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08
Sep
2013
What’s China like? Which one? E-mail
City Life - Blogs & Columns
Written by David A. Dayton
I’m always amazed at the question: “So what’s it like in China?”  It’s like asking: “So what’s it like in the US?”  Would that be LA or Chicago or Miami or Podunk Utah where I grew up?  The question is usually phrased something like this:  “I saw this documentary about China…is it really like that?”  Or “My friend went there once and said it was ________.  Is that true?” 

My parents came over to visit in ’07 and they were honestly relieved that I didn’t live in a quanza hut.  I live in SZ—12 million people, most money and education in China, no buildings over 30 years old, more BMW’s and Benz’s than bikes. Not to be outdone, I got some great questions from the Chinese during this latest trip home for Chinese New Year: “Do you know Joe?  He’s from New York.  He taught me English.”  Or my new favorite: “Really?!  Black people are Americans too?!”  And, of course: “What’s the weather like in the US?”

In case you didn’t know, China is big.  Huge in fact.  Bigger than the US in terms of total geographic size (and population too, of course).  Because it’s so big there is no way that you can answer the question “What’s it like in China?” without asking a question back:

Which one?

Finally, I’m reading a book that gets this too.  Actually, there are lots of people that get this, but for some reason, none of them are writing books (or speaking English, apparently).  But Jasper Becker is on the proverbial ball.  His book, ironically named “The Chinese,” is about just this very concept—there are many many Chinas.  Just like there are many different versions of the USA.  You can read my review of Jasper’s book next week when I finish it—but for now, know that I’m quite enjoying reading about the various different China’s from Jasper’s perspective.  Another book that specifically gets this concept but sets it out in a generational perspective is Elite China by Pierre Xiao Lu (my review).

I too define my Chinas more by the people that are there than the physical places.  I could, I guess, say there is urban, semi-rural, very rural and tourist China.  But that’s more a description of buildings (or a lack there of) than of China as a social place or even an experience.  I will say that there are some great places to go in China too—only one city, Beijing, would ever make my list of great places, though.  Other spots I’ve enjoyed include: Huangshan, Huangguashu falls, Guilin river, Juizaigou National Park, and of course the obligatory Terra Cotta Warriors and Great Wall.  But for the money, I’d rather eat in Bangkok, or take photos at Ankor Wat in Cambodia or sleep on any beach in Southern Thailand.  But don’t tell my wife I said that.

Anyway, back to “What’s China like?” today.   “My China” at least.

I am living in or at least involved in at least five very different Chinas.   The upper-class urban elite China.  The Chinese/foreign mixed subculture.  The white-collar professional China.  Factory China.  And finally recently migrated but still very connected to the countryside China.

Urban Elite China.

The Urban upper-class China is materially similar to any other large city’s movers and shakers.  Not that I’m a mover and shaker, I’m connect here by association only, but my (foreign) income standards certainly put me in the upper levels of wage earners here (but not in the US).  To be honest there is a TON of money here—or at least a ton of conspicuous consumption.  Either way, there are a lot (meaning 10’s of thousands) of people spending hundreds of thousands of dollars more than I am every year in Shenzhen.

For example, we have in our parking garage more BMW’s, Benzes, Jag’s and Lexis’s (Lexi?) than Hondas or Toyotas.  We have multiple neighbors and friends that own multiple apartments here and in other cities—apartments in Shenzhen’s CBD still go for $400K for a 120m2 apartment.   And Chinese people don’t typically get a mortgage or a car loan—they pay cash for houses, cars and jewelry.  These folks made money as factory owners, landowners who sold out at the right time or got out of the stock market at the right time.  A lot of these people are second-generation money in China—many have either overseas experience/visas or at least have kids now studying or immediate relatives overseas. These aren’t the buy-one-name-brand-luxury-bag/watch-a-year type of folk.  These are the Tai Tai’s that have each bag of the LV line each season. These folks would be upper middle to upper class people in the US.  They are making at least $40K a year–bottom end.  Maybe 4x that along with other investments.  It’s estimated that there are about 100 million of these folk in China.

Side Note: Foreigners, for all the complaining that we do about living in China, are absolutely given differential treatment.  Most of the time. We are treated better than others, we are given automatic face/social status probably higher than deserved, we are forgiven for most social faux pas, we are assumed to be well educated/knowledgeable, and are basically pampered and taken care—service that usually only the rich get.

Expat China.

Which brings me to the second China that I live in—the China of expats and of mixed racial marriages.  You could argue that these are two different Chinas in and of themselves, and you’d probably be right.  But for here (this is another long post), we’ll just lump them together.

