Shenzhen Confidential

smuggler

Hello, I'm Amy Jiang.

On the surface, I could be a poster woman for the face of modern China.

I am a mostly successful 20-something, savvy English-fluent woman with

international business experience as a buyer and translator. But the

truth is that I'm currently working for shady Russian businessmen

posing as legitimate buyers in Shenzhen and Hong Kong. And while much

of Shenzhen seems occupied with smuggling counterfeit handbags and

shoes to the west, Sacha and Bogdan, as we will call them, are

preoccupied with smuggling more serious stuff. Like buses, among other

things.

This Slavic odyssey

across Southern China is in many ways a microcosm of the way things get

done by hundreds, perhaps thousands of “businessmen” who have washed

ashore to take part in a kind of perfect storm of grey market commerce

— China’s unending boom, spotty law enforcement and lack of government

attention to the finer points of things like smuggling and

counterfeiting.

My career didn't begin

this way. Following my graduation from university in Dalian in northern

China, I worked for Wal-Mart for three years, though boredom and other

missteps led me to another foreign company and finally to my current

situation. Between trying to untangle their efforts to smuggle

Chinese-made buses into Georgia, Ukraine or Romania, I am also sourcing

asphalt from China for potential customers in Lithuania while

simultaneously arranging shipments of fake Nokia parts stashed under

legitimate Chinese-made underwear to Estonia. We sent one shipment of

vodka bottle caps – called “jar corks” in my bosses’ imaginative

English – to Russia. My bosses will buy anything they can buy and ship

it to anybody who wants it.

I am also trying to get

the Russians’ visas straightened out with equally crooked bureaucrats

at the Shenzhen Immigration Department. I stay on the right side of the

law myself. Maybe it's a good thing, because one of my former Wal-Mart

co-workers is currently doing time in a Shenzhen jail for bid rigging.

That's how business

works for most of China, although I was surprised when I took the job

with this supposedly Moscow-based company that many of my duties would

be, to put it politely, questionable. There's also the communication

problem. I don't speak Russian and my two bosses don't speak Chinese.

All of us speak English – some of us better than others — but it is

clear that the English I learned in Dalian is not the same English that

my managers say they learned at language academies in Moscow and St.

Petersburg, or, more likely, in the bars and tattoo parlors of

Novosibirsk.

The buses pose a

special problem. Two months before I was hired they arranged for four

new buses (or "cars" as my employers refer to all vehicles) to be

shipped from Tianjin port on the Bohai Gulf to Poti, a port on

Georgia's southeastern Black Sea coast. Shortly after I arrived the

Russians decided in midshipment that they could reduce and/or dodge

import taxes and fees by rerouting the delivery north to Odessa in

Ukraine.

The vehicles have been

bouncing around the Black Sea for at least two months and are currently

in limbo (minus the proper documents) in containers at the eastern

Romanian port of Constanta (or “Constanza Rumunia” as one boss calls it

in frantic e-mails urging me to straighten out a situation that was not

mine to begin with.)

In an e-mail he sent me

about the situation, I was able to figure out what "Rumunia" was, but

was puzzled about references to “SKG7700CE” and “SKG7700CF.”

"Cars!" he shouted at me when I asked. "Chinese cars! You do not know the cars of making your own country?"

As it turned out they

are actually slightly different models of 18-seat buses, but imagine my

reaction when I received this e-mail:

Dear Amy,

We have two

cantainers with 2 models of SKG770CE and 2 models of SKG7770CF which

now stay in Constanza (Rumunia). First we wished to send this

containers to the Georgia (Poti). But now we want to change port of

destination and transport this containers to the Ukraine (Odessa ). I

want to ask you such thing. Are you already do anything in occasion of

changing port of destination?

For the four cars

the shipper have no ownership after shippment, why did the shipper take

responsibility? So it's inconsequence, (I know someone will pay for it,

but we can not accept to write sentence: the shipper should take all

responsibility and fee.) Besides port of destination changing we need

to changed komany chop and signatures for this containers all documnets

(for new consignee):

Bill of Ladding (conosament)

-Inspection certificate

-Certificate of origin

-Packing list. I hope to listen to your answer as soon as possible!

