Shenzhen. Lok Yiu Cheung / Alamy

What's Life Like in Shenzhen, According to an Israeli Who Sees Himself as a Local

Forty years ago it was a fishing village. Now it’s one of the world’s most important cities. Fifteen comments about life in Shenzhen, a Chinese melting pot and tech powerhouse

SHENZHEN, China – I found myself here almost by accident. Following a period of ups and downs in Tel Aviv, I had an opportunity to participate in a business project in Shanghai. The city charmed me immediately. The more time I spent there, the more I felt that Shanghai was where I was meant to be. And, indeed, those years made up the most beautiful period of my life. I met interesting people from around the world and I almost even fell in love. But despite my sincere efforts, I couldn’t find a proper job there after the project ended. With a heavy heart I packed my bags and readied to leave Shanghai.

It was around then that I heard reports that something exciting was happening in Shenzhen. I knew next to nothing about the place, but I decided to undertake a journey to the south, the Chinese equivalent of Silicon Valley, abutting Hong Kong. Besides a tenuous connection to an Israeli entrepreneur who had moved to Shenzhen and who would help me find my first job there, I had nothing in hand.

I had been drawn initially to China as a student, and for a number of reasons. First, because of the opportunity to learn about a culture with a rich history, one radically different from the culture I came from. Second, because of the economic opportunities to be found in the vast Chinese market. Third – and this is probably the main reason – because China is changing the world, and this is a transformation on a historic scale that’s only just beginning. I wanted to have a better understanding about the rise of China, I wanted to be part of it. And here I am, occupying a front-row seat at one of the best shows on Earth.

1. A metropolis of 20 million people that didn’t exist 40 years ago

It’s humid in Shenzhen. Very humid. Thanks to the humidity and the plentiful rain, Shenzhen is a flowery, verdant city, but you can’t take even a few steps without perspiring from every pore of your body. Sometimes it’s impossible simply to sit outside without sweating from head to foot.

Lee Kuan Yew, the legendary late leader of Singapore, said once that air conditioning was the most crucial invention for his country, because “it changed the nature of civilization by making development possible in the tropics.” The invention that aided the rise of Singapore is apparently doing the same in Shenzhen.

There are an estimated 20 million people in this metropolis. Most people in the West know about neighboring Hong Kong, but are unaware that right next door something is happening with far-reaching political and economic implications: The city of Shenzhen, China’s technology capital, is booming. The story of this city, which barely existed 40 years ago, vividly embodies China’s meteoric rise.

Shenzhen used to be a small fishing village. In 1978, two years after the death of Mao Zedong, his successor, Deng Xiaoping, launched a process known literally as “reform and opening up.” For the first time, private ownership of assets became possible for the Chinese, as did establishment of businesses and trade in production surpluses, and foreign investment. It was an experiment in the market economy, with Shenzhen chosen as the trial balloon. In short order, the reform engendered the most rapid economic growth in history. It was Shenzhen that led the way to China’s metamorphosis into a superpower.

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2. Shenzhen builds more skyscrapers each year than the entire United States

Shenzhen is the American dream, China-style. In contrast to other cities, newly arrived residents are welcomed with open arms instead of encountering a supercilious, scornful attitude. According to the local ethos, a person is gauged above all by his abilities, not by his origins or his connections. The local government is aware of the attractiveness of this approach, so billboards hammer home the message: “You’ve arrived in Shenzhen, you’re a Shenzhenian!” I too, as an outsider, have adopted this slogan, with regard to both myself and others, bringing smiles and empathic responses from the Chinese side.

“Shenzhen sodu” – “Shenzhen speed” – is a term that describes the pace at which things get done here. In 2016, for example, more high-rises were built in the city than in the entire United States. The standout project is the financial center of the Ping An Insurance Company. At 562 meters (115 floors), it’s the the world’s fourth-tallest building.

The transformation going on here, however, goes beyond soaring buildings, new infrastructure and economic investment. It is also apparent culturally, socially and in terms of attitudes. After all, these changes occurred over the course of a single generation. Many Chinese in their own lifetimes have experienced both the Cultural Revolution, on the one hand, and life in enormous new cities, on the other.

3. China’s melting pot, 90 percent of whose residents were born elsewhere, and whose average age is 30

The China Bay region, the Pearl River Delta in southern China, encompasses Hong Kong, Macao, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. The region has an overall population of about 70 million, and its gross domestic product – about $1.5 trillion – is higher than that of countries such as Australia and Mexico. But that’s only the beginning. The expectation is for the region’s economy to almost double in size by 2025.

