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Category Archives: Chinese Culture

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I met the most remarkable woman by chance at a holiday party.  Mrs. Zhao is a retired professor and researcher from UCLA. She was friendly and sociable and when I asked her what she did, she started to unravel her story for me.  Realizing that I am familiar with Chinese history and culture, she told me more than would normally be expected in polite conversation.

In the 1960s she was a Professor of Physics at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangdong, China. This was during the Cultural Revolution when Mao Zedong shut down all the universities because they were considered elitist and not revolutionary. When her university was closed, she was sent to a farm to be educated in the ways of working farmers. She plowed fields for three years as she was being “re-educated.” All day long the workers had to shout “long live Chairman Mao” as they plowed.  At night she taught the farmers to read and write.

During these years she never protested or complained, because to do so meant sure retribution including being denied meals, beatings and the infamous “struggle sessions” where people were forced to confess their “crimes” against the revolution. This was a difficult time in China, particularly for the well educated people and those in traditional arts. These people were viewed as proponents of the “old ways” and counterrevolutionaries. She told me that her colleagues were beaten and starved for disagreeing with the communist party bosses.  Many people died in prison or from beatings after struggle sessions, if they did not confess.

When the University reopened, farmers were sent there together with the previous students. No matter their educational level or experience, everyone sat in classrooms together to learn from Mao’s Little Red Book.  No other books were available for any subject because the books had all been burned by the Red Guard.

In 1982, a former colleague invited her to come to America to continue her research in microwave physics. She came to UCLA, where she continued her research and teaching for 25 years.

I know other people who lived through the Cultural Revolution and they will say that the period of struggle and change was worth it for China to emerge as the power house it is today.  They will say that Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong, and that he brought China through a metamorphosis and into its industrial age.  But Mrs. Zhao’s story and the way she told it to me touched a very emotional chord.

While China came out of the Great Famine and Cultural Revolution stronger, the effects are still apparent today. People in China are reluctant to talk about the government and its policies. China’s education system is rigid and structured around a fixed curriculum.  Students are not taught or encouraged to think critically. A back-door culture has developed where things get done behind the scenes or through the “back door” and where priorities are set according to who you know and what influence you have. As a result, creativity and innovation have suffered over the past 30 or 40 years, which has resulted in a copy-cat business environment.  Only now, with talented engineers, scientists and business people being trained in China’s top universities and in America and Europe, the historical and exceptional creativity and inventiveness of the Chinese is being renewed. The Chinese have a long history of invention and now it is blooming again.

There are lessons we must learn from history in China, America and other countries.  We must do all possible to protect our education systems for all Americans at all levels.  We must not allow the elites or political parties in power to dismiss or reduce funding to our schools.  We must defend the objectivity and teaching of the sciences.  We must be vigilant in maintaining high standards for STEM education. We must support and defend teachers and researchers.  These people are building our future through our children and grandchildren.

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2013-07-05 01.58.31I took the bullet train from Shanghai to Nanjing today, a journey in a pleasant 1st class, sparkling clean rail car at 200 km/hour, for about $30.  Rail is such a great way to travel in China.  It’s efficient, convenient and inexpensive, plus you see things you would never see from an airplane.

Along the way, in every direction, are miles and miles of factories.  They come in all shapes and sizes – small and squat to enormous smokestacks –apparently producing simple assembled products, electronics, plastics, castings and everything you can think of in between.  

Chinese Finance Minister Lou Jiwei told the G-20 meeting in 2014 that manufacturing accounts for nearly 60% of Chinese GDP, an unsustainable share which has created the problems of pollution and overcapacity, he said.  This is very evident as I traveled through the manufacturing areas between Shanghai, Wuxi and Nanjing.  The pollution was overwhelming; the skies were thick with a smoky fog and the sun was a muted disk low in the sky.  The pollution gets so bad from time to time that people wear surgical masks whenever they are outside during the most dangerous periods.

The Chinese government is no longer shying away from or denying allegations of the horrendous air quality.  In fact, in the latest government Five-Year- Plan, China is finally putting real muscle and money into environmental clean-up.  I expect to see substantial improvement over the next few years.  In addition, China plans to use the excess manufacturing capacity to address the needs of their own burgeoning middle class by producing products demanded at home.

