What I Learned About China: On the Ground Impressions and Lessons

If you’re like me, you’re trying to sift through the hype around China.

I was lucky to spend two weeks there and meet people who really illuminated where I was and the issues I care about.

In Shanghai I met super high quality people in the businessworld. I chatted with people who do market research on Chinese companies, somebody who helps European companies assess the Chinese market, a journalist who covers IT companies in Shanghai, a guy who manages the China division for a multinational semiconductor company, a couple ex-pats, a venture capitalist, an analyst in the finance industry, a boutique management consultant, and an entrepreneur. All great people. I also read two books on China while here (China CEO: Voices of Experience From 20 International Business Leaders and The Coming Collapse of China – a terrible book) which offered add’l color.

Our conversations covered all bases: China’s history, current business, economic, and social situation, its education system, the mentality of the people, its rich culture and whether it’s being lost in the 21st century transformation, food, traveling, globalization, and life philosophy.

I think it’s definitely more complicated than, “China is going to rule the world!” as many business magazine covers would like to suggest. China faces many challenges, in addition to the endless opportunities its promoters remind us of daily.

Here are some things I learned while there:

  • 5,000+ years of history. This is a LONG time. Spend some time in Beijing and you’ll discover how integral imperial history and tradition is to China’s present culture. To think that for thousands of years emperors ruled the land and now, suddenly, they have a republic, speaks to the challenges of accelerating their political system to something more open and free. By contrast, the United States broke free from Britain and set up a democracy with a totally clean palette. We enjoy the fruits of virtually no historical baggage.
  • “China is different”. I heard this a lot from locals. Because of all this history they feel like trying to box China into a theory of political development or to compare China to any other country fails due to the uniqueness of their situation.
  • Indifference toward political/emotional/intellectual rights. No one cares about human rights, censorship of the internet and press, corrupt judicial system, and essentially authoritarian rule. “People just want a better life,” I was told over and over again. A better life meaning a better economic life. The Chinese government says there is too much poverty to worry about human rights for the percentage of people who have clothes and a house. There are a billion farmers who are trying to get by. People want bigger houses, more money, bigger cars, opportunities to travel. Political freedoms will come in time, they say. They will come, but over generations. Also, no educated person here believes in communism. They tell me even members of the party don’t believe in communism. The communist party is simply a power play. If you want to have influence in the government you join the party and subscribe to an ideology that no one still believes in.
  • Variance in Geography — the difference between the west and the east is astounding. The needs and priorities of people in rural China and people in the big cities are so different that it makes nation-wide change difficult. There’s a movement to develop the west.
  • Optimism — This country runs on national pride. Everywhere you go there is a poster showing Chinese kids looking up. Always up. In taxis there is a mini TV and it plays a nationalistic advertisement over and over again, always with low camera angles looking up at kids and adults, releasing red balloons into the sky, and generally jumping with joy at…being in China. There is no question this kind of unabashed optimism makes for an energetic workforce, but it can be a bit scary. Especially when the optimism is retroactive. My Beijing college aged student tourguide sings the praises of Chairman Mao, while I would characterize him as the implementer of the most disastrous economic policies in Chinese history and responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese. So long as the central govt maintains its grip on the media, I don’t see this rosy optimism fading anytime soon.
  • Chinese workers. They work hard. They’re driven to make money and succeed. Work can come ahead of family sometimes, which is interesting given the Confucian themes of balance. By the same token, such ambition can mean everybody wants to be mega rich and patience is in short supply. Employee retention is difficult. Also, Chinese workers tend to fit in a box. The educational culture breeds kick-ass conformity, not creativity.
  • Language. For westerners who want to live here, learning Chinese is a must, in my opinion. There are some expats here who don’t speak Chinese but they’re usually too removed from local culture to rise to the top or enjoy the cultural immersion. The problem is Chinese is among the toughest languages to learn, mostly because if you’ve never seen a character before there’s no way to know how to pronounce it. When learning Spanish or English you can try to sound out a word and you can get close. In Chinese it’s sheer memorization of 4,000-6,000 characters to become literate. English is compulsory in elementary school and still widely spoken in business circles, although I hear some of the most talented Chinese managers don’t speak English, so you can’t judge intellectual acumen by English mastery.
  • Networking. If you think relationships are important in the States or in Europe, wait until you get to China! “Guanxi” is a term that refers to the importance of quid pro quo relationships. It’s kind of like an old boys network philosophy that rewards insiders. Relationships supercede written contracts.
  • Money. Imagine that your parents barely had enough money to live each day. Imagine growing up in a rural farm with few life prospects. Then imagine yourself given the opportunity to move to a city, where wealth is being created at an astonishing pace, where buildings and infrastructure are appearing in ways your parents could have never fathomed. Now, you have the opportunity to make lots and lots of money and enjoy a lifestyle your parents always wanted but could never have. This is the case, I think, for many Chinese men and women. The resulting outlook on life is natural: make money. Do it ruthlessly, if that what it takes. It’s a totally normal reaction, given the circumstances, but if you think the United States or other wealthy western nations are materialistic and greedy to a fault for the green stuff, you haven’t seen China.
  • Legal Infrastructure and Intellectual Property. What are those?
  • Contradictions. China is a country of contradictions. Make money at all costs on the one hand, embrace Buddhist / Confucian thought on the other. Build long term relationships in the spirit of “Gaunxi” on the one hand, but don’t be afraid to screw a stranger for short term benefit.
  • Tourist Misperceptions — Many tourists visit Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong, and leave thinking China is a developed country. It’s not. It’s still developing, in many respects. And this on-going development is the government’s rationale for not pushing for the emotional/intellectual rights of the citizens as much as the fulfilling the physical needs (which comes from economic development) of the poor people.
  • Lifestyle — This should be a major consideration for any Westerner thinking about living / working / studying in China. There’s no doubt there are sizable business opportunities. It’s growing like gangbusters, the people are optimstic about the future, and with moderniz ation more and more consumers will be buying goods and participating in the global marketplace. All the hype around China rightfully focuses on the tremendous opportunity to ride their wave to the top. But as I’ve experienced firsthand and as other ex-pats from the U.S. or Europe tell me, there are lifestyle tradeoffs:

    Pollution. Simply put, if you like clear blue skies and fresh natural air you won’t get it in the big cities.

    Noise. If peace and quiet means a lot to you, forget it. Although people say you acclimate to the honking and shouting…

    Getaways. Many ex-pats told me they wish they could take weekend getaways. Get in a car and drive somewhere out of the city where it’s a little less bustling and a little more tranquil. The problem is it’s dangerous to drive a car, since traffic laws are non-existent. And serene getaway destinations (such as Napa Valley or Santa Cruz) are elusive, if they exist at all.

    Materially. It’s a step down. Lower quality of service, dirtier streets, dirty water, fake clothes and watches, etc. Don’t get me wrong — major cities seem to be equipped with world class restuarants, hotels, fitness gyms, transportation infrastructure, broadband internet, and so forth. If you want 5 star everything, you can get it. Still, on a day-to-day basis, a lower material standard should be expected (and I’m only talking about the cities).

    Chaos. This sums up many of the above points. China is growing and changing at mind boggling speeds. This creates chaos in every setting, from trying to cross a street and order a dumpling to closing deals in an office building. Some people thrive on this raw energy, spikes and all, others find it exhausting and discouraging. Me? I learned that I like certain kinds of chaos. Not this kind.

I can’t say “I get China” after two weeks living in the mainland. In fact, I know I won’t ever “get China”, as any local will gladly remind me. There’s a truism here that says you can write a book about China after one week here, write a magazine article after one month, and you keep your mouth shut after one year in China because you realize how vast and complicated this country is and how little you actually understand.

