Young Chinese Rethink U.S.-Style Capitalism

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

SHENZHEN, China -- The gray waters around the port of Yantian are ominously empty. It's supposed to be peak season here, a time when the docks are filled with exporters shoveling holiday goods onto freighters bound for the United States faster than the ships are able to receive them.

Instead, irritated truck drivers, logistics coordinators and other workers stand idle, smoking and complaining that business is so slow that their income has dropped by two-thirds, because of the deteriorating U.S. economy, with which this region is so closely linked.

The community that once bragged about its close ties to the United States now rues them.

Li Hongguo, 36, who was ferrying a load of handbags from a factory to the port, said that last year he made one or two runs a day. These days he's lucky to get one job every three to four days.

"America is the boss of the world, so if it does badly, it affects everyone else," Li said.

Nowhere is this view more pervasive than here in China's Pearl River delta, where the majority of companies exist with the single goal of producing products for U.S. consumers.

Stakeholders in China are watching the trials and tribulations of the massive U.S. economic rescue package, rejected Monday by the House of Representatives, as closely as Americans are.

For better or for worse, economists say, China and the United States are like conjoined twins. "The two economies are mutually reliant and mutually influential," explained Hua Min, director of Fudan University's Institute of World Economy in Shanghai.

Once the envy of the nation for its abundant jobs and high wages, Shenzhen -- the birthplace of China's experiment in capitalism -- is experiencing an economic downturn in tandem with the United States.

Industry groups estimate that tens of thousands of factories making products from ball bearings to shoes to furniture have closed over the past year. Weighed down by the problems here, growth in China's gross domestic product for 2008 is expected to slow to a single digit for the first time in 11 years.

On a recent weekday at Yantian, the majestic, nearly 1,300-foot-long container ships that once graced the waters were gone. With shipping volume down for the first time in the port's history -- by 5 to 7 percent depending on the month -- the larger ships had been reassigned to other ports in China with goods headed for anyplace but the United States. Only half-size freighters are left to serve Yantian's port.

"Orders to the U.S. have been reduced by 40 percent," said Angela Hao, general manager for the Shenzhen office of the City Ocean shipping company. "At the moment everybody is struggling, trying to see who will survive."

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