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中国:一往无前 (译文旧作)

(2019-02-03 15:11:53) 下一个

不才当年也曾认真想过做翻译的,以下是10年前译的习作。

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中国:一往无前

停工的厂房、闲置的货轮、四处蔓延的破产风潮、大规模的返乡民工以及城市中久违的干净空气——经济萧条的景象已经遍布中国的大小角落。当世界各国无力进口大量的“中国制造”时,中国将承受远比其它国家更严重的打击——就像美国在19世纪二十年代的大萧条时遇到的情况一样,那时,美国就是所谓的“世界工厂”。同样,也像当时的美国那样,中国将利用这艰难时期来进行产业升级,以期获得过去几十年间美国人一直占据的高利润、高附加值的工作。这对美国来说显然是个相当糟糕的消息,除非她也能够在这艰难时局中重塑自身。

——詹姆士·法罗斯(James Fallows)



我们在北京的公寓刚好俯视这个城市的长途汽车站,人们经此从乡村来到城市打工或做小买卖,也从这里离开返回家乡。去年夏天,这里人潮汹涌,大部分都是离开城市的人群。

当时,中国正竭尽全力将北京装扮一新来迎接奥运,大量民工返乡也被视为这努力的一部分。此前,建筑工人一直在各个工地上拼命地赶工,力争在奥运前完成一些大规模的公共工程(比如新的地铁站)。即使是那些注定无法及时完工的工程,工人们也在工地上忙碌着,他们或者要把四处乱堆的建材收拾整齐,或者要用大板子把整个工地围起来,省得有碍观瞻。到了七月,为了保证奥运的安全,也为了净化空气,政府通令北京附近的所有工地全部停工。工人们,大部分是邻近较贫困省份来的农民工,离开了北京回到家乡,与亲人们在电视上一同感受奥运(多数人并没有领到工钱)。

九月,随着奥运游客的离开,民工们拥挤在长途车和火车中又纷纷回到了北京。就像在中国其它所有飞速发展的城市中一样,民工们在北京总是很扎眼。他们的脸颊和双手布满了皱纹,衣服也更简单更破旧。通常情况下,他们大多会扛着一个装有被褥和简单物件的大花格子尼龙编织袋,笨拙而艰辛地在各个城市间游移。值得一提的是,这种袋子已经在全世界贫穷国家中普及,成为移民工人的一种标准配备。

奥运后民工向北京回流在我们的意料之中,但接下来的事情谁都没想到。10月中旬,大约就在美国零售业面临崩溃时,我们渐渐发现大客车再次加班加点儿地运送着整车整车的民工们离开这座城市。11月的某个寒冷的下午,当路过一个写字楼的工地时,我发现那里的起重机已经停止了工作。仅仅一个星期前,这些起重机还一直在吊着水泥和钢筋在人们头顶上晃悠,吓的路过的行人直猫腰。工地前停着一排挂河北车牌的大客车。“现在都没活儿了”,一位客车司机跟我说,他们正准备把工人们都拉回老家去,拉完这一拨马上还要返回来再拉下一拨。

可能是因为今年春天的风比往年多些,也可能是因为奥运期间下重手整治环境的余威犹存,开春儿前后,北京的空气明显比去年这个时候要干净很多。但是,改善的空气质量也是北京工厂减少的一个标志。许多设在城市的上风处的重型工业企业停产,市内的空气当然变得干净。

离去的大巴和洁净的空气,这是这次全球金融危机的经济衰退在本地的体现。类似的衰退迹象已经在中国随处可见:大量集装箱货轮滞留在香港码头没有生意可接;澳门赌场的收入一落千丈;北京上海之间的来回航班旅客连架小飞机都塞不满。(2006年我第一次从北京去上海时,一架波音747挤得满满登登。)报上说今年还有超过一百万的大学毕业生找不到工作;房地产开发商和工厂企业主破产后迅速人间蒸发,留下的一堆烂摊子,受损民众的抗议风潮席卷全国;短短几个月内,位于香港以北的广东东莞就有数千家工厂倒闭。曾几何时,那里还是所谓“中国制造”的样板——廉价的劳工生产廉价的产品,数不清的玩具和小饰品从这个小地方走向全世界。

尽管在中国统计数据都不大靠谱,但一月份的时候我从东莞当地一个官员那里得到数据还值得一听,他说他们那块儿方圆十五里之内至少有一百万工人刚刚丢了工作,临近的地区少说也还有一百万失业大军。在深圳,拥有25万雇员的大型电子企业富士康公司去年年底也被迫给员工放了一个月的无薪假,中国媒体报道说,该公司可能将要在全球范围内裁员10万人。



过去的三十年,中国,在一个集权政府的统领之下,社会现代化和经济繁荣一刻也没有停止过前进的步伐,“发展”使一切危机与不满消于无形,这简直就像一个神话。现在,“神话”终结了吗?中国的发展模式是否已发挥至极限,各种隐藏的矛盾已到了喷发的时候?如果中国不能保持发展,它会四分五裂吗?

对于中国经济目前遇到的问题,海外的观察家们很喜欢跟80年代的日本做比较。最近几个月,我听到数不清的老美和一些欧洲人说,“这不是就是当年的小日本吗?”他们的意思是说,20年前日本的发展也是来势汹汹、不可阻挡,但随后就变成了个“东亚经济病夫”。崛起的中国也会走上这条老路吗?有意思的是,在中国国内,很少有人将中国与日本做类比,因为两者实在差别太大:中国是一个在工业化道路上紧追猛赶的大贫农,而日本是已经实现工业化一百多年的小中产了。

据我所知,中国的知识分子和官员经常拿出苏联的例子来说事儿,以史为鉴,认为经济发展的失败必将导致政权崩溃、国土分裂。照此逻辑,中国共产党除了拼命发展经济之外别无选择,那是它政权合法性的真实来源。经济一旦停滞(公认的警戒线是年增长率8%),老百姓们就会将不满的的矛头直指共产党,那后果简直不堪设想。看看当年庞大的苏联和今天如同缩了水一样的俄罗斯,我们就不难理解,为什么中国在对待西藏、新疆和台湾问题时会有那样毫不退让、决不妥协的死硬态度。

无论是日本还是俄罗斯,拿来跟中国做比较研究都很别扭。拿苏联跟中国比有些高看苏联了,历史上它从未实现过中国这般的高速经济发展。实际上,长达几十年实打实的经济衰退让苏维埃大厦轰然倒塌。如果拿日本来比,中国似乎还比不上。日本尽管经历了“失去的十年”,它仍然是大多数国家羡慕的对象。虽然国民只有美国的一半、中国的十分之一,日本确是世界第二大经济强国,拥有众多的知名工业品牌,其中包括世界第一大汽车制造商——“丰田”。另外,日本和苏联在历史的不同时期都曾扮演过现代化榜样的角色,令其他国家纷纷效仿。当代的中国是一种势力、一个现实,但不是一个别国可以简单复制的榜样或意识形态。从历史到未来,中国模式自始至终都是独一无二的。(发展规模与中国不相上下的印度,政治制度却大相径庭。实际上,世界上没有任何其他的国家能够一边飞速建造现代化的公路、机场和工业园区的同时又能保持一个高压的政治制度。)

话说回来,他山之石可以攻玉,借鉴一下以上两个国家的经历来预测一下中国的未来多少也有点儿理性基础。苏联的政权是被经济上的失败而毁灭,这没什么好说的。日本经济也有很大的问题,其金融市场下跌了近二十年而不能调整,这多少也说明日本人的系统固步自封,不能适应变化的世界。如果中国不被近年来如环境污染、水危机、腐败、贫富分化和安全生产(煤矿事故导致平均每天死亡250多人)一类的问题搞垮的话,它会更像谁呢?经济增长减速导致矛盾激增,随后像苏联一样亡党亡国?还是像日本一样,陷入一个长达二十年经济停滞的泥潭且无法自拔?

