Shenzhen set to be smartest city

| Ludovic Ehret 18 Dec 2018

Shenzhen is the symbol of the transformative reforms launched by China 40 years ago: former fishing villages that morphed into a global manufacturing hub. Now Shenzhen is at the heart of a push to turn China into an innovator and to shed its reputation as an assembly line for foreign firms or an imitator.

Skyscrapers housing corporations and ambitious startups tower over the city of 13 million people. Among them is Wu Yebin, 35, who runs his own tech firm from a 35th-floor office.

His story mirrors those of many who have risen from modest backgrounds following reforms spearheaded by Deng Xiaoping, which the Chinese Communist Party ratified on December 18, 1978.

The son of farmers, Wu arrived in the city in 2005 and over the years he assembled devices similar to Apple's iPad or MacBook, joining an army making "shanzhai" -- creative affordable knockoffs of foreign electronics.

"Germany, the United States, Japan, South Korea have done this to develop their manufacturing industries," Wu says. "You have to do it to gain experience."

While this economic model used to be "very popular it's no longer viable," adds Wu, who now leads his own firm, MeegoPad, which has an annual turnover of US$28 million (HK$217.8 million) making products like miniature PCs.

"We are now very attached to intellectual property and patents," Wu says.

Shenzhen became a testing ground for Deng's reforms as the first special economic zone in 1980. It grew into a might center, with factories churning out gadgets, computers and phones for foreign firms that today include Apple and Samsung. And China's own global corporations, such as Huawei and Tencent, have made Shenzhen their headquarters.

The city of tens of thousands of factories is dubbed the "Silicon Valley of Hardware," and it now seeks to reinvent itself as the home of Chinese innovation in line with Beijing's "Made in China 2025" plan to dominate key hi-tech industries such as robotics, electric vehicles and artificial intelligence.

"Shenzhen is turning into a meeting point for creative engineers from around the world," Wu says.

Meng Jie, who is French and in his 30s, left California's Silicon Valley in 2017 to create Maybe, a company that makes smart speakers that help people learn Putonghua.

"Silicon Valley is still way ahead in artificial intelligence," Meng says. "But you can find the electronic or mechanical component you need three times faster in Shenzhen. "People see Silicon Valley as the tech mecca. They underestimate Shenzhen a lot because they don't know what's happening here."

Some of China's hi-tech ambitions are running into suspicions abroad, with the United States and others fearing security and espionage risks like with Huawei.

But those who have witnessed Shenzhen's rise marvel at its evolution from copycat to creator.

Shenzhen is "really nice fertile ground for innovation," says Duncan Turner, managing director of HAX, an incubator for startups based in the city. "The Chinese government sets up clear plans for innovation in particular sectors it wants to invest in."

If a company matches those plans, he adds, "you've got a nice path for development and onward funding."

Turner, who moved to Shenzhen in 2009, says the biggest change he has see is how young people who used to make fakes are "becoming incredibly inventive, entrepreneurial R&D experts."

Improved higher education has created a new generation of engineers, such as Zhang Zhaohui, chief executive of Youibot, which set up his company in HAX's incubator to make the first autonomous maintenance robot for buses.

"Shenzhen has huge potential," Zhang, 26, predicts. "The city could catch up to Silicon Valley very quickly."


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