It's a weekday night in Shenzhen.
The good citizens of the PRC have come to this park to get fitter, happier and more productive.
All under the watchful, approving gaze of Deng Xiaoping, the revered granddaddy of China's free market reforms.
The scene tells you much of what you need to know about Shenzhen.
It's China for sure. But it's also something different.
It's a city of imports: young, hardworking, smart, and often freer-thinking people, plucked from all around the country.
They've come here to toil during the day, improve themselves at night, and to get ahead.
It's ambition that is the lifeblood of Shenzhen.
Its factories; its markets; its startups; its surging tech empires.
And it's stuff like this: an orgiastic explosion of LEDs that are the greener, and of course more futuristic, version of fireworks.
Can your city do that?
No. Your city sure as shit can't.
But here's the story of why Shenzhen can.
And why everyone - especially the folks in Silicon Valley - should be aware, and probably a little frightened, of what's coming for them.
You get in the metal tube. Zoom up 115 floors at a ridiculous speed to the top of the Ping An skyscraper.
Then you find a window, and marvel at the sublime bigness of Shenzhen.
Forty years ago all this was farmland and dirt roads, a minor hub for rural goods trading just across the border from Hong Kong.
Now, it's the hot, steamy, frenetic home to 13 million people
that just about everyone on Earth calls the Silicon Valley of China.
Everything here moves at what's known as Shenzhen Speed.
It's a phrase that describes an unyielding pace of change, and I came here to feel it firsthand.
To do that, it's an Instagram pose with the cityscape, a quick scan for government spy drones,
and then a car ride, to see where just about everything we use gets made.
You hear about factories in China all the time. Today I'm lucky enough to actually go visit one
that's located about an hour outside of the center of the city.
They're gonna let us see what life is like inside one of these factories.
There are grim factories. There are decent factories. And then there's this place, run by Grandsun Electronic.
It's safe to say this is not what I expected.
The plush surroundings are intended to make customers from all parts of the world feel comfortable.
But inside it's more like you'd expect: dozens of workers moving at Shenzhen Speed,
making fancy headphones for an Australian company called Nura.
How did you guys end up in Shenzhen? I guess that's the thing to do these days.
Yeah. Shenzhen is known as a place that people come to to make things.
You don't come here to mess around, you come here to get things done.
They have the supply chain here - a supplier that can make any component of the headphones you need.
And of course there's the labor cost, which is not as cheap as it used to be but still reasonable.
The production line has been running at basically maximum capacity since we started. And yeah we can do 500 a day normally.
What are the little noises we hear in the background?
You're hearing them make sure they assembled the speaker correctly.
So that's like a test noise?
Yeah that's right.
But what is life like for the people who make these wonderful toys?
To get a taste of the factory experience, I join the mad dash for lunch.
Mmm, cafeteria food.
How's the food?
How long have you worked here?
It's tough to say anything terribly new about the life of the Chinese factory worker.
Most of these people have come from China's hinterlands, often leaving their families behind in their rural hometowns.
They'll spend about two years on average in Shenzhen,
busting their butts working overtime to save up as much money as they can.
Is it a step up from hardscrabble subsistence farming? Probably.
Are there still safety nets? Yep.
But I can tell you one major lifestyle advantage the Chinese have over us gweilos.
When we first started working here, after lunch we couldn't really get anyone's attention.
Eventually we cottoned on, everyone's just sleeping at that time of day.
That said we embraced it very quickly.
What is your preferred sleeping apparatus?
I'm pretty Spartan, so either on the desk or under the desk with a bit of bubble wrap for a pillow.
Trust me, it's good.
Luke is just one of many entrepreneurs who come to get their gear made in Shenzhen.
There's a flourishing scene here for hardware startups that want to move fast and make things.
Many of them can be found here, at a startup incubator called Hax.
The idea here is simple: help startups build a prototype,
then connect them with factories that can start cranking out their products by the thousands.
Take Jamie, here an affable chap who's part of a British startup called Carv.
