Book Review: Johan Nylander's 'Shenzhen Superstars'

By Bailey Hu, March 11, 2018

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Swedish journalist Johan Nylander’s Shenzhen Superstars is less a book than a really long pamphlet. We zoomed through its 75 pages, taking notes along the way, in under two hours.

In case you don’t have the time and USD4 to spare, here is our pithiest summary: Shenzhen is great, you ignorant Westerner.

A longer, more accurate paraphrase might read, “Shenzhen has had the tech infrastructure and know-how to hold sway over world markets for years. Don’t believe it? Let me count the ways.”

If you live and work in Shenzhen, you probably already knew that. But even for the most scene-savvy, Nylander has plenty of fun factoids and interviews to offer.


For instance, the story of Shenzhen’s hurried transformation from fishing village to megalopolis (false, by the way) is mentioned in nearly every article written about the city. Rarely, however, is its growth elaborated beyond China’s general opening up policies during the ’80s.

In the chapter 'World’s Fastest Growing City,' Nylander cites a study by the Brookings Institution and JPMorgan revealing that even in Shenzhen’s early stages, “cutting-edge production technologies were embraced much faster” than in other Chinese cities.

In other words, the foundation for Shenzhen becoming a hardware capital of the world, boasting streamlined production and technological innovation, was laid decades ago.

READ MORE: Man Builds iPhone from Scratch in Shenzhen

In another, catchier sound bite, we discover that “more than 60 percent of post-1990s university graduates in Shenzhen say they want to join a startup or start their own company.” And expanding his view to the PRD’s potential, Nylander mentions the World Bank’s declaration of the Delta as the largest megacity in the world, with a population around the size of Great Britain.

At times, he gets carried away on the wave of his own enthusiasm. In the middle of a discussion on tech supply chains in the Delta, he interrupts himself to announce that “no one [in Shenzhen] is using cash anymore.” This is followed by statistics on mobile payments in China, and the chapter wraps up by mentioning the co-working space where an interview takes place.

Difficulties of doing business in China, “from red tape and intellectual property theft to internet censorship,” are mostly mentioned only in passing.

READ MORE: Have Shenzhen's Innovation Hubs Become too Commercial?

The chapter 'Lessons from Tech Pirates' is a notable exception, and features interesting firsthand observations on how the shanzhai practice of counterfeiting popular products has actually promoted innovation.

It’s also no doubt thanks to his experience covering tech in South China that the writer is able to land interviews with local CEOs, academics, hackers and even venture capitalists.

In attempting to offer sage advice on navigating Shenzhen’s intricacies, however, Nylander sometimes stumbles. At one point he abruptly mentions a local directory website mid-chapter as a go-to source for “events, eateries and happenings around the city.” It’s an awkward plug in an otherwise informative narrative.

At the same time, it might well prove that Nylander has taken his own words to heart, and immersed himself in Shenzhen’s inventive, entrepreneurial spirit.

Shenzhen Superstars is available on Amazon.

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