I’m at Ground Zero in the manufacturing revolution: Beijing.
It’s my first trip to China. The excuse for coming here is the China International Machine Tool Show – the world’s third-largest machine tool show, if I have my trade-show trivia correct. The real reason, though, is to gain some ground-level understanding of this country, it’s people, and the incredible success they’ve had in overhauling the worldwide economics of making stuff.
The trip began in Hong Kong, where I spent two days to meet with our Asian publishing partners and to apply for the $200 entrance visa to the mainland.
For those of you who haven’t brushed up on Asian history, Hong Kong was still part of the British Empire until 10 years ago, when it was turned over to China. And while it’s part of China today, it is clearly not China.
Hong Kong is consumerism on steroids – a vibrant city and outlying territory where “upscale Gallerias” serve the same purpose as coffee shops in Seattle: They provide something to occupy every corner. Chicago’s Magnificent Mile is Amish by comparison.
Once the visa came through on Tuesday at precisely 5 p.m. as scheduled, I took the express plane to the airport for my 3-and-a-half-hour flight to Beijing. Somewhere, though, I think the pilot must have taken a wrong turn, landing instead at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Let’s see. How can I be polite. In the first 25 minutes I learned that the inmates are running the asylum. On one hand it’s lawless; under the eyes of guards assigned to bring order to the taxi queue, rogue drivers pluck unsuspecting tourists (me) out of the line and shove them into unmetered cabs for highly inflated prices (to my credit, I got out of the cab before he left the airport and refused to pay anything – and then got right into another unmetered cab and still got scammed, but for half as much).
On the other hand, anyone who wears a militaristic uniform – the doorman at my hotel is dressed like the Wehrmacht – wields absolute domain for as far as his whistle can be heard.
It’s just like the pictures: crowded and chaotic, kind of gray and I don’t believe I’ve seen anybody smile yet. They aren’t into “excuse me” either. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a car, on a bike or walking: the people here set a course and rely on others to get out of the way.
Now, I’ve got to recognize that it’s a land with the longest recorded history of any country on Earth, and I’ve spent less than 24 hours here traversing no more than a few square miles. So I don’t know how much of what I’ve seen is the Chinese culture or a function of living in a really, really big city. Take my observations in that spirit.
But I do know that what I’ve seen so far doesn’t come close to explaining the amazing success China has had in joining the world economy. In fact, for all the fast-moving bustle, nobody seems to be busy at anything. They have the same four shovel-bearing workers staring at a hole in the street that we have in Cleveland. In four out of four cab rides, my driver got lost. (And I don’t for a minute believe they were lost; I think they were running up the meter, sometimes by as much as 10 yuan; which is really unfuriating until you remember that it amounts to an extra $1.25.)
Even flashing lights on a police car are viewed with apathy – if they’re noticed at all. In my last cab adventure of the evening, the driver followed up a wrong turn by doing a three-point U turn – unconcerned that the police car with flashing lights behind us had to wait while he completed the maneuver.
All of these impressions are consistent with my first day on the show floor at CIMT, too. This show is not about innovation and new technology. It’s about availability and volume.
For every 5-axis machining center you’ve heard of, there are a dozen others with names you can’t pronounce. And three-axis horizontal mills are more likely to be at the front of a large booth than the machining centers anyway.
It’s a large show, occupying at least eight buildings (I seem to have lost my show map; I’ll fill in the precise number tomorrow); I found an entire hall filled with motors, ballscrews and other components from Chinese companies that don’t even bother to provide an English translation of their name. My favorite moment of the day came when I stopped to take a picture (I’ll post it when I get home) of a 30-foot ballscrew – the longest I’ve ever seen. It alarmed representatives at the booth. “You’re not supposed to take pictures,” my companion told me.
“I refuse to care,” I replied. “Like they don’t do exactly the same thing every time they come to a show in America.” Nonetheless, they put a security guard on my tail. Dressed in an olive-drab jumpsuit, a white crossing-guard belt and a large, green hat – he stayed one step behind me until I left for a different exhibition hall.
Americans tend to feel like we’ve been victimized by the Chinese. I’m telling you: Don’t take it personally. This isn’t a case of the Chinese coming after us; it’s a case of the Chinese coming after everyone.
Tongtai Industries of Taiwan is showing a new, 24-tool double-turret lathe – the most sophisticated lathe the company has yet produced. “I would guess you do well with that in the United States,” I said. “Yes,” their representative replied. “But where it’s really selling is Taiwan.”
I asked why. Because, he told me, independent machine shops in Taiwan are losing so much low-end production work to China, that they only way they can stay in business is to buy more advanced equipment that allows them to produce high-value, complex parts.
I just love irony.