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?