In general terms, it can be said that Shenzhen specializes in technology, Hong Kong in finance and Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) in trade. The geographical proximity and the transporation links between the three cities, each of them a world leader in its field, generates unparalleled economic might. In early March, the Chinese government published an ambitious plan intended to make the China Bay area world’s leading economic region.

The fact that Shenzhen sprouted from almost nothing makes it something of a Chinese melting pot. The city consists of a human mosaic originating from every corner of the country. About 90 percent of the inhabitants were born or raised elsewhere. As a result, the most common language is Mandarin rather than the Cantonese that dominates the rest of South China and Hong Kong. Tall and short Chinese live in Shenzhen, some like spicy and some favor sweet, some grew up in a remote village, others come from another big city. Virtually everyone has come here to look for a better life in the technological forefront of the East.

Over the years, Shenzhen has become a magnet for educated, ambitious young people. It has all the conditions to enable them to realize their dreams: an abundance of leading technological firms, venture capital funds, lenient regulation and, most important, it offers encounters with other ambitious young people. Today it’s one of the youngest cities in the world – with an average age of 30. Sometimes, when I’m traveling on the Metro, I feel as though I’m surrounded by students, not by people on their way to work.

VCG via Getty Images IL

4. Infrastructure growth is palpable, including the recently inaugurated longest bridge in the world

The momentum the bay region is undergoing is manifested concretely in infrastructure projects. Last September, another section of the high-speed rail lines that connect China’s cities was completed. Even though it’s a relatively short segment, it bears far-reaching significance – for the first time enabling travel via high-speed train to Hong Kong. The trip from the center of Hong Kong, in Kowloon, to the center of Shenzhen now takes just 15 minutes, a third of what it did in the past. In American terms, imagine the time needed to travel from Wall Street to Silicon Valley being just a quarter of an hour. The boundaries may well dissolve in the future, and Shenzhen and Hong Kong will become one enormous megacity.

Shenzhen’s subway is also enviable in its efficiency and sophistication. In the morning the term “mass-transit system” takes on new meaning, as the human flow simply does not stop. Despite the crowds, boarding and exiting is quick and orderly; trains arrive every two minutes. There are currently eight Metro lines, but within a decade their number will soar to 32, making Shenzhen’s underground train network the longest in the world.

In addition to the launch of the fast line between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, the longest bridge in the world – 55 kilometers – now connects Hong Kong to neighboring Zhuhai and Macao. It is estimated to have cost some $20 billion to build and required over 400,000 tons of steel. The bridge project sparked controversy concerning its necessity, given its prodigious cost, the environmental price and the toll in human life. Seven workers were killed and 275 injured during the nine years of construction.

5. At its peak, Shenzhen manufactured 90 percent of the world’s electronic products

More than a quarter-of-a-billion tons of goods leave Shenzhen harbor annually, making it the world’s third-busiest port (after Shanghai and Singapore). Just a few years ago, the city was known as a world center of computer hardware: Nine of every 10 electronic products in the world were manufactured in the city. At present, Shenzhen still produces low-cost electronics, but it’s also a leader in a variety of other fields, including genetics, electric transportation and production of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.

Specifically, locally based global giant DJI manufactures drones used in security, agriculture, construction and many other areas, and currently controls 70 percent of the world market. The forecast is that the industry could be worth $100 billion by next year. With these devices being used to collect and analyze information and serving as a prime tool for espionage – it’s only natural to ask what the implications will be of the fact that one company in China dominates such a sensitive industry and is dictating the global standards and rules.

The same question arises in large measure with respect to Huawei, the world’s second-largest manufacturer of smartphones, which occupies what is effectively a city within a city here: About 30,000 people work – and live – in the company’s vast compound in the northern part of Shenzhen. Huawei is currently engaged in a battle with United States authorities, which are troubled by the telecom giant’s fifth-generation wireless capabilities, the sophisticated infrastructure that will enable the connection and transfer of data at dizzying speeds. With 5G set to become the technological basis for the next era of great inventions, the West faces a challenge that transcends the trade war being fought between Washington and Beijing.

In the meantime, a patent war has also broken out between the United States and China. In the past the Chinese were known as serial violators of copyright regulations. However, changes have occurred, and China is now the world leader in registering patents, with 1.3 million requests a year. With the safeguarding of intellectual property rights now a vested interest of Chinese firms, the situation has become reversed: The once-great violator of patents is working to ensure their protection.