我大胆预测一下——都不会!中国经历了史无前例的飞速现代化,目前又遇到了许多大麻烦,貌似发展已到了一个顶点,是物极必反的时候了。确实有这种可能,当我们回望那辉煌灿烂的北京奥运开幕式时会感叹,那恰恰是是我们这些老外最后一次相信中国无所不能的时刻。但也另有一种可能,中国可以突破极限,一往无前,让整个世界瞠目结舌。我赌后者!



首先,我们来考虑一下,在最糟糕的情况下,中国会变成什么样子以及这种变化对世界的影响。常驻北京的金融学教授麦克·佩迪斯(Michael Pettis)对此问题看得最清楚。“一句话,中国现在的情况就像是上个世纪20年代的美国”,他说。

美国20世纪初在世界经济中扮演的角色与近些年的中国惊人地相似。一直到一战开始时,美国还一直是个“净债务”国。它是依靠外国借贷和投资建造起来的工厂、铁路才将自身锻造成一个工业巨人。第一次世界大战时,美国工业一方面源源不断的向欧洲提供战略物资,另一方面在世界范围内抢走了不少本属于欧洲公司的市场,以致于到战争结束时,它已经摇身一变成了“净债权”国。

20世纪20年代,美国依靠它的工农业成为真正的“世界工厂”,与绝大多数国家保持贸易盈余。这也意味着,当时的美国生产和消费已经失衡,它超比例地获得了世界上大部分的工作,而它生产的大部分产品是供外国人使用而非本国消费。为支付贸易赤字,当时各个国家要么就是向美国大量输出黄金,要么就是向美国借债或引进美国投资。经济学家约翰·凯恩斯当年曾刻薄地说到,美国已经把全世界的金子都拉他们自己家去藏起来了。

这一切看起来有点儿眼熟,不错,正是跟今天中国干的一模一样。当时看来,这么一直干下去,日子过得还不错。

然而,全球产品净出口国的身份让美国在30年代的经济萧条中吃尽了苦头。当全球总需求下降时,美国当初超比例的工作份额换来的是30年代超高的失业率。这倒并不是说美国人在大萧条中比欧洲人更痛苦,因为我们有罗斯福,而他们只有希特勒、斯大林、佛朗哥和墨索里尼,但仅从经济事实角度考量,美国当时确实面对全球最严重的裁员风潮和最高的失业率。

这就说到今日中国所面临的问题了。很多美国人错误地认为,中国多年来的贸易盈余将令它在经济衰退中不至于搞得太难看。长远来讲,这两万亿外汇储备确实有防身之效,但短期来看,中国严重依赖外国消费的弱点将令它备受打击,外汇储备也救不了急。

通过统计对比“过度生产指标”(根据仅为外国消费而进行生产的工厂和工人数算出),佩迪斯最近写文章称,中国目前的世界贸易盈余至少与1929年时的美国一样大,各占世界当时经济总产值的0.5%。但如果计算两国各自的国内经济总产值,中国的相对盈余则要大得多,从比例上来讲,中国目前对外国消费制造就业的依赖5倍于1929年的美国。除非中国能想办法消化这部分因外国消费需求减少而带来的生产过剩,它必将面临严重的失业打击。

根据当年大萧条的经验,佩迪斯说,中国很有可能会继续努力向世界输出产品。

美国当年也是想这么做。当年美国股市崩盘、经济崩溃、贸易盈余陡然消失,美国企业界为保住市场和工作在绝望中病急乱投医,游说国会通过了那臭名昭著的《斯姆特-霍利关税法》,向多达2万种美国进口商品加征关税。很快,各国纷纷报复,世界贸易迅速缩水,大萧条自此正式开始。今天,人们已普遍将《斯姆特-霍利关税法》看作是一个惨痛的教训:任何干预贸易的行为,尤其是美国干预贸易的行为,其结果很可能是灾难性的。

佩迪斯还特别指出,《斯姆特-霍利关税法》带来的政治伤害比它的经济意义更大。美国当年想保护它的贸易盈余和工作机会,其他国家其实心知肚明,但这种手段太赤裸裸了,从政治上讲,其它国家必须反击,别无选择。因为有这个教训,如果萧条再次来袭,不管媒体上“保护主义”的口号叫得多凶,美国都不太可能重新走上保护主义的不归路。

值得担心的是,中国会不会搞出个有中国特色的《斯姆特-霍利关税法》来?当然,中国不会大大方方直接推出个类似的关税法来提高关税,但它还有很多其它选择:比如提高出口补贴,比如人为压低刚刚开始放松控制的人民币币值,比如鼓励中国企业降低员工工资,再比如为外国进口人为设置障碍(最近刚取消的波音和空客的大订单就是个好例子)。实际上,自2009年开始,中国政府采取了以上所有的措施,一个不漏,它的贸易盈余在世界经济衰退的大背景下竟然不降反升,而且是大幅攀升。出口的确是下降了,但进口下降地更厉害:一月,中国出口总额下降17个百分点,而进口总额下降了43个百分点,是出口降幅的两倍。很明显,中国试图转嫁它的失业问题给其它所有国家。这对其它国家来说与其说是个经济问题,不如说是政治挑衅。照此事态发展下去,一旦触发各国的贸易报复措施,中国将经历比美国二十世纪三十年代更糟糕的失业问题。中国挑起一场最终将自身也吞噬掉的贸易大战,这是任何人也不愿意看到的最糟糕的结果。

中国逐渐成为美国的债权国极大地增加了中国对美谈判时的筹码。但是,两个国家似乎都没有完全预料到,至少在本轮经济衰退中,他们成了拴在一条绳子上的蚂蚱。今年初,像高西庆这样了解中国对美投资的中国官员越来越多地明确表示:如果美国人想继续向中国借钱,它的经济应该走上正轨才行。简单来说,它应该多生产、多投资,少借债、少消费。在一月的达沃斯经济年会上,中国总理温家宝毫不客气的指责是美国的挥霍浪费把世界经济拖进了衰退。

呵呵!如果美国接受这些建议的话,中国经济马上会变得更糟糕,因为恰恰是美国的过度消费造就了中国制造业的繁荣。

在对别国政策指手画脚的的水平上,美国方面也好不到哪里去。美国既希望中国减少贸易盈余,又希望中国继续用贸易中得到的美元来投资美国国债和股票。什么便宜都被我们美国人占了,这怎么可能?!中国人要么借给我们些钱,要么匀给我们一些工作机会,不可能两样都给。



不管中国的领导人如何教训美国人,一个无可改变的事实是,美国经济危机丛生正在一路探底,中国的企业和工人都在经受沉重的打击。那为什么我还认为中国人有理由保持信心呢?

首先,这是算出来了的,是纯经济学的观点。受赐于大手笔的4万亿人民币拉动内需计划,部分丧失的外部需求将在中国国内市场消化。这个刺激经济计划从比例上来说要远高于奥巴马政府提出的刺激经济方案,因为中国的经济规模比美国小得多。当然,对于这4万亿的投资业界还有许多疑问。有些计划中的项目是早已批准甚至已经开工的,似乎难以算作新的投资;有些项目需要中央和地方合资,而地方政府在经济衰退中财源吃紧,怕是拿不出这笔配套资金来;资金的分配也是问题,尽管有部分投资是用于建立全民医疗保险的,但大部分的资金投向还是在工程方面:建高速,修铁路,盖飞机场等等。中国政府一遇到问题,第一反应往往就是“搞个工程”(哪怕是提高中国大学素质这类问题,首先想到的也是飞快立项建一批研究中心的大楼)。就像世界上大多数地方一样,这些大工程往往伴随着数不清的内幕交易和满天飞的回扣。但不管怎么说,抹水泥、吊大梁这种活儿总是要雇佣很多劳力的,尤其是中国这种注重人海战术的地方,这些工程对那些因工厂倒闭而被迫返乡的农民工来说是多了些谋生的机会。

