In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the American “Wild West” was a place of great opportunity and great adventure – rapid development, gold rushes, land grabs, and a booming population provided an opportunity for enterprising young men and women to strike out on their own and “grow up with the country”, as the famous quote goes. The West took on an almost mythical aura as a place where anything was possible and success was limited only by ambition.
Even after the American West had been developed, the United States has remained the epicenter of the world’s economic growth and a proverbial “land of milk and honey” for immigrants from across the globe. The best and brightest students from countries the world over aspired to one day travel to America to make their fortunes and pursue the “American Dream” – and countless many have done just that. However, while the western world has been the place to be for the past 150 years, I’m beginning to think that the next 150 may see a stark reversal of the compass needle.
Take a look at the picture above. That’s Shenzhen, China – the biggest place you’ve never heard of. With some 14 million residents, it’s far bigger than New York City and remains the fastest growing city in China. Not only is Shenzhen exploding, it’s young, smart, and hungry. It’s estimated that 20% of China’s PhDs work in Shenzhen, and the average age of its citizens is less than 30. Thanks to billions in foreign investment, it’s young and educated population, and its status as the first of China’s Special Economic Zones, Shenzhen is also the #1 export center in China, accounting for 22% of the country’s total. All of this is particularly striking when you realize that less than 30 years ago, Shenzhen was nothing more than a sleepy fishing village with a population of 30,000 (that all of this growth has coincided exactly with the establishment of the special economic zone and a capitalist economy is best left for a separate discussion). Shenzhen has also developed as a manufacturing powerhouse, and is the origin of nearly every shiny consumer gadget you own with “Made in China” stamped on the bottom. And if you’re reading this on a Mac, iPhone, iPad, Thinkpad, Dell, Kindle, or HP (among many others), that includes the hardware your browser is running on right now.
John Biggs from CrunchGear spent several weeks in Shenzhen and wrote an excellent series entitled “CrunchGear in China: Where Tech Sausage is Made”, which explores the massive consumer goods (mostly electronics) manufacturing industry that has catapulted Shenzhen to prosperity and global prominence. CrunchGear paints an incredible portrait of the Chinese culture and the efficiency with which they conduct their manufacturing. If you have some time to read through them, they provide some awesome perspective on the seething, dirty, and ruthlessly effective economic powerhouse that’s growing up in the East. The articles are here: Introduction, China the Factory, Getting from There to Here, The Ex-Pats, Shanzhai.
So for all the reasons laid out above (and even more that I’ll elaborate on in a future post), I see the East as having many of the same characteristics that made the American Wild West so appealing – rapid development, a population boom, and a modernizing economy. And although the modern day Chinese gold rush has already begun, I can’t help but think there is still a vast opportunity in East Asia for those willing to make the leap and “grow up with the world”.