Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Newly Minted Ph.D. Returns from Beijing-Changzhou-Shanghai Trip

In late May and early June, 2006, I returned to visit all my old friends from Zhongguancun, the Silicon Valley of China, where I did the fieldwork that earned me a Ph.D. in anthropology of University of California, Santa Cruz, in cultural anthropology on June 16, 2006 [obligatory pat on own back].

Of more interest than me, of course, were the people and what they were doing. And, given the hyper-speed of life in China's city of cities (Beijing) and the hyper-ferocity of competition in a nominally socialist market economy, my experiences were fast and furious.

Upon returning to the IT/electronics markets of Zhongguancun to visit people from the Hilon photocopier company that I worked with for 6 months in 2004, I learned that the original company composed of 8 people had deconstructed in the literal sense. To visit my friends, I had to visit four different companies. The original company had met the fate of so many companies in Zhongguancun -- dissolution based on divergent interests and a sense that one can make more money if one goes out on one's own (despite the fact that the perennial topic of conversation among Zhongguancun IT/electronics markets bosses is the microscopic profit margins on sales).

One of the former members of the company I worked with in the markets, who I shall call Young Guo, is a fax machine specialist. I have seen him completely dissemble a laser fax machine in search of a problem. His hands are dirty, his manners uncouth, and his language peppered with expletives. But he is a dear friend and key source for the inner workings of the IT/electronics markets.

Young Guo had moved to Dinghao Electronics Market and rented a 6 square meter, glass-enclosed shop on the second floor underground at Dinghao. He continued to sell photocopiers, fax machines, and perform service and maintenance, as he had in the former company.

Besides catching up on the two years that had elapsed since we had worked to together, I had sought out Young Guo with a goal: I had a Cingular Nokia phone that I wanted to use in China. Who can de-encrypt this phone, I asked, so I can use it in China. Apparently, phones sold in the U.S. only work in two frequencies, and they need to be de-encrypted with a special device to work in China. If it could be done and had to do with IT or electronics, I knew, it could be done in Zhongguancun's IT/electronics markets.

Young Guo's neighbor, it turns out, could provide the service (not herself, mind you, but she had a connection with another guy who could). Before she de-encrypted, she warned me that there was a possibility that the phone might simply short-circuit. Since I had no other use for the phone, I was willing to accept the risk.

When Young Guo and I returned from lunch, the neighbor approached beaming with success. The phone de-encryption had worked! She then asked for payment: 80 yuan (10 USD). I paid it.

In a few minutes, Young Guo led me away to smoke and chat with a few friends in another neighboring store. Young Guo left to check on his store and then returned with a smile on his face. "She thought you were a customer," he grinned. "She tried to give me 20 yuan as a profit." Young Guo explained that since the woman thought I was just a friendly customer, not an ethnographic insider, she should make a profit for Young Guo and then give it to him -- her fee was waived for similar fees made when she introduced customers to Young Guo and he paid her part of the profit.

The woman insisted on keeping the 20 yuan so Young Guo tried to give me 20 yuan. I refused. Although I am sufficiently worried about losing 20 yuan, I did not think it important enough to have Young Guo pay it out of his pocket. I chalked it up to "tuition". At least it would make a good blog entry, I reasoned.

In the IT/electronics markets, life, exchange, reciprocity, and technology all go on through the social forms of entrepreneurs and companies. This is modern China, and especially urban, IT/electronics market China. But these relationships, between neighboring stores, stores and customers, and de-encryption devices, go beyond a particular time and place. I would even hypothesize their existence throughout China, even its villages and hinterlands.

And by the way, I didn't see the state in these markets. So much for totalitarianism.