We make a digital ski coach. So effectively it's like an insert you put into your ski boot and it teaches you how to ski better.
So you get like real time feedback through headphones, like, that was a bad turn, that was a bad turn, that was a better turn.
You have one here, don't you?
Yeah yeah, let me show you.
So yeah, these are motion sensors that have full motion sensing.
Like many startups here, Carv began life as a humble Kickstarter campaign.
Now, just a couple of years later, they're pumping out 5000 units of their product every month.
Do you think you could have brought something like this to life in the UK if you had been accepted by an incubator there?
Or now that you've been here you've seen a new world I guess?
I think it kind of depends a little bit on how much of a shoestring you're on.
Here in Shenzhen it's so much cheaper - in many different categories it's cheaper,
like in the product development phase to get different materials 3D printed or machined.
You get it here for kind of half the cost and twice as fast. And sometimes seven times as fast.
To get a feel for that high speed energy, I hop across the street with Jamie to the famed Huaqiangbei markets.
Yeah. So this is the biggest electronics market in the world, probably.
They're an important resource for the young entrepreneurs here,
and a fantastic place to get your senses overloaded.
Such as a hive of activity in here!
Aw man it's great, so this is the energy right. You just walk through the market and it's like, bang! You know like, OK.
This is where factories have come to display their wares to potential buyers,
who is me and a lot of the other people here. Kind of a storefront for factories.
OK. And if I make smartphones or TVs or anything like that, I kind of come here to see the latest and greatest stuff?
Exactly. You want to find a manufacturer, you come to Huaqiangbei.
It's also a great place to find that missing part for your prototype,
which is why you run into other crews from Hax roaming the aisles.
Buying some screws?
Buying some springs. Have you tried - there's a spring woman front if you want one. Just on the left as you go out.
The fact that I can get a component in, like, an hour is like absolutely phenomenal.
That's like - that is Shenzhen Speed. That's why we're here.
Here's how Shenzhen works.
You put up a, "damn, things are going well here" skyscraper.
Then you put up another one right next to it - because you can.
And then, to really drive the point home, you do all of this next to a metallurgic marvel of a stadium.
We're talking about a boomtown the likes of which the world has never seen before.
And things are just getting started. Because inside the big stadium is the real action.
It's a scene of smarts creativity and hustle being collectively mainlined.
It doesn't look pretty. It doesn't smell great. It might even be inhumane.
But all of this is aimed at making China the dominant technology force of the future.
And Silicon Valley should be very very afraid.
Welcome, friends, to RoboMasters.
This is a robotics competition that draws in hundreds of engineering students from around the world.
As you'll soon see I don't really understand the intricacies of the game.
But the gist is that you build some robots, choosing from six different types.
Like the Engineer, which heals other bots, or the Hero, which does extra damage.
Then you put them in a stadium and have them fire plastic bullets at each other to score points.
It's fun for the whole family... if your family is a bunch of insanely competitive gearheads
They're shooting, be careful, they're shooting.
Oh shoot, it's got the gun on me.
For contestants, this can be an intense experience.
What's your life been like for the last week?
The average sleeping time is like three or four hours.
How do you do it every day and keep doing that for weeks? It's crazy.
Drinking Red Bull.
Once these kids arrive for the competition, they basically don't leave the stadium for two weeks.
And fighting robot battle after robot battle takes its toll.
When was the last time you had something to eat?
So you haven't eaten today?
But it's all worth it, because the reward, if you're lucky, is a job at DJI,
the sponsors of the competition and the world's top maker of drones.
If you're a talented young roboticist, coming here to Shenzhen to work at DJI is the dream. So the stakes are high.
How are you doing? Are you guys winning?
I hope so.
There are plenty of Chinese tech companies that produce nothing but cheap knockoffs.
DJI is not one of them.
The company was started in 2006 by a college student named Frank Wang.
He made components for drone hobbyists, and then decided to go ahead and make a full on drone empire.
I think the core value of DJI is, we're always trying to innovate something new.
