China’s Tech Revolution

How technology is driving the country’s economic boom, and what that means for the world

15 min read
Photo of two kindergartners playing with a cellphone.
China Calling: These two kindergartners know that cellphones are for playing games. But cellphones are also big business in China, which has the most users in the world—300 million and counting.
Photo: Michael Reynolds/EPA/Landov

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 malls that line every downtown boulevard teem with young and old, laughing, talking, walking arm in arm, checking out 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-supply shops, it’s now the city’s bustling cell phone district. In store after store, block after block, thousands of cellphone models from more than a hundred domestic and foreign brands beckon from store windows. Amid the crowds, the cacophony of ring tones, and the sales clerks hawking new calling plans, it’s tough to move or think. No wonder the largest cellphone maker in the world, Finland’s Nokia Corp., in Espoo, recently disclosed that China will soon overtake 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.

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