Thursday, April 15, 2010

Shenzhen: Once Just a Tiny Fishing Village, Now the Origin of All Things iPad

By Stephen Windwalker
Editor of iPad Nation Daily

Have you heard of Shenzhen?

Three decades ago it was a tiny fishing village in southeastern China's Guangdong province.

Today it's a city of 8.6 million, the second largest port in China after Shanghai, and the major tech and shipping hub from which your iPad was (or will be) shipped.

I'll admit that I had never heard of Shenzhen until I clicked on the tracking information link that Apple sent me a few days before my iPad arrived. A few days later it showed up again as the shipping origin for my iPad's little $29 docking accessory, and then Monday morning when I looked at the tracking info for the iPad cover that's now on the way to me, there it was again.

The world is getting smaller, eh?

My first thoughts about the fact that Apple is having millions of products and accessories shipped directly from Shenzhen to individual U.S. retail customers didn't amount a xenophobic, "America first" reaction. As anyone who has read my little ebook essay Dreaming of Nixon knows, I'm pretty open to the inevitability of economic globalization.

But I did stop and think that it must be expensive for Apple to be paying for worldwide shipping for every iPad and iPad accessory it ships.

"That's a lot to pay for bad planning, or a heck of an impatience premium," I thought.

But what do I know? The fact is that it would not give me pause if my stuff were being shipped individually from Cupertino to Massachusetts, so why should it get my attention that it is being shipped from China to Massachusetts? Apple's shipping rates are likely to be a little more favorable than the rates that my publishing company pays, as they should be, and if it's cheaper for them to ship each item one time and one time only, I guess it works for me.

My iPad cover left Shenzhen Monday via Fedex and will arrive by Thursday here in Arlington.

Wags refer to people and events on the other side of the Atlantic as "across the pond." Perhaps the time has come to refer to transits of the Pacific as "across the brook."

Meanwhile, I am sure the Chinese government is pleased with this phenomenon of the world getting smaller economically. It's the prospect of the world getting smaller and flatter politically that seems to create problems for the government there.

The week before last I found myself writing about a friend's recent trip to China and the experiences he had with his Kindle there and the censorship of some Kindle books:

He brought some reading with him on the Kindle, of course, but he didn't mind paying the extra wireless download fee of $1.99 each time to add other books along the way. And even though Amazon is not shipping Kindles to China at the current time, Jim found that the Whispernet worked like a charm in numerous locations across China.

You might expect that in Shanghai or Beijing, but here's the piece that I found astonishing.

At some point during the trip Jim and his family were in the mountains in a rural area along the Tibetan border, and he was engaged in a conversation with his 20-something Chinese guide about reading and censorship. The guide was telling him about a book that he wanted to read,
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, but the Chinese government had banned it, which is not a total shocker given Amazon's review:
In Wild Swans Jung Chang recounts the evocative, unsettling, and insistently gripping story of how three generations of women in her family fared in the political maelstrom of China during the 20th century. Chang's grandmother was a warlord's concubine. Her gently raised mother struggled with hardships in the early days of Mao's revolution and rose, like her husband, to a prominent position in the Communist Party before being denounced during the Cultural Revolution. Chang herself marched, worked, and breathed for Mao until doubt crept in over the excesses of his policies and purges. Born just a few decades apart, their lives overlap with the end of the warlords' regime and overthrow of the Japanese occupation, violent struggles between the Kuomintang and the Communists to carve up China, and, most poignant for the author, the vicious cycle of purges orchestrated by Chairman Mao that discredited and crushed millions of people, including her parents.

Most people in China can't get that book any more than they can do a Google search for information about Tienanmen Square.  But Jim decided to put his Kindle DX to the test.

He typed the title of the book onto his Kindle keyboard, used the 5-way to select "search store" to the right of the search field, clicked on the "buy" button, and
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China was on his Kindle in, you guessed it, less than 60 seconds.

I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about the potential power that the Kindle could have in China, or about forces may have conspired to make the Kindle unavailable in China. It's available in Taiwan and Hong Kong and Viet Nam, and apparently it is not a problem for a U.S. citizen to carry a Kindle into China. At other times during our conversation Jim spoke vividly about how the economic changes fostered by the Chinese government have helped to lift 400 million people out of poverty during the past couple of decades, and it seems at least a bit ironic that some of this economic power now and in the future is or will be tied to the development and production of new technologies like the Kindle and the iPad. I learned this week from UPS worldwide tracking information that my iPad, like thousands of other iPads, is in fact on the way here from Shenzen, China, and of course there were stories this week about a "gray market" for Kindles in some Chinese cities.

So Kindles are traveling to China, Kindles are being sold in China, Kindles are connecting to the Whispernet in China, and Kindle Killers are being shipped here from China. It was clear to Jim that for the vast majority of Chinese people, the human rights issues for which Westerners point fingers at the Chinese government are far, far less important than the sweep of economic change and its effect on the quality of life for hundreds of millions of Chinese.

But the Kindles? They may have minds of their own.

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