mass proliferation of smartphones in such a short period of time. This is most evident in the e-commerce space, where mobile payments and online shopping/delivery services are 10x more advanced and convenient compared to what you’ll find in the Western world. Check out this report for a small taste:

I saw all of this in action during my time in Shenzhen. In fact, I was pretty much the only person around using old-school cash and it felt horribly backwards.

I also bought a Xiaomi TV box with more utility than an Apple TV for 1/4 the cost. 🙂

Imagine: I can order AND pay for a meal using my phone at my table!

Myth: The Chinese do not appreciate nature and green space

I thought Shenzhen was going to be nothing more than a factory town, but it blew me away with the sheer number of dedicated parks and public recreation space. Was this really still China?

Yes, this is still China

Now, to be honest, air pollution is still a real problem — even in Shenzhen. During my stay, the AQI fluctuated between 100–140. The sky over certain areas of the city was often muggy and I did feel the effects after spending a few too many hours wandering outdoors. That said, I saw virtually no locals wearing face masks — and plenty of people were jogging or playing sports outside. Chalk it up to the perception of Shenzhen being the cleanest Chinese city?

There were also occasional moments throughout the day when I would look up and see blue sky, so it definitely wasn’t as apocalyptic as you may have heard.

Also still China!

I hope that this glimpse into Shenzhen has been enlightening and inspires more people to make the journey for themselves. It’s not always easy or popular to visit China, but I actually think it’s increasingly important due to the fact that it is projected to be (or already is) the world’s largest economy. Seems prudent to learn more about how it runs instead of relying on your local echo chamber. 🙂

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