Shenzhen – China’s fast-growing Silicon Valley

Swedish journalist Johan Nylander’s book draws big attention

Swedish correspondent and journalist Johan Nylander is well situated to follow the development in mainland China. Based in Hong Kong since 2011 he has recently launched a book about China’s technology and innovation wonder that is Shenzhen. Today this is the fastest growing city in history, which has gone from consisting only of fishing villages back in the 1970’s to today’s position as China’s equivalent of Silicon Valley. Its transformation from production to a centre for tech and innovation is extraordinary.

Johan Nylander. Photo by: Hanna Edjdertun-Nylander

What the Swede (regular contributor to CNN, Dagens Industri, Forbes and South China Morning Post) saw before his own eyes on many trips to the mainland has led to the book ‘Shenzhen Superstars — How China’s smartest city is challenging Silicon Valley’. This city’s speed, energy and determination are just mind-blowing and Johan’s aim is to take the reader to the very heart of what is shaping Shenzhen.

“Imagine a tech start-up capitalist who hasn’t heard of Google or Silicon Valley! That’s the equivalent; and it is so absurd that Shenzhen and its companies are at least as important as Silicon Valley and Google but people in the west have not heard about it!” he tells ScandAsia.

No other city better symbolizes the rise of modern China. And no other city challenges Silicon Valley more aggressively as the global hub for innovation and technology start-ups. In many ways, the Chinese city has already outsmarted the Valley, he has stated in the intro to his book (which jumped to the number one spot on Amazon’s bestseller list for the China section upon its launch).

Johan Nylander. Photo by: Hanna Edjdertun-Nylander

Airbus’ main global innovation centre is situated in Silicon Valley, in California, and recently it was announced that its second only such centre in the world will be set up in Shenzhen. That speaks volumes. It is also the home for Tencent, the Chinese Internet giant.

Shenzhen is a flagship representative for the Chinese government’s effort to shift the economic development away from manufacturing to one steered by innovation and entrepreneurship.

In the beginning, explains Johan, it was turned into China’s first economic lab. It just exploded as manufacturing hub, with Hong Kong manufacturers moving all their production there, with western companies gradually following. Then the Chinese started to place their production and their whole business there, leading on also to research and then innovation and creativity.

“The difference is how things progressed so much faster there than in similar U.S and European areas.”

Interestingly, this also developed into an attractive area for those people in China, in Johan’s words, who “want more freedom, and not living under the shadow of the communist party. The farther away from Beijing the more freely you can conduct business, so people who cannot afford or have the opportunity to live abroad but want another type of life have flocked there.”

Then there is the remarkable entrepreneurial spirit: “Everybody I talked to about why this has happened, what’s at the core of this dynamic, replied that it’s that nobody wants to be employed, everyone wants to run one’s own business. And it is not only about money; but also about the adventure, the feeling that it’s more fun to do than working for a big company. A Universum study showed that in Shenzhen 60 per cent of graduates wanted to either work for a start-up or start their own company. The equivalent in Beijing is only 15 per cent.”

DJI showroom in Shenzhen. Photo by Johan Nylander.

Johan’s one-hour-read tells that the world’s fastest growing city is also about to accelerate. “It continues to grow in importance globally. Shenzhen is just as important for technology development as Silicon Valley, especially about the integration of hardware and software. This means that if one believes that the future will be about self-driving cars, Internet of Things, e.g. that products become smart products – then it is in southern China one should be and nowhere else! No other place in the world is more important than Shenzhen when it comes to combining hardware and software,” states the Swede.

The city itself, including its infrastructure and overall development, also emanate quality improvements and futurism. Johan relates this radical transformation from the very first time he went there, then warned by his Hong Kong friends not go: ‘They will steal your liver!’

“It was quite rough when I came there for the first time, with rats everywhere. But then I discovered new parts of the city, and every time I travelled there I saw how it was changing, how the dirty factories vanished. Certain areas is like looking into the future; everything super clean, only electric cars, no cash money, young office works using colourful bicycles etc. – the exact opposite image of a dirty industrial city.”

“Its infrastructure is more advanced than many other places I have visited in the world. There are wide avenues, skyscrapers, planted trees and parks everywhere. One can hear birds singing – I have never heard bird song in any Chinese manufacturing city,” he continues.

Johan Nylander having coffee in Shenzhen. Photo by Allan Nylander.

“While many westerners are moving there it is at the same time becoming more Chinese; attracted by the city they are moving to Shenzhen from all provinces in China, just as Silicon Valley entice people from all over the U.S and the world looking for excitement.”

The Chinese wonder even takes Silicon Valley veterans by storm: in ‘Shenzhen Superstars’ Johan lets such a voice bear witness to the surprised reaction typical from those coming from the west who assumes China is poor, undeveloped and uneducated.

When Scotty Allen first came to the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen his spontaneous reaction was not: “Wow, this is cool.” It was: “Wow, we are fucked”.

When Johan met the American he had already built his own version of an I-phone there.

“I could not write myself that it’s a super cool city. It was better to let an American describe it than myself, so he became the voice. And his journey was so interesting; I liked how it opened his eyes and he had a fantastic story.”

For Scotty Allen, however, what’s important is not whether Shenzhen or Silicon Valley is ahead of which. It’s more about that both are doing great, and rather exist in symbiosis, than as rivals, of each other. He no longer sees it as the US versus China, but rather a situation where all advances together. He does, however, encourage more westerners to come to Shenzhen and experience the amazing development and opportunities.

With this book Johan also got a taste for writing books and is preparing to make it into a trilogy.

“First of all, it’s great fun to do self-publishing, instead of writing articles published by other media – so I write the stories much longer until they become a shorter book. That’s a bit the model going forward. I think there are many – especially businessmen – who do not have the time to spare to read a 400-page book. I think this book is compact, based on story-telling. The format enables to quickly absorb a lot of information and understanding for a topic.”

“Many who liked the book and found it fascinating also wished it was longer. And that is why I want to keep digging and instead of one long book do three short ones,” he adds.

So, Shenzhen Superstars is the first of three that will be about the Pearl River Delta, where the second book will be about the Greater Bay Area. “That’s about how China wants to create a cluster where they bundle together 11 cities in southern China, around Hong Kong, Macau and Chenzhen – to create synergies between these and also build bridges and subways etc. This is hot stuff over here and will generate an economy larger than the whole of Russia or larger than South Korea. It’s a monster! So that is very exciting and interesting.”

“Hong Kong is an interesting entrance point to China. Shenzhen is extremely important for the whole world, but for Nordic companies it is usually easer to open up shop in Hong Kong–where the legal system is also more reliable–and then have business in Southern China.”

Hong Kong still has a central role; it is described as a super connector. There is an international touch in Hong Kong that you do not have in China.”

Stay tuned. And go east!

About Joakim Persson

Freelance business and lifestyle photojournalist

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