At the beginning of 2011, Fast Company set out to spend a year in China, documenting the transition, transformation, and innovation in that country. Our reporters spent time with people from many sectors of Chinese life—a nouveau-riche tycoon, high school students, up-and-coming twentysomething techie types, merchants and traders, immigrants from the Middle East, prostitutes, assembly-line factory workers who make New Balance sneakers. And what our team emerged with was a picture of China that is far more complex than we expected, a portrait of a nation that is complicated and searching collectively for its future.
Sometimes China is portrayed as the new superpower, this Asian economic titan that will inevitably sweep past America. It's immense and increasingly influential—and its elites are determined to keep building their nation. Our story on top-tier Chinese students, a group of whom we followed for most of their final year of high school, illustrated the lengths to which they will go for achievement and success, but also the lack of creativity in the Chinese education system.
It's true that China poses a level of competition that America hasn't had in years. But it's also still very poor and governed by a Communist regime that at times struggles to adapt to the reality of the marketplace and of its citizens' wants and needs. Mark Leong's photo essay of the Shenzhen shoe-factory workers takes us into a village where some residents save their relatively meager incomes for the fines incurred for breaking China's one-child policy.
China is also a nation where the tech sector doesn't value innovation so much as adaptation of ideas and products from abroad; hence the Facebooks of China, including Renren and Kaixin001, as well as knockoffs of American websites, including Baidu (China's Google) and Youku (China's YouTube). Steven White, a professor of management at Tsinghua University at Beijing, says that, on a visit to Baidu, he was struck at how factory-like the atmosphere was. "Are they doing anything we would call innovative?" he says. "No, they're just cheaper."
Some aspects of life in modern China remind us that it's a country much in transition, where the rules and mores are in constant flux. Which opens the doors for opportunists like the tycoon Chen Guangbiao, who purportedly made his fortune in recycling construction materials. Beijing-based Fast Company contributing writer April Rabkin, who wrote the profile of Chen, calls this piece "the funniest story I've ever worked on." Why? "Once, out of the blue on a train, he offered to make me his mistress," Rabkin says. "That position comes with a house and a car. That would be his responsibility, he added solemnly."
Taken together, the stories in our China Project form a picture of a nation that is much like the traditional landscape paintings that have been celebrated there for centuries—there are valleys, and there are peaks, most likely shrouded in cloud. There is beauty, and there's also white space, waiting to be filled in. All of it is beguiling. All of it invites us to take a closer look.
[Image: Flickr user Stuck in Customs]