The expat world is not really China.  I know, that totally contradicts what I said above about generalizations concerning China, but it’s such a shallow and limited section of the pie that it’s really more like living in a suburb of Chinatown in LA than China.  Yea, most expats interact with Chinese each day.  But the Chinese that we are interacting with are of only three types: service providers (maids, nannies, drivers, waitresses), Chuppies (Young Chinese Urban Professionals) that speak more English than most expats speak Chinese, and finally, maybe some relatives if they have a Chinese spouse. This is the life of private schools, multiple household servants, gated communities and imported western culture/shopping/dinning.  And all of this life is in English.

At work each day I deal with Chinese—professional, college educated or at least managerial level Chinese. But my social life is almost exclusively foreigners.  I can’t talk college hoops, bands/movies from the 80’s, (American) football, or even religion with most Chinese.  Politics gets old and contentious too quickly.  I spend a lot of time with my in-laws and my wife’s friends, but I don’t socialize with them.  There is a reason why there are Chinatowns (Little Saigon, etc) in Western cities and why expats tend to congregate in the same areas here too.

I would guess that less than half of expats here, with or without a Chinese spouse, speak Chinese.  I don’t care how rich non-speakers say there experience is, they can’t fully know what’s going on without speaking Chinese well (better than me).  For context, think of it like this: How much of American culture would you miss if you were not fluent in English?  Why is speaking Chinese any different?  It’s not.  If you don’t speak Chinese you don’t know how much you don’t know.  Period.

I do almost all of my factory business in Chinese. Probably 1/2 of my office work in Chinese.  I can watch movies in Chinese.  I can read some parts of a daily paper.  I can follow the stories on the TV news (not that I want to, but I can).  My Chinese good, not great (because I don’t read well).  But it’s to the point where I now know that there is so much that I’m missing that I didn’t realize before.  The Charlie Brown adage is true: The more you know the more you know you don’t know.

Interestingly, if you want to go shopping or go to cultural events, I’d call the wives of my expat friends before I’d ask any of the Chinese I work with.  These ladies know what’s up (what else are they going to do?!).  Best places to shop for art, furniture, western food, best places to take your kids.  Concerts, libraries, free stuff.  The wives in the foreign community know TONS more than their Chinese-speaking businessmen husbands and more than most local Chinese too.

White Collar Professional China.

The third China that I live in is the White Collar Urban Professional China.  Because I speak Chinese I interact with professional sales people, managers, accountants, lawyers, and other service folks pretty regularly.  These people are VERY well educated.  Very competent.  Very bright.  Very motivated (by money).  They are increasingly skilled in jobs that were once exclusive to expats.  They drive their own (nice) cars and own their own homes (outright or with 5-8 year mortgages) and make it a point to have iPhones, Starbucks mugs on their desks, LV bags, Omega watches, etc.  They make ½ of what their counterparts in the US make, but they save more, live better and have no debt.  These are the young professionals that work for multinational companies.  They are the ones traveling abroad.  Their kids will be the next generation of overseas-Chinese students.

This is the China that you find in the CBD of Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing.  They are very similar to their counterparts in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Taipei.  They work long hours for financial incentives.  They change jobs easily.  Their loyalty, as it should be, is to themselves and their immediate families.  They are not selfish as much as they are calculated.  They are wise in a system that rewards only those who plan, yes even scheme, for the future.

Increasingly this Chuppy China is becoming “China” that the world sees through the class/race-envy press of the West.  Classic example of media fear mongering: The world is flat.  What’s the point of the book?  American better get it in gear (I agree) or you’ll lose your job to Chindia (don’t agree).  Think about the logic here—there are more well educated Chinese than ever before, the playing field is not level, so of course, if you’ve not lost your job yet you soon will.  I think that a gargantuan leap of logic which completely ignores billions of other factors that keep people, jobs, companies and money in the US.

For example, the 300 million Chinese living on less than $1 a day didn’t get mentioned in the book.  Neither did the fact that while much can be outsourced to China, this group of professionals is not taking pieces of a sum-zero pie as much as they are creating a larger pie.  Of course the current US stimulus bill shows that we Americans are collectively stupid enough to kill ourselves without China’s help.  So Friedman may be right by default.

Anyway, back to the Chuppies.  These folks are smart, opportunistic, nationalistic, and not afraid of the West or foreigners.  They are certainly a very valuable asset to any business here—if not the most valuable.  But don’t count on any of them sticking their necks out for radical ideas or to save someone that is not directly tied to their social mobility.  This country may be socialists.  The culture may be collectivist.  But there is no “team” in China.  But there is an “I”.