从桌子上堆积如山的行业报告中,我发现很多分析都指出,有些行业的复苏可能比宏观经济数据显示得要来的快得多。“什么时候中国大陆经济会出现回暖迹象呢?”里昂证券的安迪·罗斯曼(Andy Rothman)在一份水泥和钢铁业的报告中说,“我们预测是在2009年的四、五月份。”那正是钢铁厂和水泥厂接到4万亿投资计划第一批订单的时候。

中国房地产价格像美国一样出现了全面下滑的情况,但中国的房贷问题与美国的次贷危机不可同日而语。美国的银行是真没钱了,而中国的银行却还有很多钱,之所以他们收紧信贷是因为此前中国政府最关心的是通货膨胀的危险。“中国的银行资产流动性很好,而且他们服从命令听指挥,党说要投哪儿就投哪儿,因为所有银行的高管都是党指定的。”罗斯曼写道,党现在已经开始命令各个银行大笔花钱了。

我还有很多其他行业的报告,它们都有一个相同的结论:中国经济也许将遭受最严重的打击,但相较于其它国家,它拥有更多的手段和资源来应对危机。

抛开经济学方面的分析不谈,“中国要完蛋了”这种假设有一个大前提,那就是“中国民众目前只是勉强忍受政府紧抓政治控制而放宽经济管制的政策,一旦政府不能够实现它所许诺的共同富裕的前景,人民就会毫不犹豫的开始反抗”。在我看来,这种想法完全无视中国独特的文化和政治现实,与我实际看到的情况并不一致。

我经常琢磨,为什么会有那么多中国人(不论其是何职业背景)都显得充满活力、朝气蓬勃?我想这绝不仅是因为有我“温吞水”似的个性反衬的原因,而是因为今日的中国就像二十世纪50年代的欧洲,几乎每家每户都经历过巨大痛苦和极度动乱的洗礼,历经劫难的人们对新生活的希望和信心远超美国人的想象。去年我采访过一个山西的官员,他当时正跟我讲他的地方发展规划。每隔10到15分钟,他就要停下来,通过翻译问我,“你能理解吗?如果不是邓小平,我现在还在牛屁股后面犁地呢!我不可能像现在这样西服革履地跟你这样的老外谈话。”或者说,“你能体会这变化有多大吗?我妈妈她们那会儿还裹小脚呢!”我以前还认识一位北京的学者,他说他的自信心是文革当知青时培养起来的,十几岁时在兵团战天斗地连干四年也能熬下来,现在还有什么苦不能吃。现在十几二十岁的中国年轻人虽然没插过队,但他们至少听说过那些艰苦的故事。

炒鱿鱼和减薪水?太小儿科了,中国人吃过的苦比这多得多。去年夏天,我和妻子去了四川地震灾区,那里很多村子已经成了一片废墟,幸存的村民只能在临时搭的帐篷里住上几年。恰恰这个时候,许多原本在城市打工的村民因为找不到工作或被辞退,被迫回到了乡村,令这里的情况雪上加霜。太惨了,是吗?也许对美国人来说是的。问问当地的老人们,他们会说,这算什么!想当年“大跃进”的时候,村上有一半人都活活饿死了……

当我和妻子在上世纪80年代第一次踏上中国的土地时,这里的大多数人还都在众多庞大、原始且低效的所谓国有企业里工作。在杭州一家占地一英亩且没有暖气的大厂房里,我见过超过5千名妇女在那里用原始的织布机生产着根本就没人想买的帘子和挂毯。90年代邓小平掀起新一轮改革热潮后,这些浪费巨大的国有企业很多都被关闭了,短短几年之内造成了数千万人的失业(有些大型国企保留了下来,成为电信、航空等行业的巨头)。当年中国的当代小说几乎全是讲下岗职工的,直到2000年后,当代题材才渐渐变成了民工或城市白领。国企改制造成了很严重的社会矛盾,但离导致政府垮台还差得太远。中国人民经受住了那次危机的考验,中国政府也一样。中国人民像其他各地方的人民一样也有各种生活的需要,他们对生活质量的期望也在逐步提高,但没有明显的证据表明,在忍受了如此多的苦难之后,目前的金融危机是中国人不能忍受而必须揭竿而起的。期待中国像苏联那样四分五裂的人暂时可以歇歇了。

与国外媒体里中国人谨小慎微的形象相反,头一次来中国的老外可能会惊讶于普通中国人直言不讳的风格。街上如果出了交通事故,肇事双方往往大吵大嚷,有时还敢对着警察大叫,或是各自向围观群众演讲似地细数事故的来龙去脉。工人们说老板是骗子,业主骂物业是混蛋的例子更是比比皆是。在中国西部,我遇到过一些因修水坝而被迫迁居的农民,他们拉着我们在他们的新居里到处转,一会儿说这里有道儿缝儿,一会儿说那里缺道儿口儿,总之,比他们原来的房子差远了。大声的抱怨,这对美国人来说司空见惯,对现在的中国人来说也并不陌生。

但是当人们抱怨时,矛头指向的都是某些具体的人,是那些卑劣的老板、记者、市长或官僚们,而不是这个社会制度或国家的最高统治者。宏观上对制度和压迫的抗议当然也存在,就像去年300多知识分子搞的“08现章”公民自由运动,但那绝对不是常态。10年前,当亚洲金融风暴使中国的失业率超过10%时,抗议浪潮四处蔓延。里昂证券的安迪·罗斯曼表示,“当时下岗工人们都是在争取他们的权益,比如被地方官僚克扣的失业补助什么的,并不是反对中央政府,尽管事实上是中央政府的某些政策真正导致他们丢了工作。”也许是工人们看不了那么远,但起码现在来说,在与地方政府的博弈中,工人们都期望中央政府能够扮演一个保护者的角色,而不是期望中央垮台。



长远来看,目前的危机未尝不是中国开启未来之门的钥匙。

大约三十年前,正当世界又陷入一场全球性的经济衰退时,我受大西洋月刊之邀去了硅谷和底特律,采写一篇比较两地不同工业发展模式如何应对危机的稿子。我当时采访过的公司有一些如今还依然声名显赫,比如底特律的通用和福特,硅谷的苹果、英特尔和惠普,但很明显,大部分我在硅谷采访过的企业都已经灰飞烟灭、不知所终了(还有人能记得红极一时的飞鹰电脑或是奥斯博笔记本吗?)。高新技术产业是近几十年经济发展的动力源泉,但如果不是业内人士的话,一般人很难理解这个行业瞬息万变的发展速度和极度残酷的竞争环境。身处高新技术产业的科技精英们如今经常强调说,尽管没人喜欢被淘汰出局,但这种高流动性的竞争环境恰恰是保证美国工业不断成功不可或缺的一部分。长江后浪推前浪,没有那么多老公司被残酷竞争无情地吃掉,就不会有那么多新公司雨后春笋般地崛起。

中国众多中小型企业发展得不错,令美国都自叹弗如,尽管我们经常高调地把鼓励发展小公司挂在嘴边,但这方面的成绩一直乏善可陈。中国这些小企业之间的竞争其实也很强,但始终停留在拼命勒紧裤腰带节约成本的水平上,这种竞争对中国经济的整体发展贡献甚微。在争先恐后地争做国外品牌代工工厂的过程中,一分钱掰两半儿花的这些中国小企业们都越来越擅长精打细算,能够很灵巧地从本来油水不多的订单中挤出些利润来(大头儿自然都被外国公司拿走了)。然后,目前的危机可不是光靠节约成本就能熬过去的。

我最近走访了北京、上海、深圳以及中国其他一些城市的企业,观察到一种趋势,中国公司正利用目前的发展低潮进入一些全新的领域,尝试生产高科技、高附加值、高回报的三高产品,这对以前的中国公司来说是很难想象的。当然,对于中国这样一个国土辽阔、各地千差万别甚至显得有些乱糟糟的国家中,你能观察到任何你想要找到的所谓“趋势”。但不管怎么说,短短几周之内,我发现有些公司不仅没有衰退,反而有增长。中国公司的领导们正在构思新的发展蓝图,并已经开始向某些方向大笔投资。为什么不呢?现在正是国外竞争者最虚弱的时候,人力资源和固定资产又正是最便宜的时候。难道,中国又开始为下一轮跳跃式增长做热身了?

