Miscellaneous pictures and thoughts to wrap up the Shanghai series. These should be taken very lightly, based as they are on a big four days of jet-lagged reportage.
It’s impossible not to be impressed. You look at the towers, and more springing up, and you realize the money didn’t come from what they pump out of the ground, but from building stuff for the rest of the world to use. Speaking as an investor, I’m trying to think of a way to bet a few bucks on China in general. The stock market and corruption and political threats have to scare you; maybe you could do worse than just buy a bunch of RMB and put them under your bed.
On Biz · Going over and back, I sat next to a Canadian businessperson on a trip to work with Chinese colleagues. In both cases, things were going well, although there was a continuous fight with quality problems, with cultural gaps, and with workforce retention. Even the bright-faced happy-news English city paper had a story one morning about how people in white-collar jobs stay at each one for an average of less than two years. One reason, I suspect, is that most businesses don’t give the most rewarding and exciting work to the Chinese end of their operation.
Pardon me, I’m just a country boy from Alberta, but I can’t help feeling some cognitive dissonance; on one side all this free-enterprise energy and on the other its context, which is, after all, a Stalinist dictatorship; the big Party Congress wrapped up while I was there and I watched on TV as Mr. Hu trotted out his new front bench; they formed a rigid line in identical dark suits, red ties, and poker faces. Spookily just like they used to line up on the podium in Red Square in Moscow.
I found people remarkably free in talking about politics. Mostly I talked to geeks, of course; they laughed at the Great Firewall (finding a proxy to get around it is no big deal) but were livid with fury about how if you want to put up a web-site, you have to get approval from three different ministries, and then you might get a call from another saying “You need our approval too”.
I don’t know, doesn’t seem tenable to me in the long term.
There was a kind of strange article in The Economist recently, A workers’ manifesto for China. I’ll quote: “It is widely agreed that China needs to rebalance its economy in favour of consumption and away from exports.” I won’t reproduce the arguments but they’re sensible.
There follows a lot of analysis which twists this way and that to avoid its own obvious conclusion: they need to pay people better. What China actually needs is some decent labour laws and bloody-minded unions to drive up wages so that people will have some RMB in their pockets and you can get some of that consumption happening, and then some human-intensive service industries. That sector doesn’t really start to happen until you’ve got the basics of life and you can start to splurge on counselors and hairdressers and auto tuners and wedding planners and brewpub operators and yoga instructors and so on. I’d say what China needs (and I know this is going to sound weird) is a little more, um, socialism. This, of course, is a conclusion that the Economist is institutionally incapable of coming to; even though their headline-writer did.
On Culture · China exports computers and dolls and toasters and transformers and Transformers and tables and chairs and shirts and skirts. But it doesn’t export any culture. North America and Japan and Britain and France and Germany and Italy export rock & roll and Pokemon and Harry Potter and fine cuisine and automotive design and opera singers. I haven’t the faintest kind of idea what kind of culture China is going to export once it grows up a little more and figures out what it wants to be.
China, bearing in mind that dictatorship thing, is amazingly open. When I stopped by the bank machine in the airport for some RMB, the dialogue was in a language somewhat but not completely unlike English, opening with “Please dip your card” and continuing in a slightly-crazed but cheery conversational tone in which the machine referred to itself as “I”.
But hey, it worked fine, and someone obviously hadn’t stressed out about the finer points, they’d pulled it together with the English they had, and I got my money, and then I went and spent a bunch of it. This is an attitude I respect.
The Huangpu river curves between Shanghai and Pudong, and there are boats moving the things China makes, and whatever it makes them out of, going up and down it all the time. Also a few party boats, and also billboard boats, with these huge neon pixel-boards lit up with advertising. Here’s a shot through the thick, tinted, not-so-clean window of my hotel rom.
There are political and business issues to sort out, for sure, but there’s a lot of imagination waiting to happen.