This is the Chinese that many foreigners deal with.  It starts in Hong Kong at a show or even in the airport and continues through the 4-5 Star hotel, the chauffeured drives to factories and the elaborate dinners with factory owners/managers.  If you’re here on an expat package this is the China that you’re interacting with on a regular basis.  Import stores, international brands, large(r) homes, inflated social importance and stature and young professionals that either aspire to or are actively participating in the same lifestyle.

Factory China.

The fourth China that I’m part of is the factory workers.  Not floor workers, whom I don’t interact with much, but engineers, managers, QC people and some admin folk at various factories.  These guys (mostly guys) are older than the Chuppies by 10 years or more.  They are less educated but have TONS of bitter life experiences.  I know factory owners that built their own buildings.  I know a manager that walked from his home province as a teenager to Guangzhou to find work.  I know more than one manager that is the first person in his family to own a car or to take any classes post junior high.  These are the guys with the best (most interesting/horrific) stories of the past 30 years in China.  They have money but are not well educate and don’t live in the cities.  They are, I guess, the salt of the earth kind of guys.

When you are bargaining with a factory—these are the guys that are making the decisions on the price of your project.  When push comes to shove and you need something fixed, these are the managers that you’ve got to deal with.  Their China is a mix of unbelievable opportunities and caution due to years of hard times.  They typically buy domestic name brands, have multiple generations living together close to or in the factory where they work.  They expect their kids will become the next generation of Chuppies and drive them unmercifully to perform in school.

This is a China that, I think, impacts more of what gets sent to the West than any other version.  They literally control the production of everything in China—whether for domestic consumption or export.  This China, the autocratic managers, the late night drinking binges, the hard-nosed negotiators, the nationalistic-manager, the father of two kids in the best schools he can afford, the facilitator of gifts to government connections, this is the China that no one talks about but really should, I think.  But this China isn’t flashy like the second-generation money in the cities or the Chuppies in the glass office buildings.  They aren’t the pitifully poor in the National Geographic photos. Nor are they the uniformed line workers whose photos make all the Western news rags.

The Rural to Urban Transition China.

Finally, the China that is fluctuating between the city and the fields.  I get access to the rural half of this equation via my family connections.  It’s a world that I never imagined really existed outside of the pages of magazines until I spent time there.  This China is what you thought about when you were told “eat your veggies there are starving kids in China.”  Well, those kids are grown up, working in Shenzhen or Shanghai and going back home each holiday to dark houses with no plumbing in small villages across China.  Once you’re back into the ancestral homes you realize that there aren’t just different Chinas but completely different planets.

The rural half of this China is what keeps domestic China going.  Similar to the middle aged managers that left the countryside two decades ago for the factory cities of the East coast, the little villages and towns all across China feed the nation.  They are also the bodies in the factories that labor to manufacture everything.  Really, everything.

When these young people graduate from high school or a local college and leave their village homes and head into the cities for work they usually start at the bottom, in the jobs that we barely recognize—line workers, shop workers.  With luck and hard work they can move up into the Chuppy group or the Factory Manager group within 10 years.

I’m probably going to get a bunch of hate email saying I’m overly generalizing and/or being racist.  But this is really what my answer is to people that ask: “So, what’s China really like?”  It’s not an easy answer.  If I’ve spent the last week in factories it’s a much different answer than if I’ve been in Shenzhen in the office for a week or on a vacation to an historical hot-spot or even on a family trip back home to Jiangxi.

Everyone that works here has a similar set of answers, if they really think about it.  If you asked me this same question while I was teaching at a University in Sichuan in ’95 or at a cram school in Taiwan in ’99 my answers would be completely different—still not a single answer, but the groups, the Chinas, would be totally different than what I see today.  Ditto for my answers from my missionary or grad school periods in Thailand.  I really believe that what you think of China is significantly colored by who you interact with more than where you physically live.  If you live in a hole, and I did in Sichuan for a year, it can be livable, even good if you have some people that you love to be with.  If you work with professionals and have a couple of maids and chauffour it’s not the same China as 10th generation dirt farmers.  But it’s all still China.


David A. Dayton is the CEO of Silk Road International (SRI), an U.S.-owned and managed international procurement agency based in China. Click here to visit SRI's Website.

Our valuable Editor David A. Dayton has been with us since Monday, 02 November 2009.

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