Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Some Vivid Impressions of China
From My Globe-Trotting Friend Chris

We all have a friend or two through whom we live vicariously. For me, it's my friend Chris, an impossibly talented writer for the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm. He lives in Akron, works about half time out of the Cleveland office (when he's not traveling, as he often is), reports directly to someone in the San Francisco office, and works mostly with executives in the New York and Washington, D.C. offices. Via email, he recently sent me a couple of meaty, interesting reports on his trip to China. I thought them so interesting--easily twice as insightful as anything Tom Friedman ever writes about globalization--that (with his approval) I wanted to share them here.

Greetings from China, where I've spent a day in Beijing overcoming jet-lag after a 14-hour direct flight from New York which went [get this] over the North Pole and Siberia to go via the shortest route, with the fuel-efficient 777 making the trip nonstop. Here for about two weeks for a McKinsey conference in Beijing, and then for some research-and-writing chores in our Shanghai office. Then arriving back in the States about midnight, right before Thanksgiving Day. Funny thing: In the big Wangfujing Street shopping area, right near Tiananmen Square, who is depicted on a big heroic portrait? LeBron James, wearing his Cleveland Cavaliers uniform, on a mammoth billboard for Nike. And we thought Chairman Mao might be the one and only portrait at the center of China. Much has changed since my previous trip here in 1996: As widely reported, the city is becoming super-intensely built-up. Skyscrapers are under construction left and right.

Some first impressions: Fewer bicycles and many more cars than a decade ago. Western business logos are plastered everywhere: McDonalds and Coca-Cola are ubiquitous, plus Visa and MasterCard, Hitachi and Sony, MetLife and Citibank, Starbucks and Pizza Hut. And everyplace, Kentucky Fried Chicken. Funny thing, spotted amid the ancient religious sites of Ritan ("Temple of the Sun") Park yesterday afternoon: A mother was reading a storybook to her child, dramatically telling a tale in Chinese, but glancing over and seeing the cover of the book, it said, in English, "Stories of Hans Christian Andersen" (who was, if I recall correctly, Danish). There's globalization for you.

I went to the end-of-the-day ceremony at Tiananmen Square, at sundown, where a military detachment lowers the flag in a ceremony watched by thousands and thousands. The Army -- not the local police -- seemed to be everywhere, as if to suggest to one and all (as if they didn't know already) precisely who runs the show around here. As one of a relatively small number of Western-looking people at the ceremony, several sets of Chinese people -- in groups of twos and threes --sought me out to have conversations afterwards. Some surprising insights from the Chinese folks (e.g., spontaneous and out-of-nowhere remarks about politics, on topics that I might have thought too sensitive to discuss.) Interesting times!

Here's an update, after a week here: The most vivid impresson of Beijing, so far: Depending on the weather and wind, the air pollution here can be absolutely awful --the result, apparently, of auto exhaust from traffic jams, emissions from factories, and (sometimes) fine-grained sand blowing in from the Gobi Desert, not too far to the west. On weekdays -- when businesses are open, factories are humming and everyone is commuting -- people literally choke and cough all day long to expel the smog, and they flood themselves with bottled water to clear their throats. (Our office here has boxes of kleenex everywhere -- and closets-full of extra kleenex boxes, in reserve -- as people are constantly coughing-and-hacking and blasting-out their nostrils). On weekends -- when the factories are closed and there's no rush-hour traffic -- the air is much more bearable. (No wonder, for next summer's Olympics, that they're thinking of ordering a driving ban or a driving reduction [like an every-other-day, odd-or-even-license-plate restriction], to try to keep the air cleaner for the athletes.) It's one thing to read about China's pollution-level in the papers, but it's quite another thing to experience it with your own two eyes (or, in this case, your own two lungs). And if it's this bad in the capital -- with its economy based on a mixture of industrial, service-industry, commercial-financial and government -- imagine how choking it must be in the industrial cities.