Just recently, Huawei demanded payment of $1 billion in licensing fees from the American telecommunications company Verizon for use of some 230 of its patents. As time goes by, Western companies are likely to find it difficult to operate without technology from Huawei, which holds 80,000 registered patents.

Kevin Frayer / Getty Images IL

6. Without Google and Facebook, nothing moves without the app that copied ICQ

What does life without Google and Facebook look like? China blocks access to popular Western apps and search engines, but its restrictions can be evaded via a VPN (virtual private network). The great majority of my Chinese friends in Shenzhen use VPN technology, but it’s not widely used by the general population. On days commemorating important or politically sensitive national events, the majority of VPN services in China collapse or are disrupted.

Life without Google and Facebook passes through Tencent. The company that produced its own instant messaging service, offering an alternative to the Israeli-invented ICQ, in 1990, has morphed into one of the largest and most influential conglomerates in the world. It’s most visible because of WeChat, an all-encompassing mega-app, by which more than a billion Chinese manage their lives. It’s the alternative here to WhatsApp, Facebook and Skype combined; you can use it to make a doctor’s appointment, to order food or find a technician.

In addition, Chinese use WeChat to follow content shared by their friends, media outlets, commercial enterprises and bloggers. It’s no exaggeration to say that it would be difficult to function in Shenzhen, and indeed in the country in general, without intensive use of WeChat. Its presence in the life of the Chinese has prompted an experiment that is examining the possibility of employing the app as an official substitute for an ID card.

In some senses, WeChat recalls Facebook, but the multiplicity of its functions allows Tencent to know a great deal more about its clients: what they like to eat, how they manage their money, the content they use, even their sleeping habits. The profile the company possesses about each and every user is immeasurably more accurate than anything in the West. My WeChat account has a record of every transaction I’ve carried out in recent years, however small the amount of money involved. On one hand, on every visit to Israel I rediscover the inconvenience and cumbersomeness of life without WeChat; on the other hand, anyone who’s concerned about his privacy should have a problem with it.

Besides WeChat, Tencent is also the world’s most profitable gaming company. That industry is apparently on its way to becoming more lucrative than the music and movie industries combined, and many young Chinese find themselves hooked. Addiction to video games is recognized as a mental illness in China, which is the reason the government last year decided to impose a series of severe regulatory restrictions on Tencent. For example, a limit was placed on the number of new games that can be marketed, as well as on the number of hours that minors are allowed to play the company’s games.

7. With half a billion cameras expected by next year nationwide, the deal one gets is security – at the price of privacy.

The concern for privacy stems not only from Tencent’s clout. It’s very much present in everyone’s physical space as well. Walking on the street here, one can’t but wonder whether life in Shenzhen is a utopia or a dystopia. On the one hand, the city is safe. I feel comfortable wandering about at all hours of day and night; since I’ve been here I haven’t encountered even one incident of violence or any sort of crime. Security is maintained but is not felt. The great majority of security personnel in the city are unarmed.

But there’s another side to this coin: the cameras. Security is maintained here first and foremost by means of deterrence, by way of harsh punishments based on footage from security cameras using advanced facial-recognition technology. There are cameras everywhere. Two years ago, a BBC journalist took part in an official experiment aimed at illustrating the efficacy of the technological infrastructure used by local security forces. He wandered through the city, supposedly trying to escape from the authorities – and was caught within seven minutes.

Monitoring of the public domain is only likely to become more intense. At the end of 2017 there were no fewer than 170 million public-security cameras in China. The goal of the authorities is for that number to be tripled by the end of next year.

Billy H.C. Kwok / Getty Images A

8. Cash has all but disappeared; even family members transfer money between themselves by means of barcodes.

It’s rare to encounter cash here. Banknotes started to appear in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), about 500 years before they entered into widespread use in Europe. Now the place where paper money was invented has become the place where its disappearance is most noticeable. Payment of virtually all expenses is usually made by the simple scanning of a barcode, with no fee, no limit on the amount and at lightning speed. Even beggars in China use barcodes. I sometimes still try to pay with cash for the fun of it, and the surprised salespeople are often at a loss when they try to find change.

In 2017, more than $15 trillion was transferred electronically in China. One of the reasons the trend was adopted so quickly is that, besides being used to make purchases and payments to service providers, it allows for money to be transferred between friends and among family members.