For example when we created drone, there are actually no flying camera. We created this concept of flying camera.
That's basically true.
DJI's first runaway hit, the Phantom, brought camera drones to the masses for the first time in 2012.
Since then they've made bigger drones, smaller drones, teeny tiny drones,
and some specialty ones, like this crop dusting drone.
All its products have sold well. Most of its major competitors have flown away in tears.
The company rakes in billions of dollars a year and has thousands of employees all over the world.
And now, they want to pay it forward.
Our founder, after DJI become a little bit successful -
Yeah a little bit.
Yeah. He started to think that it's time to host his own robotics competition.
We want engineers to be recognized as superstars.
And this competition, we hope it become very popular, and the people end up being inspired by these engineers.
It's not just the competition itself. There's also a RoboMasters documentary, a RoboMasters reality show, and even a RoboMasters anime.
With this media blitz, DJI hopes to foster a new generation of innovative engineers
who can then join the drone empire and make it even stronger. Or maybe start the next DJI.
In other words, what we have here is less of a friendly little robot fest and more of a plan for world domination.
Looks like it's up to me to sabotage this thing.
Does that make me seem scarier?
Mm, a little bit.
I've managed to infiltrate this team from Zhejiang university.
This is almost too easy.
We're going up against the University of Washington.
Chinese teams usually destroy American ones, but my incompetence should even up the odds.
You guys, don't shoot me, OK? I'm number one. I'm number one.
I'm number four.
Prepare your teams.
Let the robo-slaughter begin!
And what do I gotta try to do? Where am I going after the game starts?
I need to go out now.
Don't leave me!
Are we red or blue?
Are we winning? How come nobody's talking?
I couldn't really tell what was happening, was it close?
So we kicked your ass.
Yeah, you guys smashed us.
OK. Thank you. It was an honor to play with you guys. That was fun. Thank you.
I'm sorry America. I tried.
A few days later I return to the stadium to witness the final round of competition.
It's South China University of Technology versus China's Northeastern University.
The winners will take home tens of thousands of dollars, the respect of their fellow nerds,
and most likely a job offer from DJI or another up and coming company.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, the future drone makers of the PRC.
There's no disputing that Shenzhen has become one of the most important places in the world of tech.
Nowhere else has quite as potent a combination of tech know-how, cheap manufacturing costs, and sheer speed.
But it goes further than that. Living in Shenzhen is in many ways like living in the future.
And not necessarily a utopian future. More like the other kind.
Zowee operates a factory much like any other in Shenzhen.
They make cheap smartphones and other electronics.
Like other top manufacturers, they've built a complex where workers can live right beside the factory line,
work around the clock for a couple of years, and hopefully buy a better life for their families back home.
The factories here are clean, and the work is precise.
But things are changing quickly in a way that does not favor the common man and woman.
All the rest of these lines are staffed by about 80 people.
But right here there's new machines coming online that are going to build a smartphone, end to end, completely by robots.
The end goal of something like this is to get the quality of the products higher,
to bring costs down for less labor and ultimately to keep China as the manufacturing hub of the world
and fend off low-priced competition for places like Southeast Asia.
The factory of the future looks like this. It's a closed-off loop where robots pass components among each other,
and finished products pop out at the end.
All those workers have been replaced by one lonely final inspector.
It's a strong sign that the future of Shenzhen is less for these guys...
...and more for these guys.
Zowee actually builds these automation machines itself.
Behind me are some of China's best and brightest engineers, hard at work building the machines you see out on the floor today,
and the ones that are coming tomorrow that are going to automate the entire factory line.
Nowhere will face more turmoil than Shenzhen as the robots rise and send millions of workers to the unemployment line.
But it's not just the working class that's facing a dark future.
There are dystopian innovations that seem to touch every facet of life here.
I ran into one example of this while attempting to rehydrate.
Can I use this? No? OK.
No, this, no.
After some investigation I discover what's going on here, and it has to do with these things: QR codes.