With best regards,

Bogdan

Essentially, Bogdan

believes that despite the fact that he ordered the buses and arranged

for their shipment, he has no responsibility for making sure the

paperwork is correct. He cannot understand why the Chinese bus

manufacturer was furious when, per Bogdan’s orders, I phoned to ask him

to pay for new, probably fake, documents. He was also upset when I

accidentally discovered that the same buses are currently being

advertised for sale by him on a Russian website, despite the fact that

they have already been promised to buyers in Ukraine.

“How do you see this?”

he asked when I asked him about the website, which, thanks to Google,

was automatically translated into passable English. “It is not me!" he

said. "Not our Chinese cars. Other false cars.” What are the odds of

four other 18-seat Chinese buses with identical model numbers also

sitting in crates in Constanta? I wondered. But I did not ask any more

questions.

But the

buses-without-a-country are the least of their problems. Another

shipment of Chinese-made cars, in this case trucks bound for Georgia,

was recently rejected upon delivery by the buyer. In another

linguistically challenged e-mail, Bogdan described the situation and

forwarded photos of the offending vehicles.

Dear Amy,

I want to tell you problems which was with (Chinese company name) cars which come to Georgia.

1)in all 12 tracks accumulators didn't starting.

2)don't work charging relay in all vehicles

3)don't work all gadgets in dashboard

4)If speed 100km/h the fifth gear is beaten out in a neutral position

5)The system of locking rear dorrs has rusted (look in attached foto)

6)on two vehicles left and right boards are different colours (blue and red).

It is necessery to make new order. We need 2 cars GDC-1030 (with boards) and two cars GDC-6030 (with box).

Boxes for GDC-6030

must be with doors on right back side (not in rear of box as we order

last time). Colours of all cars -- White!

And more! Please check on what advertising material more they can provide us (boards, cloth which is stretched above road...)

With kind regards,

Bogdan

Oddly, he does not want

me to ask the manufacturer for a discount due to the previous

shipment's broken dashboard gadgets, malfunctioning accumulators and

faulty fifth gears. Maybe the fact that the trucks are dirt-cheap

100,000 yuan has something to do with it. But I just received another

e-mail asking again if "more free advertising cloth which is stretched

above the road" is available. I'm guessing he's found a buyer for

surplus Chinese advertising banners, but I really don't want to know.

Ongoing sagas regarding

smuggled vehicles aren’t this company’s main business, however. Some

get resolved more quickly, like the legitimate end of the company.

Officially I work for a textile exporter that supplies a distributor in

St. Petersburg with cut-rate Chinese lingerie, swimwear and sportswear.

But even that side of the business gets complicated when Bogdan and his

partner delay payments to the Chinese textile sellers in order to

juggle the wobbly finances fueling their major unofficial business —

shipping Shenzhen-manufactured counterfeit Nokia, Motorola and Samsung

cell phone parts and accessories (cases, chargers, batteries, head

sets) both in crates of Chinese-made clothing or simply the parts

themselves in boxes marked with Cyrillic letters as “anything a

customer wants to say it is,” according to a Chinese co-worker who

handles the bulk of the several thousand phony phone parts shipped to

Russia, Estonia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan and Georgia per month.

Am I paid well? It’s a

very slightly higher than average wage by white collar Shenzhen

standards (about 6,000 yuan a month, minus the social security payment

that Bogdan routinely “forgets” to pay). But it’s not nearly enough to

handle the stress when Bogdan tells me he’s also once again “forgotten”

to pay the company phone bill and yells at me because angry Chinese

vendors complain that they haven’t been paid.

“Those Russians never

keep their promises!” is a frequent refrain from my irate countrymen

wondering when they will be paid for the US$50,000 worth of sportswear

shipped to St Petersburg. I can only sympathize and stall while

simultaneously trying to keep my professional poise and surf the ‘Net

for a new job. This time, I’m in the market for something legitimate

and if it’s a foreign business, non-Slavic.

No more “to Russia (or Georgia or Ukraine) with love” for me.