China diary: Electronics Street

Electronics market

It's home to the world's largest factories where many of today's most popular gadgets are made. But Shenzhen is also a great place to buy those same products - if, that is, you can cope with the noise, the hustle, the sheer naked capitalism of Hua Qiang Bei Electronics Street.

This is a wide thoroughfare right in the middle of this ever-expanding metropolis packed with shops and supermarkets selling consumer electronics, from the latest smartphones to smart televisions, from laptops to tablet computers. For a Londoner it is like Tottenham Court Road on steroids with 10 times the noise and a hundred times the hard sell.

For a newcomer to China, it is also a reminder of how rapidly this country has grown, and how much disposable income at least some people have. You can buy an extraordinary variety of mobile phones here, including many brands that will be unfamiliar outside China.

But everywhere two names, Apple and Samsung, leaped out from the neon signs. One business owner told me that these were the brands to which everyone aspired - "five years ago it was Nokia" - despite the fact that you can pay around £600 for an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy S3.

Earlier I'd visited a middle-aged analyst at a think tank who explained that his generation had sought out cheaper brands but teenagers saw things very differently. "Give my daughter a copycat phone," he said, "and she'll throw it back at you and demand the real thing." Whipping out his own iPhone, he then told me with some pride that the inscription "made in China, designed in California" was not entirely accurate. He claimed that industrial designers at Foxconn had come up with four possible designs for the latest phone, and then Apple had chosen one.

What confused us on Electronics Street was whether all the shops selling well-known brands were entirely legitimate. We went into one store with an Apple logo and staff all wearing the same blue polo-shirts and had a look at the products. The store was advertising the iPhone 5 - not yet officially on sale in China - and had a dummy model with the kind of fake screen you see on cheaper phones in UK stores.

Huawei workers

An iPad on display looked somehow subtly different from the real thing, and when we tried to film the outside of the store the manager came onto the pavement and put his hand over the lens. In some parts of the world Apple is fiercely protective of its intellectual property, but it may have decided that closing down all of Shenzhen's "Apple Stores" - apart from the one genuine outlet - is just too much bother.

A cavernous building filled with tiny stalls selling every imaginable electronic component may offer a more genuine experience - as long as you are prepared to bargain. Anyone expert enough - and sufficiently skilled at haggling - could emerge with the parts needed to build a computer for very little. I'm hopeless at that, so managed to pay about the same for a micro SD card as I would at home.

Earlier in the day we'd travelled north from Shenzhen to Songshan Lake, passing through the last scraps of farmland left in a region where farmers are becoming rich by selling up to industrial developers.

Our destination was a Huawei plant making highly sophisticated telecoms equipment, managed by a Hungarian engineer called Gabor Schreck. He told us that this factory was another symbol of the new China, importing foreign skills like his. Japan's Toyota and America's IBM had already helped the business transform its production processes, but continuous improvement would be needed.

"China is no longer cheap," he emphasised, and pointed to the call from the outgoing President Hu Jin Tao for per capita wages to double by 2020. As it struggles to combine rapid growth with social cohesion, the country needs its factories to keep on improving their productivity.

Back in Electronics Street, as we filmed the teeming masses shopping for gadgets, a young woman carrying an Apple iMac computer came past with a determined look, apparently trying to remember just where she'd bought it. China's consumers are getting more affluent and more demanding.

Poster of Deng Xiao Ping

Then as we drove away, we were reminded of how Shenzhen and this consumer revolution got started. At a traffic choked intersection stood a large poster of Deng Xiao Ping, the man who opened up China's economy. He came here in 1992 to see how things were going and pronounced that his policy of socialism combined with the free market should continue for a hundred years.