9. One-quarter of the world’s genetic information is held by one company, with its Chinese robots.

BGI is a kind of factory for genetic sequencing. The Shenzhen-based company receives shipments of DNA samples from around the globe, does the sequencing and sends back the genetic information. It currently offers genome sequencing for $600, and aspires to lower the price to $200 on the road to developing the vision of personalized medicine. In 2014 the company produced about one-quarter of the genetic information in the world and was worth $147 billion.

BGI also oversees China’s national genetic database, which effectively makes it the world’s largest center of genetic research. I recently visited the company offices with a representative from a leading Israeli academic institution. At the building’s entrance stood a huge model of a mammoth. After dinner we went up to the eighth floor, where we saw dozens of robots, adorned with Chinese flags, working industriously to decipher a genetic code of some kind.

By what standards will complex ethical issues that crop up in the future here be judged? Shenzhen has already been in the headlines in this context – unfavorably – when a local scientist announced the birth of the first genetically engineered baby, last year. The scientist was arrested and punished, but there’s no knowing what his colleagues are working on. Will they refrain from breaking out and drawing on genetic improvements to create a superman?

10. Salaries are lower than in Israel, but an average-size apartment costs 5 million shekels.

There are 244 business enterprises registered in Shenzhen for every 1,000 inhabitants. Almost every fourth person here is an entrepreneur, and with entrepreneurship comes money. Until not long ago, there was no such thing in China as passing on wealth in the form of an inheritance. More recently the term “fuerdai” – “rich second generation” – has become widely used, in a derogatory context, to describe the laziness and extravagant lifestyle of children of the nouveau riche, manifested in everything from luxury cars to shopping in malls faced with marble.

The wealth of Shenzhen’s citizenry is reflected in surging real estate prices as well. An average apartment in one of the city’s newer areas costs more than 5 million shekels (approximately $1,400,000), even though the average wage remains far lower than in Israel. At the height of the recent surge in price rises, which lasted from early 2015 to mid-2016, apartment prices rose by 76 percent.

Another popular term is “fang nu” – “housing slaves.” It describes a situation whereby people take out large loans, and a good deal of their monthly salary goes for repayment, or when a whole family mobilizes to assist the son who has moved to the city. Often, one encounters groups of young people who are short on money and share an apartment.

Qilai Shen / Bloomberg via Getty

11. Despite opposition from environmental organizations, entire neighborhoods have been built on reclaimed sea land.

A special economic zone is now under construction in west Shenzhen with the aim of enhancing cooperation between China and Hong Kong, at a cost of $65 billion. The project is being built on land that was previously underwater, by way of “land reclamation,” in the relatively sterile term used for the vast manipulation that man is performing on nature.

Indeed, large swaths of the city’s most luxurious quarters are on reclaimed land. Shenzhen has already added almost 70 square kilometers to its territory, with plans to add another 50. Not far away, on the coast of Hong Kong, a network of artificial islands is being planned at a prodigious cost. They are intended to hold 400,000 apartments, housing more than a million people.

These projects naturally have vast environmental ramifications. Whereas the inhabitants of Shenzhen have been very limited in their ability to protest official policy, the people of Hong Kong have proved that they know how to mount an effective opposition. At least nine different environmental protection groups have been combating the establishment of the artificial islands, warning against the damage expected to be suffered by flora and fauna. In the meantime, the authorities are not listening.

12. All the city’s buses and taxis are electric-powered, and battery charging takes two hours.

Construction on reclaimed land comes in addition to the serious pollution that exists in some Chinese metropolises. Still, protectors of the environment in Shenzhen have reasons for optimism: In the past decade, air pollution in the city has dropped by 50 percent. The number of polluting vehicles has declined, factories have been shut down, recycling facilities have been created and trees have been planted around the city.

Amazingly, all of the city’s public buses and taxis – totaling 36,000 vehicles – are electricity-powered. Shenzhen is the first city in the world to have achieved this milestone. The BYD (Build Your Dreams) company, headquartered here, manufactures electric buses, cars, trucks, rechargeable batteries and other products; it started out in the mid-1990s as a manufacturer of batteries for telephones and cameras. Today the company has a quarter of a million employees and sells 1,000 vehicles a day in China alone at a starting price of $8,500. Tesla for the masses.