在深圳,我再次访问了爱尔兰企业家李艾姆·卡西(Liam Casey)。他是为外国企业找中国代工的一个中间人,对中国企业很了解,两年前我就采访过他,并称他为“中国先生”。他告诉我说,与他经常打交道的中国公司中,但凡能排到前一百名的,没有一家倒闭。尽管有些也在苦苦挣扎,但很多却在寻求转型,不再简单地做来料加工,而是力求要推出自己的品牌和高附加值产品(有些产品,比如平板电脑、手持GPS等,已经在今年的拉斯维加斯消费电子展上崭露头角了)。

在北京的最南端,我采访了一家由某中国零售业巨头建立的“零售业研究中心”。像世界其它地方的零售业一样,中国零售商也在经历行业的寒冬。但即使没有全球需求下滑的影响,中国的零售业也已经到了非改变不可的时候。家乐福、沃尔玛、百思买和宜家这类的高效率的零售巨头已经进入了中国,中国的消费者能够明显地感觉到这些商店与原来苏联式百货商场的不同。传统的中国零售小店一般都是又黑又脏,大商场还好一些,但效率很差,你往往要排上一队挑选商品,再排上一队去交钱,然后拿了发票再排上一队去拿货,整个过程令人崩溃。

建立这个“零售业研究中心”的百货集团CEO曾经去美国一家零售公司参观访问过一个星期,回来以后就成了“顾客是上帝”的信徒,随后重金礼聘了一个美国顾问,建了这家中心。有关商场营销、商品布置、目标受众等课题会在这个研究中心里得到充分的讨论和研究。此外他还有建了座“培训中心”,雇员们在那里接受国际化高标准的训练,大到待人接物、小到楼道卫生,训练内容不一而足。在萧条的背景下,所有这些努力很可能最后都是白费力气,但起码被请来的这位美国顾问不这么看,他已经把一家老小都接到了北京,因为他相信,中国人确实诚心诚意地想搞出中国自己的家乐福来。

在北京的另一头儿,一个由政府投资的开发区里,我参观了著名的IBM中国研究院。研究院主任汤玛斯·李(Thomas Li)接待了我。汤玛斯在台湾长大,父母是大陆过去的外省人。他在美国留学,获得博士学位后顺风顺水地进入一家美国公司开始了自己的事业。多年前,胸怀对旧日祖国的复杂情感,他又踏上了父辈们生息的这块土地追寻自己的成功。2002年,李博士全家移居北京。在这里,他指挥着一个200多人、主要由中国电脑工程师组成的团队。在中国的高新技术企业中,像李博士这样的“海归”比比皆是。

我参观了一些研究院研究的新产品,其中有个玩意儿真是太棒了,如果允许的话,我真想当场砸钱把它买下来。那套系统能够即时把语音变成文字,又把文字翻译成另一种语言。电脑产业多年来一直想搞出语言与文字互相转换的东西,但准确性老是有问题,至今都没有成熟的产品问世。类似的产品演示我以前看过很多,但从未像那天那样令我震惊。当时在场的人中只有我和妻子两人是以英文为母语,但不管其他人口音多重,那个系统都能相当准确地实时将我们说的话转换成文本。我本来一直有意识地尽量放慢语速,清晰地吐字发音,后来为了测验一下这套系统真正的本领,我以平常与美国老乡谈话时的口音和语速说了下面这句:“我就压根儿没担心过我北京的屋子里会被窃听,我寻思着就那帮人的英文水平根本不可能听懂我们这种从几角旮旯里冒出来的美国话。”那些字迅速出现在了电脑屏幕上,除了“几角旮旯”变成了“起脚伽蓝”。真绝了!

这套系统在IBM公司内部已经开始应用。李博士的团队里每个人虽然都会讲英文,但天南地北的口音经常令中美两方的人员难以正常交流,所以每次与纽约方面进行视频会议时,英语发言都被即时地转换成相应的文字出现在大屏幕下方,有助于中国的科学家们更好地理解。这系统虽然还说不上完美,但我从二十年前就开始关注这类产品,目前这个是唯一一个令我过目难忘的,它已经成熟到能够自动给电视、广播、Youtube等视频中的语音设立文字索引。这样一来,你搜一个词(比如“邪恶轴心”),所有包含这个词发音的视频和音频就都能找出来了。

另有两个项目也很不错,很适合在这经济艰难的时候推广。一个是暂定名为“盘古”(Pangoo)的商业管理软件,完全是中国的电脑工程师设计的,专为那些家庭作坊式的小生意而量身打造,服务内容涵盖账户管理、资金往来、网络设计等等,据说其应用能给那些小公司省不少钱。另一个项目是关于生产控制的系统,通过它,中国公司可以将能源消耗和污染排放控制到最低水平。这两个项目之所以引起我的注意,是因为通过它们我看到,作为著名跨国公司的半独立部门,这个中国团队正试图将危机化为商机,从逆境中寻找希望,这份自信和努力令人动容。

中国企业试图凤凰涅磐体现得最为淋漓尽致的一个例子在深圳,它的名字叫“比亚迪”。这个公司刚刚宣布的发展计划口气大得近乎可笑,它要在2025年成为世界第一大汽车制造商。了解这个公司历史的人会明白,他们绝对不是在说笑。

1987年,一个叫王传福的年轻人从长沙的中南工业大学冶金物理化学系毕业。8年后,他三十出头,与兄弟朋友合伙开了家叫“比亚迪”的公司,专门生产电池。又过了7年,到了2002年,比亚迪在香港上市。2005年,比亚迪成为世界小型电池领域的领头羊。如果你用过手机、数码相机、iPod、电动牙刷、便携式吸尘器这类的小玩意儿,你十有八九就用过比亚迪的电池。这个公司目前拥有超过13万名员工,在中国设有7家大厂。我花了一个下午参观了它的深圳分厂,那里与其说是工厂,不如说是一个规模庞大的社区,巨大的足球场、鳞次栉比的高档公寓、绿树成荫的公园,这一切让人目不暇接。

“王总曾经是搞材料科学的,我们这儿很多高层领导也都是搞材料科学的”,比亚迪高级副总裁斯特拉·李对我说,“我们认为,一旦搞懂了材料,很多问题迎刃而解。”她这话是有所指的。去年,比亚迪爆出了一个令世界侧目的大新闻——推出全球第一款可商业化量产的双模电动汽车“F3DM”。我开着F3DM在他们的停车场附近转了几圈,速度轻松上了60迈,再踩油门提速,常规汽油发动机就开始工作了。该车使用的铁电池完全充电需要7小时,对充电电源要求不高,普通家庭的插座就可以;一副电池可反复充电多达1000次。当我一个人在那里试车时,不小心按了个“汽油发动机”的按键,这车噌得一下就蹿了出去,推背感强烈,行驶表现与常规的汽油车毫无二致。这车的建议零售价是美金两万二,在中国算比较贵,但在美国和欧洲却显得很便宜,而且国外目前市面上还根本没有能与之竞争的同类型车。

也许比亚迪只会是个昙花一现的公司,将带着“世界第一辆商用电动车”的桂冠黯然退场(就像80年代生产出世界第一款笔记本电脑的奥斯博公司一样);但也许,他真会成为这一行业的霸主。谁知道呢?大家走着瞧吧。在我采访比亚迪一个月后,王传福带着他的F3DM第一次出现在底特律汽车展,很多美国媒体表现出的不是震惊而是嘲笑——不遗余力地嘲笑比亚迪宣传材料上的蹩脚英文以及F3DM平庸呆板的外形。“我们当然能把车造得更好看”,斯特拉·李曾对我说,“设计和制造汽车是各个环节中比较容易的那部分。”这话说得难免显得有些故作轻松,她又进一步解释说,她们公司对在电池领域的先进地位很有信心,而且比亚迪的纵向整合生产系统(指比亚迪生产其汽车的每一个部件)保证了公司的长期优势。她的话有多少可信度我们暂且不谈,反正股神巴菲特去年年底拿出了2亿3千万美金收购了比亚迪10%的股权,那可是实打实的真金白银。

