The big picture

The hardware capital of the world is all about “Shenzhen speed.” For better and for worse, Shenzhen is defined by its breakneck pace. When Steve Jobs demanded that the iPhone should have a glass screen just a month before launch, Shenzhen made it happen: Factories spun up overnight and thousands of skilled engineers were immediately tasked to solve the problem. Designs that would take months to build elsewhere are produced in weeks here, if not days.

That speed is mirrored by the growth of the city itself: from a small border city of 30,000 in 1979 to a booming metropolis of 13 million in 2020, and from an export volume of $9.3 million in 1979 to $244 billion in 2017. Shenzhen has long since moved into the next phase: not just making things for others but creating them too. As China strives for total technological independence, companies based in the city, including DJI, Huawei, and Tencent, are at the forefront. In 2019, the World Intellectual Property Organization declared that China had filed more international patent applications than the U.S., half of which came from Shenzhen. Officials claim that 4.2% of the city’s GDP went into research and development in 2018.

But there’s another side to Shenzhen speed. The same manufacturing prowess that makes most of the world’s electronics allows copycats to produce clones at staggering speed, sometimes even before the original hits the market. And Shenzhen’s relentless pace is underpinned by an unforgiving work culture dubbed 996: working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., 6 days a week.

Big Stat: $31,000

Powered by the tech industry, Shenzhen has the highest GDP per capita of any Chinese city.

View from the ground

The rusty-looking gates and disheveled walls of the mall may seem unwelcoming, but they’re a ruse; it was intentionally constructed to look this way. “We don’t have places like this anymore,” said Naomi Wu, a YouTuber. The mall in nearby Guangzhou sports a retro look that was once part of her childhood, but as Shenzhen grew, it gradually disappeared. Today, “we make fake places for Instagram,” Wu said, as she captures the scene for her followers.

Shenzhen has undergone a staggering change in just the span of a few decades, from village to metropolis. But Wu said things aren’t slowing down just yet. “The city is still hungry, still driven, still highly ambitious.”

Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

Neighborhood spotlight: Huaqiangbei

If Shenzhen is the hardware capital of the world, then Huaqiangbei is the heart of Shenzhen. The sprawling electronics market was once full of stalls selling everything from completed gadgets to the individual components inside them. This tight aggregation of sellers, itself just a stone’s throw away from the factories that built their stock, contributed to a copycat culture — commonly called shanzhai — as factories quickly mobilized to capitalize on any emerging trend. It also developed into a homegrown makers’ culture, creating new forms of tech out of the components available.

But Huaqiangbei’s peak may already have passed. Like much of the city, the area is gentrifying — and the once tightly packed electronics markets are slowly emptying. What’s replaced them? Cosmetics shops, taking advantage of the vacant stalls and a booming demand for beauty products.

The big name: Tencent

Despite Shenzhen’s roots as a city of hardware, a software company represents its future. In WeChat alone, Tencent controls the super app that rules all super apps: the one essential app that is deeply integrated into the country’s digital economy. But it’s in gaming where Tencent is quietly seeking global domination, with stakes in developers across the globe and mobile licenses to franchises as varied as Call of Duty and Pokémon. Its headquarters in Shenzhen have all the best amenities of a Silicon Valley campus — but stacked vertically into the form of twinned skyscrapers.