Hong Kong Diary
Nothing But Blue Skies
Calling all beats, beards, Buddhist cats,
Big-time spenders, money lenders,
Teetotalers, elbow benders,
Hog callers, home-run hitters,
And cool babysitters:
What do you see?
Nothing but rainbows, blue skies,
And green lights straight ahead
Hyman Litsky, “WIBG Intro“, 1961
In late October, the weather in southern China usually brings a bit of relief from the usual oppressive mug that otherwise greets profiteers on buying trips to the world’s factory floor, a.k.a. Guangdong Province. Not that fall weather is ever actually pleasant there, but at least by then the torrential summer rains have stopped, the earth’s industrially scalded surface has cooled a bit, and northern breezes stir the air. These are known as fine days in Hong Kong weather reports, a courtly nod to finer days gone by, when the Queen’s English was in vogue.
Now, don’t expect any kaleidoscopic foliage displays, not at the tropical 23rd parallel. Nor bird migration either–hell, I’ve never seen a single flying bird or insect in all my 10-plus years of travel to southern China, in any season. Ditto upright-splitting pigskins to remind a weary traveler of home, except perhaps at figurine factories.
And then there is something else never seen in southern China certainly not by me until this trip, and perhaps not since 1992 when the great industrial buildup began and unleashed the largest migration in human history: Blue skies.
The skies above Guangdong Province are always leaden, from the dawn’s dew-and-diesel haze to the midday smog inversion to a truly dusky dusk backlit by a tired sun. After spending time outdoors one can almost imagine airborne particulates settling onto the scalp. And that grimy black gunk you just expelled from your nose? That’s not in your imagination, it’s in your handkerchief.
So you could have knocked over your plucky Professor with a feather when he awoke on this trip to find clear blue skies ahead. And a pleasant breeze, too. And pigskins splitting uprights–okay, I made that up. But if pigskins could fly, they’d be doing it through clear blue skies that day. And the day after, and the day after that. So what, literally, was up?
It turns out that, in a scant 30 days, the great global finance meltdown throttled factory orders back to a trickle, which immediately triggered a wave of diminished industrial output that was swiftly followed by outright factory closings all across China, and especially in Guangdong Province. Reduced production meant less energy drawn from coal-fired power plants and diesel generators, and suddenly fewer trucks were hauling containers to port. In turn, roads and highways were clear of the usual traffic. Voila: Blue skies!
But blue skies are a good thing, right?
With factories closed, nearby satellite retail shops suddenly had no customers. With no workers to sell snacks, smokes and sundries to, the shops also closed, almost overnight. Entire cities developed on the “cluster industry” phenomenon became ghost towns, their local economies totally wiped out in a single stroke of order cancellations for goods like toys, shoes, costume jewelry and polyresin decorations. No air conditioners rattling in ramshackle offices; no jitneys plying inscrutable routes; no giant woks deep-frying chicken feet outside storefronts; no synchronized cigarette smoking at break time or shift change. Voila: Blue skies!
Migrant workers – that is, people who have left their rural home provinces to find work in the industrialized coastal zones thousands of miles away -make up much of China’s industrial labor force. As such, they have no local roots, no family ties, nothing to keep them in the factory towns except the work itself. When the work dries up, they scurry back to their home villages. After all, they’ve been sending money back home ever since their arrival in the land of opportunity. And they know that all along, nai-nai has been socking away the RMB in that clay pot on the mantel, right next to ye-ye’s ashes. Not that there is any work back home, or any chance to change the bleak circumstances of rural life, but toiling on an assembly line isn’t any great shakes, either.
And so they just disappear, much like their masters – Taiwanese and Hong Kong owners – who cut bait at this latest challenge to their financial well being. Over the past 18 months factory owners have weathered currency fluctuations, new labor regulations, greater quality demands and increased scrutiny of their business practices, but this sudden drop-off in sales was the last straw for many. Simply put, it’s not that there wasn’t enough business to keep factories running: there wasn’t any business. And so the factories abruptly closed – by the thousands.
Business ownership in China is a relative condition. The government (excuse me: the people) owns the land, and a business only leases the right to build and operate on the land. The buildings themselves are thus considered only a leasehold improvement, so they are slapped up as cheaply as possible. Machinery and equipment of all kinds are rarely purchased new: China’s own customers are themselves are a bottomless source of idled and unwanted machinery cast off in headlong abandonment of their own manufacturing infrastructure. And even in good times, frantic auctions for used equipment are everyday events in China’s industrial zones, endlessly recycling last century’s models.
So in terms of hard investment, a factory owner in China has much less to lose than his western counterpart. And when the going gets tough, the tough close their doors and toss the keys to the government (when the government’s not looking, of course), often leaving behind massive tax and payroll obligations in addition to that crummy building and the ancient equipment inside.
So should we weep for such venal characters? Not in the least, but consider that China today represents a huge part of all global economic growth, since the economies of both the US and EU were essentially flat even before this latest debacle. In a maddening exercise of tail wagging dog, we now actually need China’s growth to ensure continued overall global economic advancement.
Or rather, China’s growth becomes a bizarre measurement of the West’s own growth and will remain so, through current downturns and future upticks. No mature economy in the world will ever again chase after cheap shoe or textile manufacturing, let alone smokestack works like cast-iron smelters.
In fact, we are now so far along this road that such downward ramping is no longer feasible even in the post-industrial wasteland of my own beloved Philadelphia in whose now-empty factories I once toiled. Well, that’s globalization for you.
But hey: At least the skies are not cloudy all day, right?
There was already some concern about China’s growth in the aftermath of the frantic construction boom around Olympics host Beijing, where hundreds of factories were shut down or relocated far away from the capitol. Car traffic was also curtailed in the run-up to the Games, in a combined effort to increase the number of “blue sky days” that Beijing promised the International Olympic Committee, in consideration of atheletes’ health. Blue sky: there’s that pesky term again.
Once again, globalization – that supposed leveler, that floater of all boats – has taken us around the bend to an intersection of disparate interests, with mind-bending consequences. Be careful what you wish for, anyone? Are blue skies just another quaint bourgeois conceit that only the first world can afford, because I know a few hundred million people who are wishing for that leaden sky to reappear over their heads.
But I kid: Blue skies really are a good thing for everyone, right?
So let’s everyone join in now:
I was blue, just as blue as I could be
Ev’ry day was a cloudy day for me.
Then good luck came a-knocking at my door
Skies were gray but they’re not gray anymore.
Smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies
Do I see
All of them gone
Nothing but blue skies
From now on.
Irving Berlin, “Blue Skies“, 1926.
The Professor, as he is known to legions of business contacts throughout Asia, has been traveling to Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region since late in the last millennium. He is a native of Philadelphia, PA and maintains his permanent residence there. His poetry, fiction, interviews, and articles have been published by Philadelphia-area newspapers, magazines and anthologies, and he is currently planning another trip abroad. He is shown here at left, about to join the Maclehose Trail in Sai Kung.
Articles by the Professor
Column: Hong Kong Diary