In 1978 I was fortunate as teenager to spend several weeks in Hong Kong; my father was working there and offered me an airfare and a place to stay. At the time China was a closed country like North Korea today with no access except for very small scale diplomatic contacts.

Hong Kong was a ridiculously prosperous outpost of empire that we knew was heading for a crisis in 1997 when the lease ended, but everyone was making hay at this interface of West and East. I was struck absolutely struck by the density and harmony of the Hong Kong Chinese working together in such confined conditions and realised then that one day the sleeping tiger over the border could arise and be a place of remarkable opportunity and scope.

I took the small bus van to the border with China in the New Territories, the locals laughing and joking at the giant lanky white man squeezing into their daily transport.
There wasn’t a lot to see at the border, a double wire fence on a hill top looking over an endless tract of peasant smallholdings with wisps of smoke rising from sporadic small houses. However I felt that I was at the edge of a very different world to my prior acquaintance.

Today I’m visiting that part of the world again, my personal Back To My Future is a trip with my son and industry colleagues to the Oppo factory in Guangdong in that very part of south China that I peered into nearly forty years ago.

Things have changed a bit.

The rural landscape of my youth has been entirely replaced by a city state devoted to manufacturing consumer goods. The Guangdong Economic Zone I suspect is the largest piece of urbanisation in the shortest time to have happened on our planet. An outsider visiting is assailed by the unmitigated purpose of industry that has swept aside any other considerations. Young people from across the provinces of this truly massive and multicultural nation have flocked here in droves for the opportunity provided. Initially the opportunity was simply to gain employ and send the spare earnings back to their families, now the opportunity is ownership of home, car, and phone.

The people I meet are full of stories of individual success and achievement; the young man who literally turned up at the factory door without the shirt on his back ten years ago having used all his money for the journey from his rural background, but who now manages an enormous manufacturing concern with tens of thousands of people at his behest. Our driver this afternoon who after working for five years has been able to raise the twenty percent deposit on an apartment for his family… and interestingly has paid roughly the same for that as a working class middle American would have to pay for their own home in the U.S.A.

This new industrial revolution China is very young, and it is very apparent on the streets that there are few old people. Visiting the Oppo facility one’s initial impression is not of a manufacturing concern but rather a tertiary educational institution. There are young people loitering in green spaces communing on Smartphones, there is a crisp white interior with lots of intimate meeting spaces and earnest scrutiny of spreadsheets and sketches on whiteboards by groups of twenty-somethings in casual clothes.

It turns out that the facility is referred to as the Oppo Campus rather than the factory and really has more of the feel of an educational establishment rather than an institution incidentally producing 4 – 5 million smartphones a month.
Oppo was started ten years ago and now employs ten thousand people in this one premise. Ninety percent of the people who work there sleep onsite in dormitory accomadation or are bussed to and fro their offsite Oppo dorms in green Oppo buses.

Oppo has no less than 4700 patents from their grass roots research and are actually the eighth most prolific patent applicant in China.

They have a quality testing procedure that is deliberately designed to be the best in industry with comprehensive tests from source to final product. Each part is tested on a 20,000 duty cycle before it is cleared for use. We really feel the results of this on the shop floor in Australia. Oppos are simply one of the least likely devices ever to come back in with a service problem, and hitherto Blu ray players from other brands had been habitually troublesome, lurching from firmware upgrade to disc sensitivity issues with client straining regularity.

Watching an Oppo worker tenderly caress their Blu Ray player with rubbing alcohol before putting it to bed for its final journey to far off places reminded me of the maternal affection I never actually received from my Scottish mother. There is a tangible pride and commitment to their product that is expressed at all levels in its creation, from development through production and marketing and distribution.

So although Oppo has roots in the high quality AV business, their major competency is actually as a PCB manufacturer. The printed circuit board facility is simply awesome and represents a massive investment in the best machinery from around the world to manufacture micro electronic components on demand. Oppo make no less than 30 million mobile phones a year, and another 20 million or so under their brother company Vivo.

Ronny Jiang is Oppo Digitals senior Brand Manager and he has worked with company since it’s inception in 2004. Ronny is one of the oldest people on the premises at 32 … people come from all over China to work here. The five world market managers are from five different provinces and are in their mid late twenties.

Oppo make 100,000 units of audio products a year including headphones and headphone amplifiers. The devices are manufactured with exquisite care. I have visited many production facilities for Audio Visual and I cannot recall having seen such an allowance of time per action in such a relatively unstressed atmosphere elsewhere. Normally a line is the subject of careful time and motion studies to maximise the output rate and speed up every human interaction. In the nearby Foxconn facility for example where Apple products are made the workers are only allowed three toilet breaks a day, have compulsory overtime, and are dormitoried eight people to a four bedroom room.

By contrast the Oppo people are in single or double rooms of their own and have many degrees of freedom at work. Of the 10,000 workforce at the factory over ninety per cent of them live in company accommodation and no less than 2000 of those staff are actually research and development.

These are not the clone-waresque legions factory workers of popular western media portrayal. There are no suicide nets under the windows. They are young people from the provinces who have travelled far from home to participate in the opportunity of China’s industrialisation. Oppo provides them with a nurturative full package lifestyle without the militaristic overtones and demand of fealty that a Japanese factory culture has in the past. The Oppo culture has more than a touch of California about it and indeed is mitigated by the Silicon Valley Head Office that sits alongside Google and Netflix and draws down on the best of Western technical and design resources. There is even a singles club for lonely hearts amongst the list of otherwise Boy Scout activities portrayed on the Team Building photos on the factory noticeboards.

The people I speak to recognise however that there are sacrifices that are being made, and the most obvious is to the environment, The Shenzen economic zone has created thousands of square miles of dense urbanised and manufacturing that has plastered the previously placid rural landscape like an alien invasion. There are no birds.

In closing I would like to draw attention to a basic fact of Chinese vs USA worker employment terms. In the USA you can be sacked at a moments notice without any recourse to workers compensation or unfair dismissal … and people are all the time.

In China however I discovered incidentally that a worker is employed on a state supported contract of labour and is highly protected against unscrupulous labour practices. Much like Australia in fact. Could it be that with the rise of the working and middle class in China at the same time as workers in the United States in full time employ are below the poverty line, that China will actually be a better place to live and raise a family for hoi poloi than the land of the free and the home of the brave? Look out America, they are coming.