比亚迪在汽车方面的发展规划是在2015年做到中国第一,到2025年做到世界第一。当王传福在深圳第一次推出他的F3DM时,恰逢美国国会为要不要批准政府出钱援救通用和克莱斯勒而吵得不可开交。我当时问王传福能不能给美国的汽车制造商提点儿建议,他有点儿楞神儿。他是属于那种比较安静,甚至有点儿书呆子气的人。沉吟良久,他通过翻译对我说,“100多年了,底特律的三大汽车厂一直都没有什么改变。我想,他们是时候改改他们的生产线了。”




美国人应该记住,中国目前只是暂遇挫折,而绝不是就此出局。

如果中国真的像苏联,那它也许会被庞大而不满的失业大军冲垮;如果中国真的像日本,它也许会未来的一二十年里一路跌跌撞撞看不到出头之日。这两种情况发生任何一种,美国人也许会对中国依然贫苦的大众略表同情,但同时也会为少了个竞争对手而长舒一口气。

我其实认为这两种情况都不太可能发生。大部分的中国人可能仍然难以摆脱贫困,他们的工作(如果还有工作的话)仍然会是全球生产链条的最低端,但我深信,他们绝不会联合起来全面反抗现有的社会制度。中国公司将会竭尽全力地争取全球价值链条中更高端的位置。两年前我报道深圳的工厂时就描述过中国现有的外向型经济模式:拿着微薄薪金的中国工人在车间里拼命组装贴着世界各国牌子的产品,而美国等发达国家的研发人员、设计人员、投资者和消费者享受着高利润和高回报。中国政府和中国公司都已经明确表示,他们本应该获得更多。

外国人可以指责中国政府人为提高出口补贴或是压低人民币币值,但没有人有资格指责中国希望她的人民获得更多的利润回报。很多中国公司或许会在当下残酷的经济环境中倒下,但也会有很多中国公司将利用这个机会,为他们的下一次飞跃做好充分的准备。问题是,我们美国人做好同样的准备了吗?

更正:

大西洋月刊的印刷版上关于中国煤矿每天死亡250人的统计数据并不正确。数据来自新华社,该社自己也做了更正,但当时大西洋月刊4月刊已经交付印刷了。根据新华社提供的最新数据,煤矿事故每日死亡人数为9人,250人是中国所有事故导致的每天死亡人数。具体的解释,请见作者本人的博客。


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China's Way Forward

Idle factories, moored container ships, widespread bankruptcies, massive migration back to the hinterlands, strangely clean air—the signs of depression are everywhere in China. Because it makes so many of the goods the world isn’t buying now, China stands to be worse hit than the rest of the world —just as America was during the Depression, when it was the world’s sweatshop. But like America then, China will use tough times to design innovative products that will get it the high profits and the high-value jobs Americans kept to themselves for decades. And that is very bad news for the United States, unless it uses tough times to reinvent itself, too.
by James Fallows

Our apartment in Beijing overlooks one of the city’s long-distance bus terminals, where people arrive from the countryside to find work or sell wares, and depart for visits or permanent returns to their home villages. Early last summer, the terminal was jammed, and most of the passengers were leaving town.

At the time, the outbound flow was taken as one more last-minute sign of China’s optimistic, all-fronts effort to spiff up Beijing for its role as Olympic host. Through the spring, construction workers had toiled round the clock on any building or public-works project (notably, new subway stations) that had a chance of being completed by the time of the Games. For projects with no hope of making the deadline, workers toiled instead to put up screening walls, or to neaten the piles of I-beams and rebar that normally littered the sites. In July the government ordered a halt to all building or demolition work anywhere near Beijing, as part of a security lockdown and in hopes that construction dust would settle out of the air. The workers, mostly migrants from poorer neighboring provinces, went home on (mostly unpaid) leave to see their families and watch the Games on village TVs.

In September, as Olympic spectators were leaving Beijing, migrant workers returned, via packed buses and trains. In the capital as in fast-growing cities all across China, country people stand out in the urban crowd. Their hands and faces are more weathered, their clothes simpler and more ragged. Often they move about town lugging unwieldy bundles of bedding and belongings wrapped in the plaid-patterned, woven-plastic fabric that somehow has become standard for such purposes in poor countries around the world.

This post-Olympic flow back into the city was expected—but what happened next was not. In mid-October, at about the time retail sales were collapsing in the United States, we started seeing extra buses muster each morning with full loads of migrants headed out of town again. On an icy afternoon in November, I passed a site where a huge new office complex was being built. Its towering construction cranes, which just a week earlier had been swinging loads of cement and steel so close to the sidewalk that passersby ducked, were motionless. The frontage road was lined with buses whose license plates were from Hebei province—the sticks. A driver told me that the convoy would take workers back to their home village—“For now, no work”—and then come back for another load as soon as it dropped this batch off.

Through the rest of the winter and early this spring, Beijing’s air stayed notably clearer than it had been at the same time a year ago. Part of that was because of unusually windy weather, and part may have been a residual benefit of Olympic cleanup measures. But it was also a sign that fewer factories were running in the heavy-industrial districts upwind of Beijing.

The outbound buses and the better air were our local indicators of the economic contraction being felt in practically every corner of the world. And there were signs of it everywhere in China. Container ships sitting, moored and idle, in the harbor of Hong Kong. Revenues down in Macau’s casinos. Seas of empty seats aboard a small Airbus on the Shanghai-Beijing shuttle flight. (The first time I took that trip, in 2006, it was aboard a 747 with every seat full.) A report that a million or more of this year’s university graduates were still looking for jobs. Protests across the country, as real-estate developers and small-factory owners went bankrupt—and disappeared without paying employees months of back wages. Thousands of factories in Dongguan, in Guangdong province just north of Hong Kong, had been the real-life incarnation of the world’s stereotype of low-wage Chinese workers turning out low-value goods—cheap dolls and toys, Halloween masks, the bulk of the world’s Christmas presents and decorations. Within months the area was transformed into China’s rust belt.

You never know which statistics to believe in China, but in January a local official in Dongguan told me that at least 1 million factory workers had recently lost their jobs within five miles of where I was, and probably another million in nearby manufacturing areas of Guangdong province. The electronics supplier Foxconn, whose gigantic compound in Shenzhen turns out components for Apple, Dell, HP, and countless other companies and which had recently employed more than 250,000 workers, sent all its employees on a one-month unpaid furlough late last year. Reports in the Chinese press said Foxconn might lay off 100,000 worldwide.

Is the “China story” as we’ve known it—the three-decade-long story of modernization and prosperity supervised by an authoritarian regime whose economic success excuses most complaints and failings—over? Has it reached its limits and exposed its contradictions? If China does not keep moving forward and growing, will it tear itself apart?

Observers outside China often compare its difficulties to Japan’s a generation earlier. Few people inside China think the two economies have much in common—one is full of impoverished peasants, while the other has practically eliminated poverty; one is rushing toward industrialization while the other has been an industrial power for more than a century. But in recent months, I’ve heard countless Americans and a few Europeans ask, “Isn’t this just like the ‘Japan scare’ of the 1980s?” The question is shorthand for saying: “Japan seemed unstoppable 20 years ago and has been a sick man ever since. Is ‘rising’ China perhaps due for a similar reassessment?”

From Chinese intellectuals and officials I’ve more often heard a cautionary comparison to the old Soviet Union, implying that political control and territorial dominion could be undone by economic failure. By this logic, the Chinese Communist Party has no choice but to keep the country’s business growing as fast as possible, since a steady increase in material welfare is the real basis of the party’s legitimacy. If the economy were ever to stagnate—which is generally understood to mean a growth rate that falls below about 8 percent per year—then a larger share of the Chinese public might register dis content with Communist rule. And then anything could happen. The territorial contrast between the vast old Soviet empire and today’s shrunken Russian state may help explain the Chinese government’s intransigence about any threat of what it dismisses as “splittism” concerning Tibet, the Muslim region of Xinjiang, or Taiwan.

