Page last updated at 12:09 GMT, Saturday, 27 November 2010

China elite's drive to success

By Peter Day
BBC News, China

In 2009 China overtook the US to become the world's largest car market and, for some, ambitions for the country to become the biggest global exporter is now in their sights.

Yin Mingshan (file photo)
Yin Mingshan started his motorcycle company in 1992 with eight people

When I first met him eight years ago, Yin Mingshan was standing on a greasy hillside in the middle of what may be the biggest city in the world, Chongqing, 1,400km (900 miles) up the Yangtze river from Shanghai.

He was in the oily workshop where, 10 years earlier, he and a tiny team had started making motorcycle engines.

Ten years later, his Lifan motorcycles group had become the second-largest manufacturer in China. He was a rich man.

This was a big change from the 20 years he had previously spent in prison during the cultural revolution.

Yin Mingshan is a clever man. When he finally got out of prison he started publishing school textbooks, then switched to motorcycle engines when publishing seemed a bit risky after the events of Tiananmen Square.

The other day I met Yin Mingshan again. He was in Beijing for a celebration event for some of the people on the Hunan China Rich List, the country's wealthiest.

He told me how he has now pushed the motorcycle company into cars, a small-scale car company in China but a big exporter to countries such as Vietnam, Uruguay and Iran.

These happen to be places where people have a similar earning power to the population of his home city Chongqing. Yin Mingshan is following his instincts once again: that at a certain stage of economic development, people want the simple sort of cars he can make.

As with his motorcycles eight years ago, he told me now: "We have always targeted the countryside where the Communist revolution started."

Building dreams

Just one day later, I flew down to the extraordinary city of Shenzhen on the border with Hong Kong to revisit another car company.

Peter Day driving the BYD's F3 car
China is the world's biggest car market - 13.6m vehicles were sold last year

BYD started life 15 years ago as a battery maker. It now makes rechargeable batteries for a huge proportion of the world's mobile phones. But then, BYD decided to make cars as well, electric cars driven by battery.

Two years ago, I was one of the first Westerners to drive the dual petrol-battery-powered F3 model.

I was pretty impressed by a 13-year-old battery company that had built a car plant from the ground up in just 15 months.

It is a growth rate commonplace in the astonishing city of Shenzhen, which has grown from a population of 78,000 people 35 years ago, to a vibrant city of 14 million people today.

This time I went to meet the company founder, Wang Chuanfu, who is also near the top of the country's rich list.

In his BYD uniform, he looked like a factory line manager. But his identity badge gave him away - employee number 0000001.

A quietly spoken chemist, Wang Chuanfu told me about his hugely ambitious plans to build electric cars for a country rapidly becoming aware - so he said - of environmental issues.

BYD stands for "Build Your Dreams". It already employs almost 200,000 people and he repeated the business strategy which had so shocked me when I first encountered it two years ago - number one in China by 2015, number one in world car production by 2025.

After my encounter with the boss and a spin in the all-electric car he is now making for taxi fleets, and which recharges in one hour, a BYD driver in a petrol-powered car took me to a less salubrious part of the city.

Worker isolation

There I met a young woman who represents the other side of this Chinese industrial revolution.

Foxconn workers in Shenzhen
Foxconn is part of the world's largest maker of consumer electronics

Qing Tong became a migrant worker in Shenzhen at the age of 18. She found the work of checking computer parts repetitive, boring, soul-destroying.

It is the plight of millions of cheap labourers who have flooded into the cities from the countryside in search of a better life, assembling famous brand consumer goods for the world.

Qing Tong went on to work as a supervisor at the vast Foxconn factory. Its 400,000 employees assemble products such as Apple iPads.

Foxconn recently hurtled into world headlines with a spate of migrant worker suicides that forced the company to erect safety nets under the windows of the corporate dormitories.

Qing Tong was not overly critical of her Foxconn experience, but she said that after 30 years of this economic system, a new generation of migrant workers feel homeless. They are far away from their real homes, without any spiritual life or permanent resident status in their adopted cities.

She has written a novel about the plight of the migrant worker called From the Wolf's Burrow into the Tiger Den. She is voicing concerns about the rush to urbanise and modernise China that have become big talking points.

For 30 years China has built a new export-led economy on cheap labour from the countryside. Now that disconnected workforce is beginning to seek recognition of the things it has created in a country still aiming to be global number one in economic terms some time around 2030.

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