Americans need to work on balancing the difference between the Chinese economy supported by 60% manufacturing and the US economy where only 11-12% is based on manufacturing.  Manufacturing is the fundamental backbone of a healthy economy.  We need to bring some of it back to the US- but very carefully.  We want skilled jobs that pay a living wage and don’t pollute the environment.

flag (2)There are some fundamental differences in business practices that you should know when working with Chinese suppliers.

Culture impacts everything

China’s 5000 year history and traditions affect everything.  The dichotomy of modern industrial China, superimposed with traditional values and approaches to doing business, is often a surprise to Westerners.

Guanxi is not networking

Guanxi is someone’s personal network and long-term trusted relationships between parties. It is not simple networking.  It involves a commitment over time. You cannot do business effectively in China until you build this type of trusting relationship.

Validate everything in writing

Even though there are more English speakers in China than any other country in the world, it is often a mixture of Chinese and English that is not understood by either party.  Just because a Chinese business person speaks English, does not mean he understands the nuance of the language.  Every detail of the contract, specifications for production, expectations, etc., should be put in writing, discussed and confirmed several times.

Contracts are viewed differently

In the Western world, contracts represent the culmination of negotiation on price, delivery, specs and other terms.  In China, a contract is viewed as just the beginning.  Just as an American high school student may view graduation as the end, parents view it as commencement or beginning.  A contract in China is a commencement and the start of real negotiations.

Quality fade

Quality fade, the process of quality degradation over time, is the single biggest issue in low cost manufacturing countries. It happens frequently in China where manufacturing processes are immature and competitive pricing drives the profits to extremely low levels.  You have probably noticed quality fade, but didn’t know what to call it, or understand how it happened.  Maybe you noticed a plastic shampoo bottle that seemed too thin.  Maybe that hand-held electronic game you put in your son’s Christmas stocking stopped working after a few days.  Maybe the zipper in your pants broke after a few zips. The initial production may have met all expectations, but over time, there was degradation in production quality.

Outsourcing and subcontractors

China business is typically a combination of primary manufacturers and many sub-contractors that provide parts and services.  Without regular monitoring of the production processes in China, this common practice of sub-contracting and outsourcing gets out of control.  US importers find it harder and harder to control quality over time and sustain delivery schedules from Chinese vendors.

Importers must remember that doing business in China is not at all like doing business in America.  The processes, culture and legal environments are a world apart.

I am in China again this week and it seems everyone wants to know about the US elections.  They watched the Presidential debates and the election news with great interest and a kind of wondrous amazement.  “We heard what your politicians believe and what they will do,” one executive told me.  “In China, we have no idea what the policies of the leaders will be.”

I hadn’t really considered the difference in politics this way.  Americans have access, information and a fundamental understanding of what the leadership is planning.  Chinese people have none of this.  Most people have no clue about what is in the new Chinese 5-year plan, or how the new Communist Party Chief Xi will lead the country.

With the US elections now over and Obama reelected, the new President Xi assuming the leadership of China and Putin in Russia, we should all be wondering what will change in the world.   These three super-powers will surely bring dynamic change in the world order.

The Chinese Communist Party began its leadership transition as the 18th National Congress opened in early November.  This transition in leadership happens only once every 10 years. The new President Xi will be charged with executing the new Chinese 5-year Plan, developed earlier this year.  This plan includes a heavy emphasis on the environment, and from what I have observed in China, whatever the government decides to do, gets done.

In the US we have had the privilege of watching the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates, listened to endless TV advertising and news reports.  We have a pretty good idea about the President’s agenda.  But how that agenda will interact with Xi’s and Putin’s is a big unknown.

I recently had the opportunity to travel from the US to Europe to Asia and rode in taxis in all three places.  I was reminded that while a taxi ride may seem mundane, the differences are quite significant. 

 

Take London, for example.  The famous shiny black cabs are the pride of the city: neat, clean and the drivers are professionals who are required to take a test of their knowledge of London before they are allowed to drive a cab. 

 

You will experience the complete opposite in a place like Chengdu, China, a city of 14 million people, where you risk your life when you go for a wild taxi ride…that is IF the taxi driver knows where you want to go and is willing to take you there, after you argue over the destination and the price. It’s the Wild, Wild West of China, where traffic laws and standard driving rules are still in the early development stages.  When the ride is over, you’ll breathe a polluted, but grateful sigh of relief that you survived.