You know the drill. You scan the code, and something pops up on your phone, like a promotion or discount.
America laughed these things off years ago, but here, they run the entire economy.
Cash and credit cards are history. Instead, you scan QR codes to pay for everything:
restaurants, groceries, even buskers.
On the surface, this is all good. It's the easy, convenient mobile payment system of the future.
But there's also a dark side.
The Chinese government can peer into the two dominant payment systems, AliPay and WeChat, as it sees fit.
It's already started tracking behavior as part of a plan to rank citizens
and measure how good and obedient they are.
The tech revolution may have brought prosperity to Shenzhen,
but it's also brought more and more insidious intrusions into people's lives.
To dig deeper into life under the Chinese deep state, I've assembled a team of extraordinary foreigners
who work at tech startups in Shenzhen.
Hopefully a few beers will encourage them to open up about their thoughtcrimes.
Living in a very tightly regulated Communist country - Does that bother you or you don't care?
Like, the presumption at least that I got before I came from Australia
is sort of like moving into sort of like a militarized state kind of thing, like things are gonna be really intense.
But like you take a beer, just like walk down the road, hang out in the park, fine.
Do that back in my hometown in Australia, straight to the cophouse.
But then, play spikeball on the grass, and then all of a sudden the cops come and stop you.
Well and you got - you jaywalked and you had facial recognition
The craziest thing, I actually got this.
Yeah. So I was jaywalking in Nanxian, and all of a sudden I got a fine to my WeChat.
Was it instant?
It was about twenty seconds after.
I had money in my balance and it just went straight out.
It just came straight out.
Didn't even authorize it. That's crazy.
It's true. Try to jaywalk in certain parts of Shenzhen,
and the government's facial recognition will spot you.
There's even a Board of Shame showing the faces of recent offenders.
I'm surprised and very very worried that they have your face in the face recognition system-
They have everyone's though, I mean when you go across the border they take that picture. Yeah exactly.
Yeah, so it's all in the system. They know where you are.
It gets even scarier, because Big Brother is watching what you do online, too.
Most of the websites we know and love are blocked in China,
replaced with Chinese equivalents that the government can monitor: a sort of mirror universe internet.
I asked my friend Diane, a Shenzhen native, to help break this down.
Appropriately enough, she took me to this restaurant staffed entirely by robots.
That's some gnarly-looking chicken - is that chicken?
Mmm... robot food.
I wanted you to help me out with one thing. So if I sort of call out a U.S. tech company, can you tell me the Chinese equivalent?
Because you can't get Instagram or anything here, so.
So let's do a few.
So, Google would be -
And Amazon -
is like, both JD.com and also Taobao.
OK, and YouTube?
Ah, Youku. Youku, Iqiyi.
Facebook, we have WeChat.
Yeah. Do you feel like you're in a different universe?
All the online stuff is such a big part of our lives, and it seems like China has created its own world.
Yeah, that's definitely like that.
But like I said, for like Instagram, I was surprised to see even -
Instagram got banned from China but all the young people, they're there.
Still go. Yeah.
It turns out it is possible to access the freedom-loving internet here,
via what's called a VPN: an alternate internet connection that bypasses the government's blocks.
And you don't get in trouble if they see that you're on the VPN all the time?
For personal use, I don't think that's like, a big deal.
The future will be interesting for how the different worlds are like collaborating together.
Yeah, and definitely the young generation, they're...
They're not like just, oh, I'm satisfied just to kind of stay inside. Yeah, they're more curious.
The came to Shenzhen hoping to find some kind of ground truth,
a clear picture of what China's growing tech prowess will mean for the rest of us.
Honestly though I'm as confused as ever.
This city is full of energy, desire, and creativity.
But exactly how those traits are channeled in the years ahead remains an open question.
My hope is that the best parts of our human nature get a chance to thrive,
and that 1984 can wait a few more decades to arrive.
And on that note, I leave you with this dashboard dog,
because it's obviously good and pure and very happy.