The Japanese and Soviet comparisons are awkward because of obvious differences from China. At no point in its history did the Soviet Union achieve anything like China’s sustained record of high-speed growth. So the “stagnation” that helped bring the Soviet regime down was in fact real, decades-long economic decline. Japan’s prolonged “sickness” is one most countries would envy: with half as many people as America and one-tenth as many as China, Japan still has the world’s second-largest economy and many of its strongest industrial brands, including the world’s largest carmaker, Toyota. Moreover, both Japan and the Soviet Union at times presented themselves as models of different paths toward modernity. Modern China is a force and a reality, but not a model or an idea that others might replicate. The Chinese system will remain unique. (The one nation that shares its scale, India, does not share its political precepts. No other nation that could build roads, airports, and industrial parks as modern as China’s could impose so repressive a political regime.)

Still, thinking of how previous models might apply to China raises a valid point. The Soviet Union’s political control was finally undone by its economic failures. And the parts of Japan’s system that truly don’t work—mainly the financial markets, which have yet to emerge from a 20-year slump—reflect its difficulty in adjusting to changes in the world economy. So if China’s rise is not undone by the risks that have been evident for years—pollution, water shortage, corruption, the widening rich-poor social gap, safety standards so primitive that on average more than 250 people die each day in coal-mine accidents—might China prove vulnerable to Soviet-style discontent born of a slowing economy? Or to Japanese-style inability to understand how the world is changing all around it?

My guess is No. China faces big problems, and its modern history has been marked by the unforeseen. Perhaps we will look back at the spectacle and choreography of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies as the last time the world thought there was no limit to what China could achieve. But I am betting the other way.





Let’s begin by considering how bad things could get, for China and those it influences. The clearest approach I’ve heard to this question comes from Michael Pettis, the Beijing-based finance professor whose side business as a rock-music impresario I described in the March Atlantic. To think about China’s predicament in the late 2000s, he says, you should think about America’s in the 1920s.

Through the early 1900s, the United States played a role in the world economy surprisingly similar to China’s in recent years. Until the start of World War I, the United States had long been a “net debtor” country. It had relied on foreign loans and investments to build the factories and lay the railroads that ultimately made it an industrial titan. By the end of World War I, it had become a “net creditor,” as its undamaged industrial base supplied European combatants and the former customers of ruined European companies.

In the 1920s, its farms and industries made America the workshop of the world. It ran trade surpluses with most other economies, which meant that a disproportionate share of the world’s jobs were in America (it was doing work that other people consumed), and a disproportionate share of what it made went for other people’s use. Foreigners paid the difference by transferring gold reserves—John Maynard Keynes complained at the time that the United States was amassing “all the bullion in the world”—or taking on loans and investments from Americans. So far, this is like China’s story. And so far, so good.

This very role as global exporter made the United States unusually vulnerable when global demand collapsed in the 1930s. Having had more than its “fair” share of the world’s jobs to begin with, America had more of them to lose. This doesn’t mean that Americans suffered more deeply than Europeans. We got Franklin Roosevelt; they got Hitler, Stalin, Franco, and Mussolini. But as a matter of plain economics, the layoffs and unemployment of the Depression years were worse in the United States.

That is the problem for China now. Many Americans would assume that China’s recent history of trade surpluses would be its bulwark during a recession. In the long run, it will be, because it has provided a $2 trillion war chest in foreign holdings. But in the short run, China’s reliance on foreign customers turns out to be a serious vulnerability.

Pettis wrote recently that China’s worldwide trade surplus, “the cleanest measure of overcapacity”—factories that are running and workers who are employed only because of foreign customers—is by one measure at least as large as America’s was in 1929. China today, like America then, has a trade surplus equal to about 0.5 percent of global economic output. But as a proportion of its own economic output, China’s trade surplus is much bigger than America’s was. In proportional terms, today’s China is five times as reliant on foreign customers to create domestic jobs as America was in 1929. So unless China can find a way to keep selling when its customers have stopped buying, it will face a proportionately greater employment shock.

That China might indeed try to keep selling is the concluding part of Pettis’s cautionary analogy to the Depression era. As stock markets crashed and economies collapsed, the U.S. trade surplus nearly disappeared. American businesses, desperate to preserve markets and jobs, lobbied for passage of the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which increased duties on a list of some 20,000 imported goods. Soon afterward, other countries retaliated with similar tariffs; world trade dried up, and the Great Depression was on. When people use the words “Smoot-Hawley” today, they usually mean them as a warning that any interference with trade, especially by the United States, could again prove disastrous.

Pettis’s point is different, and in a way more worrisome. The real damage of Smoot-Hawley, he says, was less economic than political. Other countries understood that the United States was trying to protect its trade surplus and therefore its workforce. They didn’t like it as a political matter, and they struck back.

If that were to happen again, would it be because of “Buy American” provisions or other forms of American “protectionism” editorial pages so often warn against? That’s the wrong thing to worry about, according to this logic. The real counterpart to Smoot-Hawley would be Chinese protectionism—or rather, any effort by China to defend its huge trade surpluses, as the U.S. once did. China’s government is unlikely to rely on outright Smoot-Hawley–style tariffs. Instead it could increase subsidies to exporters; it could try to push the RMB’s value back down, after three years of letting the currency rise; it could encourage manufacturers to restrain wages; it could impose indirect barriers to imports, as with its recent pressure on China’s airlines to cancel outstanding orders for Boeing and Airbus airplanes. By early this year, China’s government was in fact doing every one of these things. As a result its global trade surplus, instead of shrinking as expected when the world economy deteriorated, grew dramatically. Exports fell, but imports fell much more: in January, exports declined by 17 percent and imports by more than twice as much—by 43 percent. This is an economic problem for other countries. But it could be an even more serious political provocation, if China is seen as forcing its share of unemployment problems onto everyone else. And thus, to bring this scenario to a close, the best China can expect from today’s shocks might be unemployment rates higher than America’s in the ’30s. The worst would be for China to start a trade war that makes things even harder for itself.

China’s emergence as America’s financier has steadily increased its leverage over the United States. But in the short run—rather, for however long the current crisis lasts—the two countries really are codependent in a way neither fully anticipated. Early this year, Chinese officials began saying more and more bluntly what Gao Xiqing, who manages some $200 billion of Chinese holdings in the United States, conveyed artfully in an interview in our pages in December 2008: that if America wants to keep using China’s money, it had better put its economy back on track. It should be saving and investing more, borrowing and consuming less. At the Davos conference in January, Premier Wen Jiabao made the point by outright scolding America for dragging down everyone with its excesses.

Okay already! But the more Americans obey these orders, the worse things look for China in the short run, since American overconsumption is exactly what has kept those Chinese factories a-hum. Americans are in a similar bind with their complaints about China. U.S. officials want China to reduce its trade surplus—while also hoping that China’s financiers will keep buying U.S. Treasury notes and stocks in U.S. companies with the dollars they get from that very trade surplus. We can’t have it both ways. The Chinese can give us money, or they can give us back some jobs, but not both.

So America will keep looking for the bottom of its economic descent, while Chinese businesses and workers endure a severe blow—one China’s leaders can’t really change by lecturing Americans. Why do I think the Chinese have good reasons for hope?

One answer lies in the realm of straight economics. Some of the lost demand is sure to be picked up within China itself, thanks to a stimulus plan that, at some 4 trillion RMB (about $600 billion), is proportionately much larger than the one proposed by the Obama administration, because the Chinese economy is so much smaller than America’s. Yes, there are grounds for skepticism about the Chinese plan. Some of the total represents a new label for projects already approved or begun. Some of the 4 trillion RMB is supposed to come not from the central government but from local and provincial authorities, who have no obvious way to raise it during a recession. Although one important element will be basic health-care coverage for average Chinese citizens, most of the money will be spent on construction projects, especially for transportation and infrastructure: more highways, an expanded high-speed railroad system, scores of new airports all across the country. Construction is the Chinese government’s first response to most problems—if it is worried that its universities are weak by international standards, it approves a plan to build new research centers—and the construction projects are subject to insider deals and kickbacks like those in most of the world. But laying concrete and raising girders employs a lot of people, especially the way those tasks are done in China, so this will be an option for some of the migrant workers now being sent home from factories.

