By Bob Wise
07 November, 2006
I’d heard and read all about it, but a cruise to the far east let me see the other side of the global economy at first hand.
In China, Korea and Japan, we docked in vast container ports, amid mountains of containers, shifted by cranes that towered over our 16-deck cruise ship. Beyond each port were forests of high-rise offices and apartments, with construction in progress everywhere. Pusan is the third largest container port in the world and growing. Shanghai has twice as many skyscrapers as New York City, with many more going up.
At sea, off the China coast, it seemed that all the outbound freighters were heavy laden, riding low in the water, decks piled with containers bringing stock for Wal-Mart’s shelves. Inbound ships rode high, exposing broad swaths of red beneath their waterlines. (T-bills don’t weigh much.)
Here was the industry we would have seen in the northeast and around the great lakes half a century ago. It has migrated to the other side of the planet, while the US builds little more than houses and weapons. No point in resenting this- it’s the way of the world. But it’s fascinating to see in detail.
The streets of Shanghai and Beijing are jammed with cars, mostly new, though there are still plenty of bicycles and scooters. Major streets are lined with new high-rise buildings. The old Hutong neighborhoods behind them, already packed with multiple families to a home, are rapidly being torn down to make room for new construction.
Traveling with family, I often talked with my brother-in-law Bill, a die-casting engineer from Wisconsin. He has watched his client firms shrink and disappear all over the Midwest, edged out by cheap labor abroad, mostly from China. A few small shops survive as front offices in partnership with Chinese firms: they do the designs and specifications, order the castings from China, then do quality control on the product. Some of the business remains, but the manufacturing jobs are gone.
Chinese are aware that their wages are low. They joke that the happiest man in the world has an American salary, a Japanese wife, an English house and eats Chinese food. The unhappiest man in the world has an American wife, a Japanese house, eats English food and has a Chinese salary.
Though China has a few Wal-Marts, there are thousands of small shops in the cities. There must still be real wholesalers- wiped out long ago in the US by vertical integration. We noticed a lot of deliveries being made by cargo tricycles, three wheelers with a small pickup-like bed on the back.
On a shopping street in Shanghai, several cargo trikes stood idle along the street, one with a rider apparently waiting for an order. Just-in-time stocking seems to be practiced. Around lunch time, clerks can be seen carrying bowls and nibbling in between customers. We noticed meals being delivered on covered trays from nearby noodle shops.
I tried to ask our Beijing tourguide if the nation had plans for the future energy environment, when its export business would be severely trimmed by the high cost and scarcity of bunker oil. He didn’t seem to understand. After a bit of discussion, he answered that the value of Chinese exports would increase.
The infrastructure is already in place for low-energy transportation, in China, Japan and Korea alike: lots of trains, buses and trams, wide bike paths and sidewalks. Bikes and pedestrians seem to share the sidewalks congenially. We had some close shaves but were never hit by a bike.
But relocalization in China will have to have a vertical dimension. Most of the newer apartment buildings seemed to be twenty stories or higher. What happens when electricity for the elevator becomes prohibitively expensive? I wonder if human-powered elevators would work.
On the way home, I found I didn’t understand the International Date Line. We spent most of Sunday in Tokyo, flew out that evening, had a couple of hours of Monday over the Pacific and then crossed back into Sunday, this time spending the whole day in aircraft and airports. Happily, it was my wife’s birthday, so she got to celebrate it twice this year.
(software engineer, MA in Geography)
2215 Capeview St.
Merritt Island, FL 32952