They’re a physical commodity, but they’re also a meme — popularized by celebrities, shared endlessly on Twitter and Instagram and Vine, discussed to death by the chittering idea factory that is the English-language internet. ... One of those factories is Gaoke (or “High Tech”) Times, a midsize plant situated on 120,000 square feet in a Bao An industrial park. ... churn out 600 boards in a day, for customers in the U.S., U.K., Dubai, and Australia. ... In the two decades Gaoke has been here in Shenzhen, it has made desktop phones, then DVD players, televisions, mobile devices, and eventually tablets, which today are the largest part of its business. ... About six months ago, at the request of some of the company’s existing tablet customers, Gaoke had started manufacturing them. New product crazes present struggling businesses and eager entrepreneurs alike with an opportunity to leave behind glutted markets, and the nature of China’s booming electronics business is to be adaptable to the whims of a global market. ... Fang Zuoyi estimated that there are at least 1,000 factories in the Shenzhen area making hoverboards. ... It starts when a (typically) Western company, eager to cash in on a product made popular by the social internet, contracts a Chinese factory to make it. From here, the idea spreads throughout the elaborate social networks of Chinese electronics manufacturing until the item in question is being produced by hundreds and hundreds of competitors, who subcontract and sell components to each other, even as they all make the same thing. It reaches its saturation point quickly. It moves from product to product without sentiment. And it is proof that our never-ending digital output, our tweets and Vines and Instagrams and Facebook posts, has the power to shape the lives of people on the other side of the world.
For the teams of students involved in this year’s RoboMasters tournament, the stakes were clear: 350,000 RMB (roughly $53,000) in prize money, more than four times the average salary of a Chinese worker. Winners achieve celebrity status among the 6 million fans who watch the action stream live online, as well as a shot at landing a job at at DJI, the Chinese drone maker that created this competition. Over the last two years the company has hired around 40 engineers out of the tournament. ... For DJI, the stakes are reversed. It is battling to win top talent in some of technology’s hottest fields: computer vision and autonomous navigation. Over the last three years, the company has emerged from obscurity to become the market leader in the booming consumer drone market, setting the pace for innovation in the category. ... The city became the heart of the world’s supply chain for consumer electronics. But while it conquered the business of manufacturing for others, the quality of products designed and engineered in Shenzhen were largely inferior to those with roots in the West. Over time, however, that dynamic began to change. ... DJI epitomizes that evolution. In 2006, Frank Wang, an engineering student obsessed with remote-control helicopters, started Dà-Jiāng — which roughly translates to "without borders" — Innovations Science and Technology Corporation. His target market consisted of professionals who used remote-control aircraft for filming and photography, and hardcore hobbyists who built their own flying machines for fun. At the time, everyone built their units from scratch, there was no casual consumer market, and few people used the word "drone." ... Like many early Shenzhen companies, at first DJI made just a single component: flight controllers. ... PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the drone industry will grow from a few billion dollars this year to more than $120 billion by 2020.
Deng Xiaoping created the city from bucolic nothing in 1980 as the pilot of his special economic zone project. These zones were meant to create safe places for Western companies to do business—and they worked. Even though China is not the boom-country it was two years ago, favorable trade policies and cheap skilled labor lure companies and entrepreneurs from across the globe to Shenzhen’s nimble factories. Before the SEZ, there were some 30,000 people in the area. Today, Shenzhen’s population is north of 10 million, and its port is one of the busiest in China. You already know this: Your iPhone is made here. Everything is made here. ... As of 2013, there were 22,000 permanent foreign nationals living in the city, and nearly 8 million others visiting every year. The expats range from the manufacturing-industry vet with a house and a spouse to the fresh-off-the-plane Kickstarter romantic with a pocketful of pledge cash to the English teacher who can’t tell a diode from a dinner plate.