Peripatetic – part 1 – China

Stunning Architecture and Modern Infrastructure

Scale is the first thing that struck me. Working with an organization that has 80,000 people in the IT department on just one campus is enough to cause some head scratching. That 40,000 of them are developers was exciting to hear from an opportunity point of view. The fact that all 80,000 were served lunch every day in one of 10 different restaurants was what finally caused my head to spin.

Sitting there in one of those restaurants, with 8,000 other IT specialists, having excellent, hot food set me thinking about the scale of enterprises in China. I was in China the week the Foxconn announced up to 25% increases in pay for the workers who make, amongst other things, iPads and iPhones. It was the same week the Apple announced the launch date for the iPad 3.

Going into this assignment I had no real notion of what to expect. Of course I brought with me a few stereotypes and each of those were crushed the moment I stepped off the She Kou ferry. As I emerged into the spring sunshine I was met with giant advertising boards featuring Jeremy Lin and Diego Maradona. The drive from the ferry to the hotel, along wide boulevards and freeways, showed Shenzhen to be a very modern city indeed. Architecture to challenge ideas of physical form and the laws of gravity. Stores and restaurants that would grace any city in the world. It was busy and crowded but orderly.

My hotel was clean, efficient and the rooms stunning. My wifi worked impeccably and, to the surprise and consternation of my interpreter, so did Facebook and Twitter. In fact they worked from my phone too which he also found quite surprising.

So what I found surprising about China was that I really didn’t find anything that was surprising.

As my team and I dug deeper into the client’s use of technology we again surprised to find that they were at the exact same state of maturity as most other organizations we find in the west. Their concerns about technology, their issues around time-to-market and risk, their worries about productivity and quality, all these were the same as we find every time we go out and do our Value Engineering investigations.

But two things were different. Scale, as I mentioned earlier, and how these issues would be addressed in a future solution.

Scale was the easiest to understand and the reason we were there. The client realized that with hundreds of projects across thousands of people timely and accurate information was hard to collect even with 2,000 project managers. But the surprise in all of this was the desire to add layers of approval, remove autonomy and eliminate exceptions.

And this was the first inkling I had that some of the command-and-control structure that runs this organization. What was fascinating was the human dynamics. In discussion there were powerful and ardent debates amongst the team members about the best way forward and these debates transcended ranks and status in the organization. The team members were clearly very intelligent and highly educated (so much so they often corrected the interpreter’s translations). But when the leader spoke everyone aligned behind that viewpoint.

When one spends a little time in a place all sorts of insights start to emerge. Some insights make me feel guilty, such as realizing I like American Chinese food more than Chinese Chinese food. Some scare me, such as the Chinese government’s ability to directly affect and change the business culture without consultation or redress. Others fascinate me, like the Prada and Gucci stores in the marble and glass shopping malls. I was startled to realize that I only saw 5 birds in the whole week I was in Shenzhen and all of them were sparrows I’d been told this before I left so I was looking for it). There are lots of buildings going up at incredible speeds: but when one looks closely at the ones already erected they show signs of decay and very poor workmanship. From the window of my hotel I could look down on several newer office blocks and could see holes in the roof, chunks of concrete missing and very haphazard attempts at repair. The young people of Shenzhen, and it is a very young person’s city, party at the weekends and spend all night in clubs having fun just like in any other city in the world.

So, the surprising thing about China was that it didn’t surprise me in the way I thought it would.

The scale of things is overwhelming at first but one adjusts to thinking in terms of the 500,000 chickens that are served in the company restaurants each year.

The drift towards Generica (generic-America) is sad (I don’t want to buy Gucci in China).

The idea that China will be top-nation is well founded but it should cause fear. The infrastructure is excellent but it is crumbling. The speed with which cities have gone up is breathtaking but at what expense in terms of quality and risk-taking?

There is an emergent middle-class and they have high expectations. House prices are soaring in Shenzhen and apartments in some parts of the city cost as much as they do in Hong Kong. The roads are filled with Japanese, European and American cars and they are all new models.

But it is still difficult, and the bureaucracy byzantine, to get a passport that allows one to travel to Hong Kong or Macau even though they are both now, once again, part of China. To get a passport to travel outside to Europe or North America is virtually impossible for most people. Access to Facebook and Twitter is non-existent and recent changes in the law now require authentication and positive identification in order to use the Chinese-based equivalents.

So China has learned to match and surpass the West in terms of quality and still do this at a price the West wants to pay. China recognizes that its ownership of rare raw materials is something that gives them power over the West. And their most abundant natural resource, people, is something they can control too.

But the time is coming when all this will change. My interpreter watches the BBC World News and CNN while having breakfast. The doors are open to Western products and there is a Starbucks in every neighborhood and a McDonald’s in every town. The middle class are educated and ambitious and they are challenging old dogmas and pushing on boundaries. And the government are responding positively.

China is going to dominate our world for a while but global hegemony is not the goal any longer. Like everywhere else: doing productive and useful work, and contributing to society, living life, embracing liberty and pursuing happiness will be the obsession of the Chinese government.

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