Originally published on September 20, 2013

Trees, buildings and entire villages seemed to all blur together, as we sped through the Chinese countryside at over 200 mph. I had never been on a bullet train before, but after 10 hours aboard one, we are now pretty well acquainted.

Shaosong and Kathleen had told our group that Shenzhen was a smaller city, centered around manufacturing, thus I pictured a quaint town, full of homogenous white factory buildings.

Boy was I wrong.

Shenzhen is home to over 15 million people–“small” is a relative term here in China. The city is ultra-modern; nearly all the buildings are coated in glass and shiny new metal.

The next morning we walked into a cool dark blue room, similar to that of Baidu. A large LCD screen greeted us, displaying a map of over 150 million online users of Tencent products. While we were standing in this product room, over 2 million more users logged on.

Our guide was pretty funny, whether she intended to be or not, as she told us that domestic tech firms dominate the Chinese market, “thanks to the government.” A quick rundown of the company followed, as she explained that the average age of Tencent’s 20,000 employees is 27 and that the company has applied for over 8,000 patents (more than Google). There is a Tencent College, as well as a Tencent Charity.

While the majority of the company’s revenue comes from online video games, its most famous product is called QQ, a sort of instant messaging service. Its search engine is called SoSo, and its logo looks peculiarly similar to that of its biggest American competitor (it even uses the same color scheme).

Unlike Baidu, at first Tencent appeared to be much more self-righteous. Our guide offered ongoing comparisons and justifications against Google. She even managed to mention a scandal within the Red Cross, one the most recognized charitable organizations in the entire world, and proceeded to explain how Tencent’s charity was much more trustworthy and secure.

Tencent’s most recent success has come from its app WeChat (an extension of QQ), a combination of Skype, iMessage, and WhatsApp. The app has a function that allows users to simply shake their phones in order to find other users (whom they may, or may not, know) nearby.

Our guide continued on about the culture of Tencent, the fact that they have “Christmas parties” every year, along with other fun get-togethers, including a rock star themed carnival.

While the culture seems to be a slight imitation of the current Silicon Valley atmosphere, the guide took plenty of jabs at these firms they are seemingly striving to be more like. For example, Tencent compares its Microblog to Twitter, except that its content is “much richer.” Tencent is a really interesting and innovative company on its own, thus I didn’t really understand the nature of these unnecessary comments.

Actually talking to someone who works on a product team gave us a bit more insight on the evident cultural imitation and in fact, a different, more positive perspective. The man we spoke with mentioned “SnapChat” at least 4-5 times during our conversation. Tencent wants to foster creativity, thus he believes Baidu to be “a very respectable company.” It was a refreshing, and I believe, more accurate portrayal of Tencent and its place within the industry.

We bid our goodbyes and headed to a different part of town, one that was much more industrial. We approached a rather sketchy-looking freight elevator, which essentially was a large, stuffy, slow moving metal box, with a creepy, wobbling ceiling fan that appeared as though it would fall out at any moment.

This very well could have been the opening scene in a horror movie. When the doors finally opened, however, we found a neat, clean office lobby with “Ruijing” emblazoned in green text on the white wall.

At the opposite end of the room was a black and red LED screen that read, “Welcome the American guests to visit our company.” We moved into a conference room and sat down a large rectangular table, full of fruit, coffee and other snacks.

Ruijing is one of the top 10 manufacturers in Shenzhen, focusing primarily on chargers, adapters and hardware for various electronic products (everything from SnapOn power tools to LG cell phones).

Mr. Chi, the founder of the company, kindly explained that Ruijing has 800 employees. 80% of the company’s sales are domestic, as it begins to move into home appliances and household items. He fielded a variety of questions from our group, including several about his employees. He says that his employees receive good benefits and packages, working about 8-10 hrs per day. Being that he is one of the more prominent employers, the retention rate of workers is 5 years, which is high for the area.

Mr. Chi ended his presentation by saying that he was “very honored to have us here.” He was also very excited to tell us that his daughter goes to grad school in the states, being that he believes “American schools to be superior to those in China.”

Before we were allowed to enter the physical factory we had to step into an interesting contraption the size of a small metal suitcase, with a hole in the top. Inside the hole were blue plastic bags rubber banded to the corners so that when you applied pressure to the middle they instantly snapped tight around your foot. The goofy blue show bags were to prevent us from getting shocked by electricity, yet, when we walked into the factory, I was shocked by something else. While the area was clean, each worker sat in an area a little bigger than one of those old wooden school desks that are attached to chairs, next to a conveyor belt.

Plastic shoe bags | Photo by Wilson Carletti (All Rights Reserved)
Plastic shoe bags at Ruijing | Shenzen

The belt would bring one piece of hardware around to each worker who would then shave down, clip or shape the item, place it back on the belt and then repeat. Over and over again. I cannot fathom what it would be like to work in a factory everyday, mind you that this particular factory was considered to be one of the best, most comfortable in the area.

China may have the second largest economy in the world (in terms of nominal GDP), but according to 2012 IMF findings, its GDP per capita ranks 86th in the world (just below that of Iraq).