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China: 5-year plan

Day Four: A space-age ride through the Industrial Revolution

Kai Ryssdal Jun 2, 2011

I’ve seen the future of e-commerce. And it’s cosmetics. I know, I know, you think I’m nuts. But people said the same thing about Jeff Bezos 15 years ago when he started his online retail shop. And Amazon’s done pretty well for itself, no?

OK, so maybe I’m overreaching just a little here, but the guy I spent time with today — 29-year-old Huang Bin — is deadly serious about making the world, or at least China, a lot more pleasing to the eye.

We took the bullet train down to Hangzhou this morning (a ride about which you’ll see more later in this post) for some reporting on stories we’re working on about Chinese consumers and Chinese companies. Mr. Huang — slight, soft-spoken, and about as unlikely a dot-com start-up CEO as you’re going to find — runs a company called Wonder Zada (don’t ask, it’s a misguided transliteration from the Chinese) that sells the aforementioned cosmetics through an eBay/Amazon hybrid called TaoBao.com. TaoBao, as it happens, is the e-commerce site in China — 60 million unique visitors every day. Sixty million clicks and data points about what Chinese consumers like, what they don’t, what they buy, what they return, where they live, how they pay — everything you’d care to know about the shoppers who are the future of the Chinese economy.

Which gets us back to Mr. Huang and his cosmetics. Two years ago he had a couple of dozen people working for him — handling customer service for his cosmetics buyers. Last year a hundred. This year 300. Next year, he says, 500 people. All because Chinese consumers are starting to get what we’ve taken for granted for years. Disposable income and someplace to spend it. The Chinese want what we have, and they’re increasingly in a position to get it.

Now, about that train ride — 210 miles an hour through the Chinese countryside. It turned what was a four-hour trip when my wife and I took it back in 1996 into a quick hour-and-a-half ride that was smooth as silk. If the speed hadn’t been shown on one of the screens in the cabin you’d never have known. But it’s what was outside the windows on the way back tonight that gave me pause. The weather’s been brutal the last couple of days — hot, humid, and polluted. There’s a gray-brown haze that obscures everything beyond maybe a mile or two. So it didn’t help anything that there were dozens of piles of garbage and farm waste burning in the fields along the tracks tonight. It made the train trip, as a colleague of mine said, like a space-age ride through the Industrial Revolution.

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