 

In Germany, the taxis are likely to be Mercedes Benz, which feels a little less threatening as the drivers go at break-neck speed to your destination.  Everyone in Germany will tell you that speed is safe. What is it about the Germans and their love of speed?

 

Then there is Seoul, Korea.  A taxi driver will simply refuse to take you anywhere he doesn’t want to go.  And knowing the secret between black cabs (those drivers speak English) and the silver cab (good luck trying to communicate) is important to a successful journey.

 

Un-huh…then there is New York City: taxi drivers in stinky cabs honk at one another, people, cars, and trucks for seemingly no reason at all, all day long and all night long.  On one journey in NYC, when I argued with the driver that my building was across the street in Times Square and I expected him to take me all the way there and not drop me in the middle of the chaos, he yelled at me, “get out of the cab, lady and walk!”

 

And San Francisco, where a drive through the steep hills at 0-60mph for every block, will take years off your life. The drivers are quite friendly and often chatty there, while they risk your life.

 

And then, there is Beijing.  If you don’t ask for the driver to turn on the meter, you will get charged 5-10 times more for the fare than you should.  On a recent trip from the Beijing airport to the Hilton Beijing, I asked for a meter cab.  The driver took me to a side street across from the Hilton, instead of the entrance, and unloaded my bags.  The fare was 58 RMB.  I handed the driver 100 RMB and asked for change and a receipt.  He got in his taxi and drove off with my 100.  I should have known better.

I visited a State Owned Enterprise (SOE) machine shop near 5th Ring Road in Beijing one very hot and humid August afternoon.  The machine shop was located among a cluster of buildings that didn’t seem very remarkable from the outside.  But inside was a different story.

We were greeted by the Plant Manager and the Operations Manager, who were expecting us for a visit that afternoon.  After the greetings were exchanged, the two managers disappeared to take a phone call and we were left to wander the plant by ourselves, unescorted. 

We walked down the center aisle of the machine shop, surrounded by giant drilling and cutting machinery making thunderous noise and throwing off metal shavings.  We were offered no eyewear protection, no foot/toe protection and no earplugs.  The Chinese machine tool operators were wearing black cloth shoes with rubber soles; not the steel-toed boots you would expect in a US factory.  About half way down the center aisle, a chemical smell was so overwhelming, that I looked for an open window or door to gasp some “fresh Beijing air”.  I was allowed to take as many photos as I liked.

The lack of safety standards and allowing us to walk through the factory unescorted was a dose of reality regarding Chinese manufacturing.  China’s steady climb in the industrial world has not been paralleled with world standards for safety.  The climb to achieve these standards in China is extremely steep.

Mike Daisey, a journalist and feature writer, delivered a radio show about Chinese factory workers on NPR “This American Life” in January.  I listened to the show one Sunday morning with a friend and kept thinking how odd it was that the things he was saying about his interviews with workers outside of Foxconn, just didn’t ring true.  I remarked to my friend throughout the broadcast that his examples weren’t true, or were odd. For example, he claimed he talked to several young girls who told him they were 12 and 13.  If they were underage workers at the Apple factory, why on earth would they say so and risk losing their jobs in one of the best factories in China?  In another example he talked about guards at the factory gates toting guns.  I have never seen anything like this in the factories I have visited.

Well, it turns out that Mike Daisey lied and embellished his story for NPR and for his off-Broadway monologue called “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”.  Only a few parts of his story were true…enough to make it sound real.  NPR has broadcast a retraction and the world press has skewered Mike for lying.

It’s not that those of us with China experience don’t believe there is room for improvement.  Chinese factories in general have a long way to go to improve working conditions and address human rights issues.  Conditions are not consistently up to world standards yet.  But the Foxconn factories are some of the best places to work.  Apple, HP, Dell and other companies have taken pains to monitor the production environments to make them humane and safe.

What bothers me most about Mike Daisey’s lies is that he has incited people to believe more fiction about China.  It’s time we dig deeper and question stories like this in the Western press and demand that our news companies verify all facts prior to printing or broadcasting.

Spices have been traded in Istanbul for 2000 years

I spent the holidays on vacation in Venice and Istanbul on a mission to understand more about these two important end points on the Silk Road. Starting around 200 BC and extending 4,000 miles, the Silk Road got its name from the lucrative Chinese silk trade and tea trade in exchange for spices, nuts and jewels from Europe and the Middle East.  In addition, various science and technology innovations were traded along with religious ideas as well as the bubonic plague.    The Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the great modern civilizations. 

