cultural economics 101: how do you find reliable workers in shenzhen?

The expression “a friend is a means of getting something done (一个朋友一条路)” is a concise description of the Shenzhen labor market. It is, of course, also a description of “relationship-ology (关系学), the social art of making full use of one’s relatives, friends and acquaintances. Given the importance of relationships to getting things done in China generally and Shenzhen specifically, relationship-ology manifests in some ugly ways. Nepotism is classic relationship-ology as is the art of making friends through wining, dining and bribing. Nevertheless, having friends help get things done isn’t as coldly instrumental as it sounds.


Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that there are practical reasons to seek a friend’s help, just as there are standards at which help becomes nepotism and/ or corruption. For example, a friend explained to me that all things being equal (qualifications, experience, and talent) giving a job or opportunity to a relative or friend is “humanistic (人性的)”; it balances both one’s social obligations and professional needs. In contrast, when an applicant is clearly more qualified than another, then giving a job or opportunity to a less qualified friend or relative becomes nepotism because one has placed personal obligations above professional needs.

When looking for workers and/ or collaborators, the situation is both less and more complicated; how to find reliable workers when most skill sets are not taught in school, but learned through on the job training? The usual way, especially within Shenzhen’s many privately held firms, is to ask a trusted worker to find several more. The worker then turns to his or her network to find suitable candidates. This is how factory canteen positions are filled (usually by a foreman’ female relatives or a worker’s female relatives), but also day jobs and long term jobs. In other words, the primary relationship of trust is extended to include the worker’s relationships.


From the point of view of the employer this delegation of responsibility pivots on trust, both of one’s skills and one’s character. Firstly, the assumption is that qualified workers, or artists, or admins, or nurses will know others of their kind and be able to make useful recommendations. In addition, trust in another’s moral character assumes that one can bring in honest workers, who will contribute to the firm. In other words, relationship-ology is not straightforward nepotism, but rather a means of navigating a vast population where one can neither know everyone, nor evaluate every skill set. And yes, when put under the anthropological microscope, it’s hard to distinguish between Chinese and Western variants of relationship-ology.

Point du jour complicates the question of finding reliable workers in Shenzhen with respect to shifting demographics. On the one hand, given China’s boom, there is a shortage of laborers relative to actual work–this includes both skilled (bricklayers) and unskilled labor (assembly line workers). This means that the cost of labor is going up. Consequently, employers need to pay more money to complete jobs, and in some cases it is cheaper (especially with unskilled jobs) to leave Shenzhen. On the other hand, as a result of the one child policy, there are fewer young people to replace old workers, also creating competition between employers for quality workers. As a factory owner explained, “It’s not just that day wages have risen two or three times what they used to be, but now workers aren’t afraid of finding another job. So now we pay twice as much to do half the work.”

In this sense, Dalang’s decision to invest in workers’ “3rd 8 hours (第三个八个小时)” is more than benevolent governance; it makes an important contribution to the economy because skilled workers prefer the Dalang environment to other industrial areas in the outer districts. In fact, several Dalang workers have told me that they returned to Dalang after they discovered that living conditions (rather than work conditions) were better in Dalang than in Longhua or Pingdi. The predicament of investing in an environment that will attract and keep skilled workers is also increasingly a key consideration for the Municipal government, which needs to create an environment that will keep talent in Shenzhen.

Speculation du jour: one of the reasons that more Shenzhen residents are talking about how to handle remaining urban villages is simple: affordable, conveniently located housing is one way of keeping qualified workers. Indeed, looking at the relative difficulties of hiring qualified workers places the “you are a Shenzherer as soon as you arrive (来了,就是深圳人)” campaign in new light. Previously the Shenzhen government acted on the assumption that workers would come, work, and leave. Now it’s promoting the idea (and reinforcing it with some of the more progressive hukou policies) that manual laborers can also make new homes in Shenzhen (iteration 1) and that this is the destination of choice for young talent (iteration 2).

2 thoughts on “cultural economics 101: how do you find reliable workers in shenzhen?

  1. But will that change in Shenzhen help to get qualified workers (by creating new homes?) I think a big issue is also that people do not like changes in their lives/ prefer everything going the way it used to. So moving to another place to work is always a difficulty, no matter in what country you live. Sure there are people who have no issues with that by my guess is that the vast majority only start with changes when there is nearly no other choice anymore -> no real fulfillment in their actions.

    This relationship-ology in western countries will never be obvious for people till they try to get some new job. There will be always situations that most jobs are impossible to get/ near impossible unless you know someone who knows someone…

    And now I am wondering what the hell I was writing about in my feverish condition!

    • Hello CrazyCF, about keeping skilled labor and talent through home ownership, the important point seems to be the practical hope of being able to own a home in the future. Consequently the question for many is not where can I immed own a house, but where’s the best/ most interesting/ hippest place to work towards that house? Thus, the cultural appeal of Beijing and Shanghai, even though its 1) harder to buy a house there and 2) the air quality is significantly worse than Shenzhen’s. Likewise among blue collar workers who are sending remittances home, the question is where is it most comfortable to work and save money? Again, when all things are equal. Competition among employers for qualified workers is good for workers and the quality of everyday life in general.

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