In China, they stand in straight lines…

A TALE OF TWO HALVES

As written in an earlier post, I was nervous about my trip to China, which is continually portrayed as (almost) a foe to India, where my ancestors hail from.

Honestly, I really didn’t know what to expect and wanted to keep an open mind.

So, when I landed, I was pleasantly surprised. The airport wasn’t located next to a giant slum, which Mumbai’s airport is, the personnel shepherding us to our road transport were courteous and spoke excellent English, the roads weren’t full of potholes, I saw no livestock on the streets, all in all the experience was not dissimilar to most Western airports and countries.

Having settled into the conference I was attending, I realized that I could be almost anywhere in the world. Importantly, I was connected to the net via my Blackberry, had access to Facebook and Twitter – what were all these doomsayers complaining about?

Bolstered by Premier Wen’s opening speech at the Summit, I found an acceptance that China was as much a part of the world as the UK was. Contrary to public perception in our part of the world, he spoke about the challenges that China faces in an open and thoughtful manner and thus laying to rest the notion (at least in my mind) that the Chinese would never speak of their internal challenges openly as they’d be risking a loss of face. I also witnessed a major Chinese business leader – Kai-Fu Lee – trash its education system in public.

Clearly, I felt that people had been egging on this perception that China had a problem with freedom of speech. Or had they?

I was lucky that an old business acquaintance of mine had relocated to Beijing, where I met up with him. Prior to this, I was keen on doing some sightseeing so I got an English speaking guide to take me around the Forbidden Palace and Tiananmen Square, the latter which I was really keen on visiting due to the massacre that took place there. Gently, I probed about the incident, and she point blank refused to talk about it, she said, “we’re not meant to talk about that”.

Was this a one-off?

The reason why, despite my best effort, I saw no slum villages, or any signs of poverty my friend told me was that the Chinese authorities controlled migration. So, you couldn’t just choose to relocate to Beijing, whereas in India, cities like Delhi and Mumbai gain millions of new people looking for jobs on a yearly basis from all over India.

I came to realize that there seemed to be a fairly extensive use of social engineering – for example, the waitresses all looked stunningly pretty, the shopping area I was in only allowed people of a certain class & look into the precinct etc. Such examples, which I cast aside earlier in the visit, all came to the fore – were they simply trying too hard to project a view of China & Chinese culture to the world. If so, they’d do well to remember that given we’re brought up in mature democracies, I’d rather see the real China – warts and all, than their take of a western consumerist society.

On a lighter note, having had an enjoyable dinner, we walked to the taxi rank so I could make my way to the airport, when unexpectedly, it started raining. Nothing strange about that at all, after all Mother Nature does what she does best. Or does she?

Trying to make a point, my friend spun me a story about the Chinese authorities fired chemical rockets (also called cloud-seeding) in the sky to make it rain and snow at their will! They even control the weather! To support his point, he sent the following link as evidence: http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2009/11/02/beijing-snow-man-made-in-china/)

Amused and amazed with the knowledge I had acquired, on my arrival at the airport, I tried articulating what I thought about China. I’d had an incredibly stimulating and thought provoking few days, but then I witnessed some form of staff team meeting taking place in a corner of the terminal, which for me summed up the enormous difficulty of arriving at a judgment about the world’s most populous country.

The striking feature of this meeting was not that it was taking place, but that the executives were stood in a formation of three even lines taking instruction from their boss. They listened attentively, acted in unison, and it seemed they had a collective sense of purpose and direction, where they understood that the sum of the parts exceeded the value of their individual contributions. This to me typifies the difference between China and the rest of the world.

Whilst, I’ve cherry picked some examples to make a point about the dominating part of her bureaucracy, I suppose whether you like China depends on how you view the role of the state. If you’re willing to cast aside her big brother tendencies, you could possibly have a great quality of life in China, like most Chinese people I saw in Beijing were enjoying.

Strategists shape the future at WEF Summer Davos in China

Given his advocacy of a flat world, it came as no surprise when Tom Friedman was asked to moderate a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum’s Summer Davos event in China, deliberating what forces may shape our futures.

The assembled panel included Otto Scharmer who teaches at MIT, Kai-Fu Lee, a Chinese entrepreneur, and Dov Siedman, an American CEO – it needs to be said that whilst I hadn’t heard of the latter two, they stole the show as far as I was concerned.

Kai-Fu’s remarks on innovation were clever, but must have gone down like a lead balloon in China. After learning more about the guy, it comes as no surprise that he may have used the platform to score a political point with the Chinese authorities. Since the event, I learnt of his influence in China as a result of his previous roles as Microsoft and Google in China. His following on Twitter clearly shows he’s hot property.

He put forward a view that the next decade or so would be characterized by micro innovation – where entrepreneurs build on other peoples ideas, launch imperfect products, which they quickly refine and add value to. He explained that a Google or Apple come around once in a generation, and in all likelihoods regardless of the hype surrounding China’s emergence, the likelihood of successful innovative products coming from the mainland were almost non-existent.

To raised eyebrows and a growing sense of dismay, he spoke about the deficiencies of the Chinese education system, which he said didn’t allow for ‘out of the box’ thinking, thus holding back breakthroughs and progress that China so craves. Of course, he explained as a result of his own American education, he saw that America was better placed to deliver the next BIG discovery – thi in particular would have hit the nationalist nerve in China.

What he said made absolute sense, but to say it on home-turf in such an open manner must have been part of some plan in his head. Whatever game he’s playing (if any), I’m sure he’s likely to emerge victorious regardless of the type of reaction he received from the assembled Chinese media fraternity in the room that afternoon.

On the other hand, what Dov Siedman said chimed with everyone. He specializes in advising companies on ethics, and one his comments left an indelible mark on me.

He explained that in today’s world, whilst we’re able to exercise our judgment about what’s right or wrong, the clarity that a corporation needs to find should centre on how they’ll scale, not the company, but the values that we cherish the most. By doing so, the probabilities of building a sustainable and successful organization would, he suggests, increase dramatically.

By putting thought leaders like, Friedman, Kai-Fu and Siedman in the mix for a concluding session at a meeting like this, I believe that a strong signal has been transmitted by the WEF, marking a departure from one in which, not bankers, but genuine strategists were able to articulate their visions for what the future holds for us.