Heaped on my desk are other sector-by-sector analyses suggesting that the rebound may come more quickly than the gross-demand figures indicate. “When can we expect to see signs of life in the mainland economy?” asked Andy Rothman, of CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets, in one such report, about the cement and steel industries. “Our answer is, March or April 2009,” when the first orders from the stimulus program will reach steel and cement companies.

As in America, real-estate values have fallen throughout China; but China’s bad-loan problem is nothing like America’s subprime-loan disaster. America’s banks have too little money. China’s have a lot, and the main reason they have not been lending is that until very recently the government was more worried about inflation than anything else. “Chinese banks are not only very liquid, they will lend when directed by the Party, which appoints all senior bankers,” Rothman wrote. They are being so directed now.

I have a lot more reports from a lot more sectors, but all lead toward the same conclusion: China’s economy may suffer more than most others, but it also has more tools and resources in reserve than most others.

Beyond straight economics, the “China is over” hypothesis seems to miss important cultural and political realities. Its unspoken premise is that average Chinese people just barely tolerate the social bargain the government now offers—limited freedom, potentially unlimited wealth. So if the regime ever falls short on its material promises, the deal will be off and people will rebel.

This does not square with what I have seen. I have often wondered why so many people in different roles and regions in China seem vivid. The answer has to be more than contrast with my own blandness. I think it is because being in China today is like being in Western Europe in the 1950s. No one’s family story is dull or uneventful. People doing routine jobs have been through great hardships and dramatic swings of fate. Last year I interviewed a party official in Shanxi province who was laying out his regional-development plans. Every 10 or 15 minutes, he would stop and say (through an interpreter), “Do you understand? If it had not been for Deng Xiaoping, I would be behind an ox in a field right now. I would not be sitting here wearing a necktie and talking to a foreigner.” Or, “Do you understand how different this is? My mother has bound feet!” A scholar I know in Beijing once offhandedly remarked that he had developed self-confidence when learning that he could survive for four years as a teenager on a labor gang during the Cultural Revolution. People in their teens and 20s were not on the labor gangs—kids today!—but they have heard the stories.

Layoffs and stagnant wages? People have seen worse. Last summer my wife and I went through villages in Sichuan province where refugees from earthquakes prepared for the next few years of residence in temporary shelters and tents. Laid-off migrant workers are returning to many of these same villages now. This is terribly hard, but in the same villages, grandparents remember when half the local population starved to death during the famines of Mao’s disastrous “Great Leap Forward” in the 1950s.

When my wife and I first visited China in the mid-1980s, most people with paying jobs toiled in big, primitive, inefficient factories for the so-called state-owned enterprises, or SOEs. In one unheated, acres-wide factory in Hangzhou, we saw some 5,000 women attending old-fashioned looms to make hangings and tapestries of traditional Chinese scenes, with no indication that anyone ever bought them. Some SOEs persist—most of the very biggest companies in China, from the oil and telecom firms to the major airlines, are their spin-offs or descendants. But when Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms began in earnest in the 1990s, the most wasteful SOEs were closed down—eliminating many tens of millions of jobs in just a few years. Chinese social-realist novels set in the 1990s are about people laid off from the SOEs. Those set in the 2000s are about migrant workers—or urban professionals. The SOE recession was a major social strain, but it did not come close to bringing the government down. The Chinese people weathered that downturn—and more significant, so did the system that rules the country. People in China are as demanding as anyone else, and expectations have risen. But it is hard to see why the hardships just ahead will be the ones the Chinese public finds intolerable or that push the system toward Soviet-style collapse.

Westerners who have not traveled in China might be surprised at how outspoken ordinary Chinese people can be. When cars or bicycles collide (often), the parties involved get out to yell at each other and at the cops, and plead their case to the gathering crowd. Workers complain about bosses who have cheated them. Residents complain about the landlord. In Western China my wife and I met families from villages that were being flooded by new dam projects. They showed us around the new quarters they’d been assigned, pointing out the cracks and defects and itemizing the ways it was worse than where they used to live. It all seems normal to an American.

But when people complain, it is usually about those crooked bosses, reporters, mayors, or bureaucrats—not about the system or its rulers. Principled protests against the system and its repression certainly do exist, as with the daring “Charter 08” petition for civil liberties signed by more than 300 intellectuals late last year. But that is not the norm. Ten years ago, when the Asian financial crisis drove China’s unemployment rate above 10 percent, demonstrations broke out across the country. “But the laid-off workers were almost always fighting for their rights—unemployment benefits that they believed were stolen by local officials—rather than fighting against the central government policies that led to the job loss,” Andy Rothman of CLSA wrote recently. Perhaps these workers are missing the big picture, but for now they generally act as if they expect the national system to protect them against lapses at the local level.

There is one more part of the big picture: the opportunities that today’s disruption may be opening for future Chinese growth.

Nearly 30 years ago, during another big worldwide downturn, I went to Silicon Valley and to Detroit for this magazine, to compare the way two different industrial cultures coped with economic hardship. Many of the companies I visited in each place are still with us—GM and Ford in Detroit; Apple, Intel, and HP in Silicon Valley. But quite a few I visited in California have now vanished. (Remember Eagle Computer Company, or Osborne?) We know that the high-tech industry is a source of growth, but—unless you work in it—you can easily forget that it’s extremely volatile. Then as now, people in the high-tech business emphasized that even though no one likes being disrupted, the volatility of America’s industrial culture is a necessary part of its success. It couldn’t produce so many new companies with new technologies if it weren’t so ruthless at eliminating old ones.

Chinese industry has also been volatile, but in a way that has done less good for China’s economy as a whole. The small-business culture of China is one of the few parts of the world where Americans are considered sluggish and hyper-deliberative. As small companies scramble against each other to cut pennies from costs and minutes from schedules, they have become more nimble as subcontractors. But they still don’t keep much of the final rewards for themselves. Thus today’s shock is more than such companies can offset just by cutting costs.

In Beijing, in Shanghai, in Shenzhen, and elsewhere, I’ve recently visited companies that are trying to use the disruption of this moment to enter wholly new markets and do what so few Chinese firms have yet done: make high-tech, high-value products that bring high rewards. In a country as big and chaotic as China, you can find illustrations of any “trend” you want. But in only a few weeks of asking, I found indications of companies that were growing rather than shrinking, and of corporate leaders who were pouring in money based on their belief that now, when competitors are at their weakest and talent and assets could be snapped up cheap, is the time to prepare for their next big advance.

In Shenzhen, north of Hong Kong, I went to see Liam Casey, the Irish entrepreneur I described two years ago as “Mr. China” for his success in matching big, famous foreign companies with small, obscure Chinese factories that can produce brand-name products quickly and well. Casey said that of the top 100 Chinese companies he works with regularly, not one had gone out of business. While many were struggling, some viewed the recession as a chance to move into higher-value work and introduce their own advanced products rather than serving strictly as subcontractors. (Several such items, like new tablet computers and handheld GPS devices, were displayed at the latest Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.)

In a far-southern suburb of Beijing, I visited a new “retail research center” being built by a very large Chinese retail company I agreed not to name. Chinese retailers have at least as many problems as their counterparts overseas. Apart from the global falloff in demand, their customers recognize the difference between modern, efficient operators like Carrefour, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and IKEA, all well-established in China, and the local department stores that bring a Soviet-era touch to convenience and customer care. Traditional Chinese-owned grocery and department stores can be dirty and dark; at some, you need to queue in one line to choose a product, another to pay, and yet another to show the receipt and pick up your item.

