It’s a blazing blue-sky morning in Nantong when I’m shuttled from Shaw’s vast construction site past rows of newly planted saplings that line the empty streets. The Sutong Science & Technology Park has the feel of numerous parts of China, like that of a new house waiting for the first occupants. In the near future, these streets will be filled with cars and lives, frenetic and jammed with humanity. For the present they are empty, but the air throbs with the buzz of cicadas and construction, the music of a city on the verge. In true Chinese form, a huge blue propaganda billboard looming next to the street proclaims: “Make great strides towards being the pioneers of basic modernization!”
A few minutes later I’m whisked into the Sutong Park’s headquarters to a large room lined with plush crimson carpeting and enough armchairs furnish a neighborhood of living rooms. Sitting across from me is Li Mingwei, the Park’s executive deputy director, who goes by “Steven.” Li, a power player in the matrix of Nantong’s economic development machine. He’s wearing a short-sleeved white button down and black slacks, and he has his speil memorized.
Since work began in 2009 on this future city, Li says, some 80 percent of the factories at the Sutong Park are multinational companies. They’re engaged in high return businesses like ship building, producing medical equipment and hi-technology. It’s a deliberate strategy. The region historically lagged behind the churning economic furnaces on the coast, and until the Sutong bridge opened in 2008, Nantong was cut off from the surging opportunities so many other cities were able to embrace. That isolation is a now a thing of the past, and those in charge of Nantong hope to leapfrog over the decades of low-cost Chinese manufacturing (think socks or umbrellas) in favor of industries that are higher up the value chain. To accomplish this, they need global corporations. “Multinationals can bring Nantong advanced technology and developed management skills,” says Li. “We need this kind of investment if we hope to progress.”
What Li is talking about comes from the top. In the past few years, China’s leadership has urged the country to advance beyond the stereotype of “the world’s factory” – cheap labor making cheap goods. But China can’t do it on its own. In Nantong, the call to speed modernization I saw on the billboard is more than marketing – it’s the civic motto that guides the masses’ quest for a better life.
When I ask Li how much of the new city’s population will be highly skilled, he looks at me like I’ve asked him if he’s Chinese. “All of them,” he says. “We’re not interested in unskilled workers. We want to attract university graduates and people coming back from overseas.”
Li says this is where Shaw Industries comes in. “Shaw is especially important to Nantong,” he announces. “Our traditional textile industry needs help with innovation, and Shaw is a leader. It’s mutually beneficial.”
Indeed, as Shaw hires a roster of Chinese employees for its carpet tile plant, the people coming for interviews are men and women with technical degrees and prior industry experience. They’re engineers and project managers, not peasants – just as Li has planned all along.
When I discuss my meeting with Li later with Shaw’s director of global operations, Jeff Galloway, he grins. The Nantong plant, he says, is indeed mutually beneficial for China and the U.S. He then proceeds to dispel the myth that Chinese factories only mean the loss of American jobs. Once the plant opens next year to engage the booming Asian market, a slew of new Shaw employees will be needed in Georgia to spearhead further product development and oversee key technologies. What happens in China will be mostly assembly, but the chemicals and fiber that become Shaw’s carpet tile – the true alchemy of Shaw’s design – will remain in the U.S. “Part of our intellectual property is our process, not just our product,” he says.
He tells me this when we’re back at the plant site, where flags flutter in the summer breeze. One is a Chinese flag; beside it flaps the Shaw logo. They are symbols of national pride and corporate identity, and in this this era they represent the cooperation of people across borders, trying to break language barriers and cultural attitudes to build something more. Galloway seems to be thinking along the same lines. “What we’re doing is good for the U.S. and good for China,” he says in his soft southern drawl. “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”