Twenty years on the market part of that policy seems to be going rather well. The trick now will be to go on satisfying the desires of China's growing army of middle class consumers while maintaining the country's competitive edge.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    @54 "Can't work out if I want to be Chinese or German, seems they are both terrific people"

    Q: Heard about the new German-Chinese restaurant?
    A: The food is great, but an hour later, you're hungry for power.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Hold on apple does make their items in china but like any other item the quality is based on the time taken to produce it and not where it was produced. We all laugth at china but there exports are still increasing year on year.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Counterfeiting in China is at epidemic levels… their own electronic design and software rates at the bottom of the heap. I’ve now stopped buying from them completely.
    Unless you control their production process like Apple does, steer well clear. There not cheap either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    All those billions of people and they haven't invented anything since gunpowder in the 9th Century. Everything they make might as well be labelled 'shoddy goods' instead of 'Made in China'. I don't know where Matthew @63 gets ' Chinese are due to overtake the US technologically next year' from ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Copies copies copies. Socially China is bankrupt but economically rich. The only thing I admire about China is that their political structure enables them to engage in long term economic planning which sadly is not something western economies can do. Which partly explains why Europe and USA are in long term economic decline.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.


    It would be, but visit China - Shanghai in particular - and see first hand what I mean. If you can speak a bit of Mandarin even better, ask locals what they aspire to and who they look up to. Facial surgery, bleaching products (usually to adopt a more "white" face) are increasingly popular. There's a difference between buying into a culture and becoming brainwashed from one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    54. paulmerhaba

    LOL! Terrific or Terrible?

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    @59 Piggyback

    I think that's racist. The attributes you award to Chinese citizens are ubiquitous in western culture as well. We too generalise about wealth and status, and I think that you describe the synthesising of capitalism and communism with Chinese culture, and little more than that. China will develop its own unique form of modern-culture. Japan went through a similar process.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Midway through next year the Chinese are due to overtake the US technologically, so if that is not a sing on the times we live in I do not know what is!

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Don't underestimate Chinese research and development. The Chinese engineer who I trained to take over my job before I was made redundant was smarter than I was.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    5 Hours ago

    The sophisticated electronics from China seem to be OK, but the basic stuff, particularly power supplies, can be very bad.
    Interesting comment. So you're admitting China can produce sophisticated goods - the same products we try to sell and differentiate from China - yet they fail at basic, low profit margin ones? I doubt they will lose sleep over that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    6 Hours ago

    It's a shame that rather than driving down wages (and therefore quality of life) pressure wasn't applied to China to prevent it flooding the market with cheap labour.
    Sorry, are you honestly saying that the world should have applied pressure on China to create jobs for its own people? The arrogance!

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    The problem with the Chinese is twofold... one, that they aspire to have Western branded goods - indeed this extends to culture, they are basically trying to emulate "acting white", because they assume that will bring them success - like a white person.

    Second is the consumerism as a status symbol... they fail to notice that buying something with a name on it doesn't make you a better person.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    The Chinese are absolutely sucked in by the whole Branded goods thing. Cars, jewellery, handbags, clothing. You name it and they are into it. They will even buy bottles of wine costing hundreds of pounds and top their glass up with Coca Cola because they dont like the taste of the wine! They just want others to see the expensive wine bottle.
    There is scope to sell into China with the right goods.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    In order for the Chinese to take over the world they would have to Copy someone else who has already done it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    The Chinese may be able to undercut the West on like for like products but there is a big market there for good quality Western goods such as BMW and Audi cars. They give those fortunate enough to afford them kudos against the home products. Status is everything.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    China has grown far far to fast. To few people have made to much money to fast.When they experience the down side of the economic cycle for the first time as they must,I fear for the people who will be caught between the demands of the market economy and the dictatorial pseudo communist elite. Something has to give and you can be sure it will be the little social freedom allowed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Can't work out if I want to be Chinese or German, seems they are both terrific people to be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    @33 "If only China's human rights policies had been able to keep pace with its industrialisation!"

    Most people in China (not all, but the vast majority) are perfectly happy without Western concepts such as democracy and freedom of speech. From all accounts they're much more concerned about healthcare and pension provision, and potential break down of law and order if they did get "democracy".

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    The sophisticated electronics from China seem to be OK, but the basic stuff, particularly power supplies, can be very bad. They will happily electrocute you and/or catch fire and burn your house down. I recently saw a tear-down of a counterfeit Iphone charger that showed it to be truly dangerous.

    Don't expect China to take over the world. They have built a house of cards.


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