The CEO of one of the antiquated operators spent a week at a major U.S. consumer-goods company and became a convert to the idea that stores should be laid out for the customer’s convenience and interest. And with the zeal of a convert, he hired an American hotshot as his adviser and is now building a research center next to the “corporate learning center” he recently completed. At the learning center, employees take classes on international standards of service, cleanliness, and convenience, and act out drills of how to handle customers. In the new research center, the company will try out different floor plans, displays, and sale offers for its stores, and then see which ones appeal to focus groups of Chinese shoppers. The whole approach could turn out to be a boondoggle. But the American adviser, who showed me around, had moved his young family to Beijing because he believed the company was sincere about learning to meet the likes of Carrefour on their own terms.

At the far-opposite end of Greater Beijing, in a special government-sponsored research park, I visited the China Research Lab of IBM. The lab’s director, Thomas Li, has a life story like those I have heard at many successful tech and manufacturing companies. He was raised in Taiwan, by parents who had grown up on the mainland. He went to America for his doctorate, had a successful career with a U.S. firm—and then decided, for reasons of opportunity and sentiment, to be part of everything going on in mainland China. In 2002 Li moved with his family to Beijing, where he directs a 200-person team of mainly Chinese-trained computer scientists.

One product demo made me wish I could get out a checkbook on the spot. It addressed two of the real-world problems most difficult for computers to handle: converting spoken language to written text, and converting written text from one language to another. Computers have “done” both of these tasks for years, but they have not done them accurately enough to be worth the bother. Having watched many similar demonstrations, I was startled by this one. My wife and I were the only native speakers of English in the room. But when each of us spoke into the voice-recognition system, it produced nearly perfect real-time versions of what we said. I had been speaking with deliberate clarity, so as a test I said the following words at fast conversational speed: “I never worry that my apartment is bugged in Beijing, because I figure there aren’t that many non-native speakers who can understand high-speed slangy American speech.” Those very words, except “slangy” (which had become “slinky”), were on the screen. Hmmmm.

Although everyone in Li’s lab speaks English, differences in accent can be a barrier in discussions with native speakers. So on video conference calls with their IBM colleagues in Armonk, New York, the Chinese scientists listen to what is said in English—and see a nearly real-time English transcription running across the bottom of the screen, which greatly aids their comprehension. I am sure it is not perfect, but I have seen enough such projects through the decades to be impressed with this one. Based on another demo I saw, it is already mature enough to allow spoken words—from TV, radio, commercials, YouTube—to be indexed and therefore retrieved as accurately as ordinary text. The words could then be translated and searched, in the original language or others, so that video clips, say, would be easy to find by a phrase (“axis of evil”) someone says in them.

Two other projects directly addressed the opportunities created by hard times. One, with the internal working name Pangoo, is meant for the millions of family businesses too big to continue keeping their accounts and records by hand, and too small to afford regular business-management software. It is a suite of business applications—account management, billing, Web design—tailored by Chinese-trained computer scientists for Chinese companies that need to save money. Another allows Chinese companies to minimize power use and other sources of pollution when determining how to time their production schedules and obtain supplies. Other companies in other countries are working toward similar goals. This project impressed me because a fairly autonomous, Chinese-run and -staffed division of a major global company was acting as if today’s economic turmoil was an opportunity.

The most dramatic illustration of a Chinese firm trying to capitalize on this moment occurred in the far-eastern corner of Shenzhen. There, a purely Chinese startup firm called BYD has announced plans that would seem laughable were it not for what the company has already achieved.

In 1987, Wang Chuanfu got his bachelor’s degree in metallurgy from Central South University, in Changsha. Eight years later, in his early 30s, he founded the BYD Company with a cousin and a friend, to specialize in battery development. Seven years after that, in 2002, the company went public on the Hong Kong stock exchange. By 2005, BYD was the leading small-battery company in the world. If you use a cell phone, a digital camera, an iPod, an electric toothbrush, a portable vacuum cleaner, you’re probably using one of its batteries. It employs some 130,000 people at seven main facilities in China. I spent an afternoon touring its Shenzhen works, complete with soccer stadium for employee games, extensive apartment complexes for employees’ families and schools for their children, and gardens with the palm trees that Shenzhen’s tropical climate permits.

“Dr. Wang was trained in material sciences, and our senior leaders are expert in material sciences,” Stella Li, the company’s senior vice president, told me. “We feel that if you understand materials very well, many things are possible.” In particular she meant the development that propelled BYD into international news late last year: its unveiling of the world’s first mass-produced battery-powered hybrid car that could be recharged on normal household current. The new F3DM model, which I drove around a parking lot, can run for at least 60 miles purely on battery power, after which a gasoline engine kicks in. The iron-based battery recharges fully in seven hours; it is said to be good for well over 1,000 charge/recharge cycles, an unusually high number. When I pressed the “gas”—and I was alone in the car, with no minder—I was pushed back in the seat as far as I am with my normal car. The announced retail price for the car is $22,000—expensive in China, cheap in the U.S. or European market, where no comparable plug-in cars are yet on the market.

Whether BYD will eventually be known only for producing the first such electric car (as Osborne Computer was known for producing the first, suitcase-size “portable” in the early 1980s) or instead becomes the leading producer, no one can tell. When Wang unveiled the car at the Detroit Auto Show a month after I saw it in Shenzhen, much of the U.S. press tittered about mistranslations in the BYD promotional material and the stodginess of the car’s design. “Oh, we can always make the car look better!” Stella Li told me when I asked her about that. “Designing the car, building the car, that is the easy part.” She was being deliberately breezy: she went on to explain the company’s faith that its demonstrated edge in battery technology, plus its engineering skills and “vertically integrated” manufacturing system—it builds almost all of the car’s components itself—will give it a long-term advantage. And against the snickering of the U.S. auto press was Warren Buffett’s purchase of 10 percent of the company, for $230 million, late last year.

The company’s official goal is to be the biggest automaker in China by 2015, and the biggest in the world by 2025. Wang’s unveiling of the car in Shenzhen coincided with U.S. congressional debate about emergency aid to GM and Chrysler. I asked Wang if he had any tips for the U.S. companies. He is a quiet, nerdish man who seemed to blanch as he heard the question translated. “For 100 years, nothing has changed in Detroit,” he finally said (through the interpreter). “I think they need to reconsider their product lines.”

China is down. It is not out. This has important implications for America.

If China were truly like the old Soviet Union, the coming mass unemployment might be the shock that finally turned the people against their rulers. If it were truly like Japan, it might spend a decade or two chugging along but not aligning its systems to new international realities. In either case, Americans might feel sorry for China’s still-impoverished masses—but less worried about its competitive challenge.

I suspect that China will be like neither. Most of its people will still be very poor. Most of the jobs they hold—when they have jobs—will still be near the bottom of the global value chain. But they will not, I believe, be in fundamental revolt against the country’s governing system. And the companies they create, manage, and work for will be constantly trying to improve their position on that value chain. Two years ago, after reporting on factories in Shenzhen, I described an economic symbiosis in which Chinese workers assembled many of the world’s products—while inventors, designers, shareholders, and consumers from America or other rich countries got the lion’s share of the financial returns. It is the announced policy of the Chinese government, and of many Chinese companies, to keep more of the rewards in China.

Outsiders can rightly criticize the Chinese government if it tries to sneak in new export subsidies or push the RMB’s value back down. But no one can criticize its ambition to increase the rewards for its people’s work. Many Chinese companies will fail or make mistakes under today’s intense pressure. But many are using the moment to prepare for their next advance. The question for Americans to think about is how we are using the same moment.

Correction: The print version of this piece incorrectly reported that 250 people die each day in Chinese coal-mining accidents. This figure was drawn from a release by the government-controlled Xinhua news agency, which issued its own correction after the Atlantic piece had already gone to press. Based on the updated information from Xinhua, the number of people who die in Chinese coal-mining accidents each day is in fact about nine. A total of 250 people a day die from accidents of all sorts. For a more detailed explanation, see James Fallows' blog post on this subject. 

 

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