I hope to visit China again and explore different parts of the country and continue to try to understand the psyche of the people. I have no choice — for my generation, China will be a player, if not a leader. But, I also know that living, studying, or working in China is not something I’d be terribly enthusiastic about. The lifestyle tradeoffs are meaningful for me. This attitude may change. People say things have gotten much better in only a few years and the trajectory is only going up. Still. I think it’s important for people to realize how much of the country is still developing before they run off and devote 10 years of their life learning Mandarin and then moving to Shanghai to “do business in China” – whatever that means.

As always, your thoughts, reactions, and impressions of China are welcome in the comments to this post!

8 comments on “What I Learned About China: On the Ground Impressions and Lessons
  • For another great read on China, check out Chinese Lessons, by John Pomfret. This book really captures some of the changes that are taking place in China through the eyes of a group of clasmmates who attended Nanjing University in 1982.

  • This is a great summary for a two-week trip in China. I’m glad that you’ve known many perspectives of China. Most of your points match the documentaries on Discovery channel or other types of media.

    I am a Chinese. I lived in China for 22 years and in USA for 5 years. Actually, I haven’t come back to China for almost 4 years! I can’t say I know China now because the China I know is the China 4 years ago. In China, big changes happen everyday in every way , which is one of the “difference” from other countries. 🙂

  • That is exactly why I studied Japanese in college, instead of Mandarin. Everyone was advising me to learn Chinese instead, but I knew I simply could not live in China for an extended period of time. It would just exhaust me – for all the reasons you’ve mentioned (low standard of living, etc.) One year, maybe. But even two years wouldn’t be enough for an American to achieve fluency.

    Now that I know Japanese at a high level, basic Chinese is a lot easier. Many of the characters are the same. My plan is to learn enough Chinese to introduce myself, ask directions, talk about the weather, etc. and stop around there.

  • My husband and I spent 11 days in the cities of Kunming and Guangzhou adopting our infant daughter. Naturally my experiences differed from yours, but my perspective was similar. One of my fondest memories is that of sitting at Salvadore’s coffee shop in Kunming with our daughter and taking it all in: parents picking up their children from a nearby school on a bicycle or moped; children tightly bundled in colorful clothing and buying treats from the eager vendors who depended on them; and foreign-born students, mostly American or European, sitting at their laptops as they sipped coffee and shared their reasons for being in China: to broaden their horizons; or to teach English to the Chinese students at the college. I believe some of these “students” may have been missionaries. I never asked if they were. I will close by saying that while we were in China, the Chinese were gracious, hospitable and genuinely interested in our being there. Perhaps because we were fair-skinned, English-speaking Americans with a Chinese baby.

  • Enjoyed reading your thoughts on China, Ben. I was also glad to have met you in Shanghai. As you say, I’ve been here for years, and will never “get” China.

    Chaos, chaos… chaos.

  • Your comment about how you “won’t ever “get China””, reminded me of the following passage by Sir Richard Francis Burton, the ninteenth century explorer,
    “Despise not, gentle reader, first impressions..if a sharp, well-defined outline is to be drawn, it must be done immediately after arrival at a place; when the sense of contrast is stil fresh upon the mind, and before second and third have ousted first thoughts….The man who has dwelt a score of years in a place, has forgotten every feeling with which he first sighted it; and if he writes about it, he wirtes for himself and for his fellow oldsters, not for the public. The sketcher who acts as I propose to do will ofcours make an occasional bad blunder….But, in the main, the guache will be true and vivid.”

  • Ben,

    I lived in China for over two years from early 2004 to 2006. I’m now living in the Bay Area.

    I must say that this blog post is possibly the most accurate and insightful post I’ve ever seen about China, and I’ve seen a lot.

    Your ability to synthesize so much information in such a short period of time, and present it in such a clear and direct manner is truly amazing.

    As for me, I’m keeping my mouth shut about China 🙂

    Joe Davison

  • Ben,

    Well said. The “China” factor is a fascinating and complex notion that I don’t think many, including me, have a full appreciation for. I was fortunate enough to visit China last summer (including the MUCH less developed central regions). While my blogging has lapsed in recent times, I’m happy to have captured my thoughts post-voyage in below URL link.


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