By Justin Gordon
In 1985 at 60 years old my Grandmother decided to move to China to teach English. While she spent most of her six months in the country teaching in the city of Dalian located on the east side of the Yellow Sea, she did have a chance to travel throughout. When she left, she even took a train from Beijing to West Berlin. I was only three years old at the time, but over the course of the last 30 years she has described her experiences in vivid detail a bit at a time. The China she knew was only about a decade past the turbulent “Cultural Revolution” period. She described streets filled with far more bicycles than cars. English speakers were difficult to find, even in large cities. Telephones capable of calling back to the U.S. were few and the cost was substantial. The primary means by which she communicated with my grandfather was by mail; letters could take up to weeks to arrive. Her depiction is of a country rich in culture and history, as well as one with a great deal of possibility, but a nation with a long way to go to realize it’s full potential.
Through my grandmother’s account, I formed a very vivid picture of China, or at least what China was like around the time I was born. The country I saw this past week bares little resemblance to the one my grandmother knew just three decades ago. There were far more cars than bikes, it seemed that everyone under the age of 30 spoke or at least understood some English and smart phones were ubiquitous. In fact, my only challenge in calling back home was accounting for the twelve-hour time difference. As one of our hosts at Peking University put it, “China went through the same industrialization process in 50 years that took the West 300.” This rapid transformation was evident everywhere, not just in the big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. During our train journey, one could see construction everywhere. However, I think it would be overly simplistic to characterize what has happened in China as merely rapid advancements in infrastructure. Much of this change also seems to be cultural. I mentioned in my last blog that I was surprised that gender equality in China was far more advanced than I had anticipated. Newsweek published an article this week supporting my observation. This rapid advancement appears to have left a palpable energy and sense of possibility in its wake that I have always imagined was pervasive in the West around the turn of the twentieth century.
While the last three decades have been good for China, and their long-term prospects look good, there may be trouble ahead. I had heard how bad the air pollution problem is in China, but I had anticipated that it would mostly be around big cities. I was surprised to see that smog was omnipresent throughout our nearly six-hour train ride from Shanghai to Beijing, it didn’t matter if we were passing through a city or rice fields. I have to imagine this problem will be costly on the Chinese medical system over the long term.
During our visit to Bengbu we were struck by how much new construction there was, but how there didn’t seem to be many people or cars there were around the new side of town. I lived through the housing bubble in South Florida, and I was left with the impression that China may be heading down a similar road. It would seem the Chinese might have overbuilt. I found two interesting articles that speak to the potential for a recession in China (links #2 & #3).
“China’s Coming Crash?”
The Washington Post
“This is how you know China is worried”
In Business School we use the terms “B-to-B” (business-to-business) and “B-to-C” (business-to-customer) often, but I had not heard “C-to-C” before my trip to China. When I asked about its meaning I was told by a local that it meant “Copy-to-China”. Essentially, “C-to-C” means take what a business is doing or producing in some other part of the world, copy it, and then sell it in China. This approach to Intellectual Property (IP) is obviously unfair to those who play by the rules, but I think it also hurts China in the long run. For example, CNN recently did a piece on China’s Space Program. The organization is very interested in partnering with NASA, but has thus far has been repeatedly turned down over fears they will steal American technology. I am afraid the Chinese business community will face similar roadblocks over fear of IP infringement.
While I do think these challenges will catch up to China soon, I think they will be little more than speed bumps in China’s ascendency as a world economic power. Overall, I absolutely loved China and its people. The AdVENTURE Challenge: China trip was truly a pleasure. I learned a ton and I look forward to going back someday to see how the China story continues to play out.
Justin Gordon is a first year MBA candidate who was born in Oak Harbor, WA but grew up the son of a Navy pilot and moved quite a bit. His other “hometowns” include Honolulu, HI; Brunssum, The Netherlands; Burke, VA; and Leavenworth, KS. He attended the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, CT where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Government in 2004. Justin then went to helicopter flight school at Naval Air Station Pensacola, FL, where he earned his “wings of gold” in 2006. His tours of duty included four years at Coast Guard Air Station Miami, FL and four years at Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City, NJ. At Smith, he has been active in the Armed Forces Association and Smith Pride Alliance. Following graduation, he will return to the Coast Guard in a budgetary position.