Interesting anecdote: A Frankfurt-based colleague, who often "commutes" to Beijing to consult with clients, says that her plane was prevented from landing here last week -- diverted to another city, because the fog-plus-smog caused visibility to be so bad that they closed the Beijing runways. This week's McKinsey-sponsored conference here -- with maybe 120 or 150 people -- ought to be mighty good, talking about international relations and international business. Energy and environment is the top theme of the McKinsey conference (which we're co-sponsoring with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences). I see in today's news that (as anticipated) the United States and China are ranked as the world's biggest producers of greenhouse-gas emissions. Unless we two biggest polluters find a way to reach some sort of agreement -- of the political "trust but verify" variety, as in "we're going to link arms and jump over this cliff together" mode, to ensure that each side keeps its promises -- then there may be no diplomatic/political way out of the global-warming problem. The biggest of the over-arching topics for discussion: What to do about global warming? One of the figures whom I'm most interested in hearing is Wesley Clark, who will analyze (along with a Chinese general) the military balance and potential strategic flashpoints. Also sessions on trade policy, finance, media and cultural tensions (I wonder if China's restrictions on journalists, the Internet, and freedom of speech will come up?), and other topics of bilateral concern.

All in all, this conference -- envisioned as the first in a series of annual events, with continuing informal discussions in-between conferences -- is a pretty imaginative thing for McKinsey to undertake. Corporate leaders often speak, loftily, of the need for "business statesmanship," but maybe this will turn out to be the real thing. No doubt, next month, there will be only slow-and-grudging progress at the official government-to-government Strategic Economic Dialogue (led by the Treasury Secretary). But who knows: at this mostly-business-to-business discussion, maybe some Chinese electricity-company executive will turn to his American counterpart and say, "Tell me again about those stack-gas scrubbers you guys use. What's the cost-per-ton of emission reductions? And those wind turbines: If they cost you X million, how many megawatts did you say they produce?


At 2:19 PM, Anonymous roldo bartimole said...

Really interesting comments.

Would what he's experiencing today be similar to what Clevelanders experienced during its height of industrial/steel production?

Doesn't sound as though it could be as bad. More autos now, I guess.

At 2:31 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Interesting you should make that connection to Cleveland. I think Cleveland a hundred years ago would have been quite similar to this scene he paints. And pre-EPA, a fine grit of soot from the blast furnaces lay over everything for miles, by many reports. An interesting piece in the current New Yorker, by the way, about an American writer's experience of driving while living in China, produced a statistic that really got my attention: at just 28 cars per 1,000 people, China today has the same ratio of cars to people that the U.S. had way back in 1915. So pollution is going to get worse over there before it gets better.

At 3:24 PM, Anonymous M├Ądchen said...

Hmmm, not sure what you laddies find so dang interesting about that dispatch. China is crowded, the car count is rising, the air is polluted, and the fate of the climate basically hangs in the balance because of the combined ignorance and intransigence of the sleeping giant and its nemesis/ally, USA. Not news, gents. Granted, the bar may have been set unfairly high with that overused (and meaningless) "impossibly talented" characterization. But, sorry--a China visit by a McKinsey & Co. employee, talented or otherwise, is no guarantee of an engaging dispatch. In fact, that dispatch read and felt more like a young executive's Saturday morning errand list.(On the other hand, if Mr. McKinsey were she rather he, and "impossibly busty," well, that would might get me engaged.) I would say he has some more miles to travel and a few more words to type before he joins the ranks of the Friedmans...

At 3:29 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Madchen, you never fail to get a rise with your provocative way of putting things. Yes, of course I'm biased on behalf of the entire account in part because I have a deep bias for my friend (and as a friend, I have to forgive him his McKinsey connection, because that's not an organization for which I ordinarily have much warm feeling). I was especially interested in the report about the prominence of Lebron's image, and the comparisons with his trip from some years ago. As for Friedman, my bias against him is a matter of record. Anyway, as always, thanks for reading and commenting.

At 3:38 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

By the way, the bias against Friedman that I mentioned was outlined here:


At 2:53 AM, Anonymous Mr. Bluster said...

I was in Beijing in 1988 (one year before the protest.)

At that time, the main street near Tiananmen Square was eerily quiet. Nothing but bicycles. No trouble breathing the air. But the cold wind from Mongolia blew right through the paved-over landscape, unobstructed by vegetation.

Beijing had the world's largest KFC even then, but it was considered a pricy restaurant by natives.

I had a Peking Duck dinner at a working man's restaurant for about $5, and the plate was heaped with duck. And I might have been overcharged.

(I'm shooting for the title of the poor man's Michener with this dispatch.)

At 9:33 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Who would have guessed that I had such well-traveled readers? That's an interesting memory of the place. And I got a kick out of the Michener joke. How sophisticated of you to synthesize stuff from different posts.


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