Friday, May 16, 2008

Room to Grow

I am going to share with you today’s observation of China. Close your eyes and envision a map of the United States. Okay, now open your eyes and keep reading… You’re going to point on that map to these locations as I list them: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose. These are the Top 10 U.S. Cities by Population and Rank. You may have noticed your finger stopped in about every major region of the country and crossed the continent at least 3 times. Further down that list you’d touch Detroit, Memphis, Jacksonville and Seattle at 23.

Now, the Top 10 Cities in China are Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Guanzhou, Tianjin, Nanjing, Dalian, Hangzhou, Shenyang and Harbin. If you were to do the same mental map-pointing with this country, you’d find your finger never strayed from the east coast. In fact, you’d find that most of these cities, 8 out of 10, cluster like shotgun fire to within 2 hours of each other.


China is a huge country, roughly the same area as the United States, but with more than four times the population. Across such a broad expanse of people and geography, one expects the country to have developed several distinct and unique cities and cultures. In the US, for example, we have Northerners and Southerners, we have City People and Country People, but we also have Suburbanites, Rednecks, New Englanders, Westerners, Mid-Westerners, Snow Birds, Beach Bums, Grunge Rockers, Cowboys, and Californians. There are lots of different lifestyles with different cultures and values, but these groups are dispersed across the length and breadth of the country. From what I can tell, China does not work this way.

In China, the businesses, industries, infrastructure, government, and foreign political influence—not to mention the wealth and leading founts of culture—are all located on a stretch of the country’s east coast spanning from Beijing down to Shanghai, the rough equivalent of the state of California. Meanwhile, the western portion of the country, perhaps 90% of the land area, is occupied by about 60% of the population and responsible for less than 25% of the GDP.

So, why does this strong disparity between East and West exist in China? Similar to that of the industrial North and agrarian South in the antebellum US, the cause is the drastically different cost of doing business in the regions. “The government is doing things to move China west,” said Randy Creel, a logistics expert at a major MNC in China. “The hesitation is the lack of infrastructure and its effect on logistics costs.” Effects on logistics costs that work out to about 200% more investment per mile for companies to run their businesses in Western China. China is on a self-perpetuating cycle of eastern growth and western lag that will require more than government incentives to Western businesses and FDI spenders. It may require an all-out reallocation of infrastructure build-up that the country has never before undertaken. At least not until the 2008 Beijing Olympics. --Shawn Butler

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