Very few people actually traversed the entire Silk Road.  Mostly it was made up of agents and merchants who bought and sold goods along the way.  At major points, great bazaars opened to facilitate a meeting place for traders.

Istanbul is a city that spans the continents of Asia and Europe and was the end of the overland Silk Road.  Merchants took their goods to the Grand Bazaar where they also traded ideas and innovations.  Walking through the Istanbul Spice Market and Grand Bazaar you can just imagine what it must have been like centuries ago packed with merchants bargaining with one another.  The influences of both Asia and Europe are evident here in the architecture of places like the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia representing Islam and Orthodox Christianity.  And of course in the history of its name: Constantinople and Istanbul.

Venice became a major trade port in the Middle Ages when the Chinese Treasure Fleet (at least 100 years ahead in the mathematics needed for navigation) sailed in, ladened with treasures from China.  In Venice you can see the influence of Asian architecture in the mosaics installed in the Basilica of San Marco.  In the Doge’s Palace the famous maps show the Americas and Australia long before Columbus “discovered” the new world.  Plenty of evidence indicates that the Chinese heavily influenced Venetian map making in the 1300s and early 1400’s.  Just imagine what the Europeans and Chinese thought of one another.

I tried to imagine what it was like in these two cities in the Middle Ages.  With a little site seeing at the Spice Market and a walk through San Marco, it wasn’t hard to do.

I’ve been watching and listening to the events and chatter about Hu Jintao’s visit to the US.  There is certainly a striking difference between the way China and the US are acting now that Obama is President and Clinton is Secretary of State.  While there are still many issues to be resolved, there appears to be mutual respect between the leaders.  This makes me hopeful.

President and Mrs. Obama even hosted a rare State Dinner for Hu.  President Bush just had a working lunch.  This is a significant difference in the respect given to US-Chinese relations.  It’s about time America took its head out of the sand and fully acknowledged the second largest economy and fastest rising super power in the world.

The economics of  the two countries tell the story of why it is so important to have a good working relationship.  The US GDP is $14.6 trillion.  The Chinese GDP is $5.7 trillion and rising at double digit rates.  But if you compare PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) or PPC (Purchasing Power Correction), a comparison of consumer buying power in each country, China’s economy is already larger than the US.  And it will continue to grow.  In the next few years, China’s middle class will be 700 million people;  more than double the population of the entire US.  Not only will this be the largest consumer market in the world, it will become the greatest target market ever for US goods and services.

Of course we all understand that China is still working on things like human rights and democracy.  But there is no stopping the warp-speed economic development inside China. 

I taught a 2-day workshop on Sourcing and Manufacturing in China on Sept 16-17.  This is the second time I have taught this workshop, but the first time in the US.  The last workshop was in Shanghai in April.

This time it was in Atlanta and the students were all Americans.  This was a great group of people who were anxious to learn and discuss the possibilities of doing business in China.  I was impressed with them.

More importantly, I keep learning, too.  I have started to examine the ways Chinese culture affects the Chinese manufacturing environment.   Of course, 5000 years of Chinese culture is behind everything that’s said, behind every dinner that’s hosted, behind every ride, every cola offered to you, every small gift, behind every business deal.

One of the most important things I teach my students about is the disparity between East and West cultures regarding contracts.  In the Western world, we rely on contracts to spell out the terms and conditions, expectations and approach for doing business together.  If the contract is violated; we file a law suit and go to court. 

In China, the contract should be seen as no more than a way of communicating the end-state of production.  After the contract is signed, you may be the only person to ever look at it again.  If there is a problem with production or the agreed-to terms in the contract, you are likely to be told, “this is not the way we do it in China.”  The business relationship you have with your Chinese supplier is based on “guanxi” – personal relationships – not on written legal contracts.

If you were to take your supplier or manufacturer to court (and generally, I advise against this because it is a waste of time and money), you are unlikely to get a favorable judgment.   This is because Chinese laws are immature with little precedent history.  Everything is subject to interpretation by a Chinese judge.  In the rare case you might get a favorable judgment, it is probably not enforceable.  Your Chinese manufacturer will simply go out of business.