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Published: May 2008

What's Next?

Snow Finch Railway

The Road Ahead

China's expectations are rising, with no end in sight.
What's next?

By Peter Hessler
Photograph by Fritz Hoffmann

The genesis of a Chinese factory town is always the same: In the beginning nearly everybody is a construction worker. The booming economy means that work moves fast, and new industrial districts rise in distinct stages. Those early laborers are men who have migrated from rural villages, and immediately they're joined by small entrepreneurs. These pioneers sell meat, fruit, and vegetables on informal stands, and later, when the first real stores appear, they stock construction materials. After that cell phone companies set up shop: China Mobile, China Unicom. They deal prepaid phone cards to migrants; in the southeastern province of Zhejiang, one popular product is called the Homesick Card. During these initial stages there's rarely any sign of police. Government officials are prominently absent. It's not until plants start production that you see many women. Assembly-line bosses prefer young female workers, who are believed to be more diligent and manageable. After the women appear, so do the clothes shops. It's amazing how quickly a shoe store emerges from a barren strip of factories, like a flower in a broken sidewalk. In the early days garbage accumulates in the gutters; the government is never in a rush to institute basic services. Public buses don't appear for months. Manholes remain open till the last instant, for fear that early settlers will steal the metal covers and sell them for scrap.

Over a two-year period, I traveled repeatedly to Zhejiang, watching factory towns rise from the farmland. Every time, I rented a car and followed a brand-new highway that connected the boomtowns of tomorrow. I drove the road for six months before noticing any clear indication of local authority. That's when I began to receive speeding tickets—$20 each, three or four every journey. They were issued by automated cameras, usually in places where the posted speed limit mysteriously dropped without warning. I collected violations in factory towns all across the province: in Jinhua, known for producing brassieres; in Lishui, maker of synthetic leather; in Qiaotou, famous for buttons and zippers.

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