The transition to electric vehicles was made possible by centralized planning, generous governmental subsidies and the installation of charging points across the city. I saw the change happen with my own eyes. A few months ago, you could still see old diesel-powered taxis in the streets. The authorities set a date, after which they were banned, and since then they have essentially vanished from the landscape.

Complaints by taxi drivers about time wasted recharging and standing in line for their turn have been to no avail. The charging process costs just 35 shekels ($9.80), but takes two hours: A fully charged battery allows for 400 kilometers of driving. One driver actually surprised me by saying he’s pleased with the new arrangement, because charging the battery gives him time to work out and to rest during the long workday.

13. Being the only foreigner in the room and going on dates in Chinese

There is a marked French and Russian presence in Shenzhen. The French have an affinity for East Asia dating from colonial times. For Russians, the city offers an opportunity to be present in a locale that is experiencing an economic boom. For example, many models from Russia and Ukraine come here to try their luck. I have friends from the Czech Republic, a Bosnian spiritual type, an Indian friend who works for Tencent and a Georgian neighbor who’s the last word in the Tbilisi blockchain community. There’s no knowing whom I’ll meet here tomorrow.

The fact that I speak Mandarin makes it possible for me to enjoy social encounters that I couldn’t have otherwise. Sometimes I’m the only foreigner in the room. The Chinese are crazy about learning English, but while they are constantly improving, it’s still hard to converse with them in it. Another advantage of being in command of their language is that one can date local women. In the past two years I’ve been on more dates in Chinese than in Hebrew or English.

14. Working a six-day week, from 9 A.M. to 9 P.M.

Although this city is riveting from many points of view, and there’s a plethora of restaurants and bars here – there’s less of a feeling of a vibrant cultural and intellectual life, and of nightlife as well. The Chinese admit this themselves. Shenzhen is a new city and lacks the history and cultural heritage of other cities in China.

Young people are drawn to the rapid pace of life here and spend most of their energy pursuing a career. The lights in the offices of high-tech firms burn until late, and everyone feels obliged to display their commitment to the job. The 6-9-9 format – that is, six days a week from 9 A.M. to 9 P.M. – is accepted practice here. The industriousness of the Chinese is apparently one of the main reasons for the country’s growth, but the consequences are obvious, from psychological stress to lack of sleep.

In the little spare time available, residents of Shenzhen can watch films that made it past government censors. In the past two years, a few Indian films (for example, “Dangal” and “Toilet: A Love Story”) have been big hits here. Many people like to watch American television series on the web, and there are South Korean series that also do well. Not many big musical acts make it to Shenzhen, but a club that I frequent does host musical groups from around the world each week. I was quite surprised to discover how popular Childs, a Mexian rock band that has toured here several times, is.

15. Israelis are already here, manning everything from mall kiosks to a Technion campus.

An Israeli community is beginning to coalesce in southwest Shenzhen. It numbers, at present, about 500 people, most of them engaged in manufacturing and import-export. Gradually, though, other Israelis – high-techies, architects, lecturers and artists – are also moving in. It’s a small trickle, but an unmistakable trend. The definitive proof of our presence here can be seen in the form of the kiosks manned by Israelis selling all sorts of products, in the main malls here.

One of my Israeli friends here lectures in fluent Chinese about parenting and patterns of thinking. Recently he’s become quite popular and is crisscrossing the country lecturing. I met a dance therapist who discovered, to his surprise, that his services are much in demand here, of all places. Shenzhen also has an Israeli art gallery in the most prestigious part of the city.

Even Israeli academia has made it here, and almost all Israeli academic institutions engage in some sort of activity in Shenzhen or its environs. The most well-known such institution in these parts is probably the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, whose Chinese branch is located in the city of Shantou, a few hours’ drive from Shenzhen. The location was chosen because Shantou is the birthplace of Li Ka Shing, one of the wealthiest men in Hong Kong, who financed the undertaking. It’s a fine, new campus, but the remote location is a bit offputting. During my lone visit there, I got the feeling that the few Israeli lecturers I met were not quite sure how they’d ended up there.

Four months ago, Hainan Airlines instituted a direct flight twice a week between Israel and Shenzhen: a 10-hour trip between the two extremities of Asia. The route replaced one to neighboring Guangzhou just a few months after its inaguration, because of a generous grant from the Shenzhen authorities. They apparently discern potential in ties with Israel.

Yogev Oshaya, who was born in Israel and has a bachelor’s degree in Asian studies and philosophy from the Hebrew University, is an entrepreneur living in Shenzhen.

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