Today, China marks 60 years of communism with a celebration of ‘National Day.’ As the world continues to cope with the economic crisis, China’s paradoxical hybrid economy – 'socialism with Chinese characteristics' – is predicted to grow by more than 8 percent for 2009.
One of the reasons for this extraordinary growth became clear to me a few months ago while I was in China finishing a documentary called ‘Win In China’ about entrepreneurs.
It was my 12th trip to the country and I found myself in a tin-roofed factory in Weifang, a smoggy city in Shandong Province in North China. I was led across a barren courtyard to a door with a plastic sign on it that read: 'Bra Specimen Room.'
Inside were racks of faux-leopard skin bras, feather boas, lacy garters and angel wings.
"Choose whatever you like for your girlfriend," said Zhou Yu, the 37-year-old proud proprietor of the lingerie brand Ti Hui, and the owner of the factory. “I want all women to love my underwear in the U.S."
I had first met Zhou while shooting the documentary which followed entrepreneurs as they competed on a Chinese TV show also called ‘Win In China.’ The show was a knock-off of America's own ‘The Apprentice,’ but "with Chinese characteristics" and without the Donald.
The show featured 120,000 budding entrepreneurs all ardently competing to impress a panel of the country’s most celebrated businessmen - including internet tycoon Jack Ma and Liu Chuanzhi, the founder of computer giant Lenovo. The prize was a share a $4.5 million pot of venture capital to start or grow a business.
The goal of the show was to reeducate the Chinese masses - who had once been threatened with prison for engaging in any kind of private enterprise - on the rudiments of business and to inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs. As more former peasants join the middle class, the government realizes it needs to create more jobs.
“The growth of the middle class is very important in China, though it's still at a fairly early stage,” said Carl Riskin, a professor of Economics at Queens College and senior research scholar at the East Asian Institute at Columbia University. "China will no longer be able to rely on the limitless capacity of Americans to consume beyond their means. So the Chinese government has been eager to find ways to "re-balance" and make growth more dependent on domestic demand.”
The ‘Win In China’ show was one of the most public facets of this ongoing push to further reshape the Chinese economy. Zhou was a contestant on the show. In fact he was the contestant – the one that the audience of 200 million viewers gossiped about endlessly.
He was affectionately nicknamed 'The Wolf' for his raw, predatory style and willingness to spy, cheat and lie through the show's many episodes with great charm and energy. He came in second and he immediately pumped his $800,000 reward money into the lacy undergarments that were arrayed across the 'Bra Specimen Room' in his factory.
"I thought it was a good time to get into women's underwear," he explained. "And now, we have about 400 employees." He gestured towards rows and rows of women silently working on sewing machines surrounded by a veritable tundra of brassieres. Three or four of the most productive had their work stations marked with a bright red flag, a relic of a time when all factories were state-owned and "the red, red flag of Chairman Mao" was supposed to burn within every worker's heart.
At 11:00 a.m. each day, the workers line up at the door of a wooden shed to get a bowl of soup that bubbles in a giant cauldron over an open flame, a throwback to the days of communal kitchens. "It costs me 40 cents a day to feed each worker," said Zhou. "Imagine how much I was able to grow my business with the prize money," he said, telling me that his current annual revenue is about $6 million.
Despite Zhou’s striking success, it was not without its challenges. As manufacturing in China modernizes, so do its labor laws, making it harder to fire workers with longer tenures in favor of cheaper, less skilled employees. China’s workers are cheap but are no longer at the very bottom of the world’s pay scale. Some businessmen who feel the pinch from decreased western demand and stricter labor regulation have been opening up factories in such countries as Cambodia, Bangladesh and Vietnam to increase their margins. For the time being Zhou is content to abide by these regulations and continue manufacturing in China.
Zhou grew up in the rural and very poor Xinjiang Province in the deserts of West China. He lived with his whole extended family in a one-room apartment and recalls how their only luxury was a small radio. "All we had to eat during winter was cabbage, potatoes and carrots," he remembered.
When economic reform began to take hold in the late 1990s and the country began its high-speed modernization, he became a women's cosmetics salesman. He had an instinct for the market and soon began to realize that young Chinese women had an appetite for the finer things that would most likely continue to grow.
When the cosmetics company went under, he borrowed a few thousand dollars, hired a handful of employees and set out to become a lingerie baron. In a country where anything even faintly sexually suggestive was considered bourgeois and where many in the older generation still wore unisex Mao suits, many thought he was unhinged. It turns out he had judged the trend just right.
"Things are different now," said Zhou, of the new spirit of enterprise that has taken hold in China and allowed him to dream of expanding his business around the world.
"I feel that the spirit of entrepreneurship is in the bones of the Chinese people," he explained. "If I had been living abroad, I probably wouldn't have become so successful because there are not as many opportunities. But, in mainland China, the whole environment is still young," he said. "I'm very lucky to be here!"
The notoriety he gained by appearing on "Win In China" has only helped. He is now vigorously expanding his empire: he just completed the construction of a brand new 30,000 square foot factory in order to significantly increase production.
There is no word yet on whether the new premises will have an even more elaborate ‘Bra Specimen Room’. That morning in Weifang, he allowed me to select a giant, flesh-toned bra and an enormous matching pair of panties, both edged with lace, plus a set of polka-dot pajamas.
If Zhou has his way, similar garments will soon be making their way around the world to a stores in Europe and America.
So while we watch the pomp and circumstance of the National Day celebrations with its prominent but fading vestiges of communism, it’s clear that it’s no longer the rigid Maoist ideology that drives modern day China. It’s the millions of only recently unleashed entrepreneurs like Zhou Yu, ‘The Wolf,’ who are shaping its future.
Editor's Note: Ole Schell directs films in New York City. In addition to “Win In China" he just finished the film 'Picture Me' about the world of high fashion modeling. While living in Beijng he produced a short of series on Chinese youth culture for Current TV and reported on the American election and politics for Channel 4 in Britain and MySpace Politics. He is the recipient of the “Leonardo’s Horse Award” for best picture at the 2009 Milan International Film festival for 'Picture Me.' He will be discussing the 'Win In China film,' youth culture and the rising class of Chinese entrepreneurs on a panel at the Council on Foreign relations in Washington DC on October 19.