No China Experts

Hutong West
In search of macro-fauna
1241 hrs.

I have said this in other fora, and as my book Public Relations in China goes to bookstores I am getting questions from media and others that have caused me to lay out the following disclaimer:

  1. I am not a “China expert.”

  2. There is no such thing as a “China expert.”

  3. Anyone who comes to you claiming to be a “China expert” is either deluded (and thus to be pitied), lying (and thus suspect), or out to separate you from your money (and thus to be avoided.)

  4. You don’t have to believe me. Dr. Fan Gang, the head of China’s National Economic Research Institute and the Secretary-General of the China Reform Foundation (among many other titles), once said as much to a reporter when she asked Dr. Fan and I whether, “as China experts,” we saw China’s economy improving or in decline in coming years. He denied being a China expert, told the reporter that he knew I agreed, and questioned the very existence of anyone who could claim the title of a China experts.

  5. China is too large, too old, and too complex to be sufficiently understood by a single individual. At the very most, we can be “specialists.” We can never be “experts.”

When doing business in China, you thus cannot rely on the counsel of a single individual, regardless of how experienced, well-connected or erudite. Instead, seek and genuinely consider the advice of a range of people of different backgrounds, and in so doing form your own view based on a synthesis of their views.

China “experts” will only get you into trouble.

The Cost of a Revolving Door

In the Hutong
Watching Fall Arrive
1223 hrs.

Sitting in the lobby of my hotel in Beijing, I watched over an hour on a Saturday morning as several groups of tourists negotiated an automatic door. One group overfilled it, jamming the door and compelling doormen to come to the rescue.

Two other families (who came in separately) did not get the idea of an automatic revolving door, and pushed the glass partition as they believed that this was what was causing the door to turn. A third family let their kids play in the door, causing several jams and frustrating groups of other guests, one almost to distraction.

The hotel, as a result, posts a doorman nearby to help tourists negotiate issues with the door that was installed in order to eliminate the need for a doorman; and a cleaning lady was hired to clean the door that was installed to minimize the cleaning of the lobby.

All of this serves as another fun reminder that the most prosaic things can have unintended consequences and unexpected costs in a Chinese enterprise.

Sophisticated Chongqing

Hutong Forward
LAX bound for Bangkok and Shanghai
1215 hrs.

My first trip to Chongqing summarily destroyed all of my preconceptions of the central Chinese river terminus.

Instead of an immense but slightly provincial city, I came away after three days with the impression that Chongqing is about as provincial as Hong Kong, and is in many ways a lot more livable than its coastal cousin.

People were fashionable and stylish, at least as much as Beijing. The streets along the river were lined with remarkable restaurants and shopping districts that made Shanghai’s Xintiandi look both quiet and unsophisticated by comparison. The Pedestrian Street between Minzu Road and the Liberation Monument bisected the central business district with a sophistication that rivals Nanjing Road and Wangfujing. And the people have that warmth that seems to come so readily to the people of Sichuan.

I berate myself now for delaying my visit for so long. There really is more to Chongqing than a foggy, overgrown river port, and I suspect that I will be going back again soon.

We were never the “big shots”

Hutong West
Contemplating the mathematics of wavelets
1335 hrs.

The misleading promotional lead-in to an otherwise pretty good story on expats in This American Life reads:

It used to be that the American expats in China were the big shots. They had the money, the status, the know-how. But that’s changed.

That line is a big, smelly load of unadulterated bunkum. American expats in China were never the big-shots, and any who acted or thought they were soon found themselves either wrestling with terminal culture shock, alcoholic, on a plane back to the US or some combination of all three.

The reason was simple: any expat, American or otherwise, who believed himself or herself to be a big-shot was worse than useless to the organization for which they worked and would rapidly wear out their welcome and usefulness.

No doubt it must be comforting to a few people to think of the first and second generations of American expats as a privileged, arrogant, cloistered lot who behaved like a bunch of swaggering weasels. There were a few. But we didn’t all have money, we didn’t all have status, and many of us who had know-how found that China was often in no position to compensate us for it.

The True Measure of Urban China

On the Hutong Express
Somewhere in Central China
1123 hrs. 

As I hurtle through 2,800kms of Chinese countryside, a question occurs to me about China’s massive urbanization. The shift is unprecedented, and for that reason alone begs for close examination.

The truth is, we are not examining the scale of urbanization as closely as perhaps we should. Is China urbanizing as quickly as statistics suggest? Or are we – at least in part – witnessing some statistical sleight of hand?

The thought that provoked me on this trip was the villages. Admittedly, my survey was back-of-napkin and limited to those villages alongside the high speed rail lines, but there seemed to be more building, more development, and little blight. That made me wonder. Are people really leaving their villages and heading to the Big City, or are they staying put, and statisticians taking villages and towns previously designated as “rural” or other non-urban areas and predesignating them as “urban?”

There is more to this question than statistical nit-picking. If many people are urbanizing in place, this means that China faces a very different set of challenges in addressing urbanization, including rethinking the infrastructure that needs to be built and probing whether this means that more of the country’s shrinking stock of arable land is in jeopardy.

For marketers, it would mean that a growing percentage of potential customers are physically beyond the reach of their current advertising, retail promotion, and distribution infrastructure.

Either way, it is time we tarted probing China’s urbanization statistics rather than take them as gospel.