It's a sunny Sunday in Chengdu, a sprawling city of 10.4 millionin China's southwestern hinterland, and that can meanonly one thing: shopping. The gleaming new indoor mallsthat line every downtown boulevard teem with young andold, laughing, talking, walking arm in arm, checkingout the latest from Tommy Hilfiger, Disney, and Esprit.Along Tai Sheng East Road, the scene really heats up.Once a sleepy street lined with hardware and electrical-supplyshops, it's now the city's bustling cellphone district.In store after store, block after block, thousands ofcellphone models from more than a hundred domestic andforeign brands beckon from store windows. Amid the crowds,the cacophony of ring tones, and the sales clerks hawkingnew calling plans, it's tough to move or think. No wonderthe largest cellphone maker in the world, Finland's NokiaCorp., in Espoo, recently disclosed that China will soonovertake the United States as its top market.
Just behind the bright storefronts, in the network of backalleys, a market for secondhand cellphones has sprungup [see photos, "Conspicuous Consumption"]. If the commerce seems aggressive out on the street, here it's downright raw. Like farmers on market day, hundreds of vendors flock here from the outskirts of Chengdu to sit cheek by jowl, their battered wares arrayed on narrow card tables. In nearby stalls, eagle-eyed technicians hunch over jeweler's benches making precision repairs; they'll earn less in a month than what you'd pay for a new handset half a block away.
Chengdu's cellphone district is a microcosm of the new China, with its ravenous consumerism and its unflinching entrepreneurialism. Here and all over China, the newly wealthy and middle class can now tap into every kind of technological wonder. Those still stuck on the economic bottom rungs, though, are scrambling to catch up, without the safety net that the communist regime once provided.
The place also speaks to China's growing technological prowess: its 300 million cellphone subscribers--the most in the world--its two national wireless carriers, and the hundreds of domestic and foreign service providers and manufacturers that now vie for a share of its burgeoning telecom market [see photo, "China Calling"].And it illustrates, more generally, how China's emergence as an industrial powerhouse is driven by, and is driving, its interactions with the world. In ways scarcely imaginable 25 years ago, when Deng Xiaoping first opened the economy to market forces, China's fortunes are the world's. And what happens now, even in remote Chengdu, matters--not just for the Chinese but for everyone.
In planning this special report, the editors of IEEE Spectrum were most intrigued by this last phenomenon. How is China's tech revolution unfolding? Who are the key actors, and why are they there? Is everyone a winner, or is this in some ways a zero-sum game? What are the sources of friction--within China, as well as between China and its trading partners--that could slow down or even halt this juggernaut?
This special report is not intended as an exhaustive survey of China, nor a primer on doing business there. No doubt there are lessons to be learned here, but our aim is to tell a handful of stories that illustrate the complex web of connections being formed, shaped, and exploited by China's awesome rise.