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The China Blog™

Mark Giorgini, GMS"To know the road ahead, ask those coming back" – As this Chinese proverb illustrates, there is no substitute for experience. China blog author Mark Giorgini's first-hand experience living and working in China enrich his posts with timely, practical information for anyone with an interest in this dynamic marketplace. Add your comments and questions as we journey together!

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The Wrap

The annual China Hi Tech Fair opened this past week and it’s truly an exhausting affair.  Booths and exhibits cover acres of exhibition hall space … and if the walking doesn’t get you, the crowds will.  Here’s last year’s entry.

Well, this year, we were again assaulted by folks peddling the latest in massage gadgets.  But we learned from our experience last year and turned down all approaches for the first several hours before one of the guys – the women in our party were too smart to fall for this! – succumbed to temptation and allowed himself to be hooked up.  Once again, a major mistake.  He involuntarily twitched for 15 minutes after being unplugged.  Memo to file:  Never, ever allow yourself to be hooked up to an electronic massage gadget unless your lawyer is present and waving a complaint form just waiting to be completed.

Small gadgets aside, the Fair this year had very much a “green” theme.  There were firms showing off the latest advances in garbage waste-to-energy conversion technology, numerous companies touting more energy efficient lighting designs, a whole passel of electric cars (including one that can drive itself), and more robots than you can shake a stick at.  Robots that will help us with our health care, robots that will be companions for the elderly … well, in theory … and robots that can respond to questions and give rational answers that their programmers can’t predict.  Mercifully, there seemed to be far fewer firms showing off surveillance gear.  Perhaps we’re already observed enough.

My favorite product this year, though, was a very spiffy drink mixer which combined a comprehensive database with a neat touch screen, 30+  beverages, a small refrigerator, a seductive electronic voice, and multiple language capability.  I can’t vouch for the quality, but it sure looked awesome.  Rather lacks the personal touch, though, for folks seeking bartender therapy.

In any event, there’s plainly a lot of innovative activity going on over here that will work its way through to consumers worldwide over the next several years.

AND FINALLY:  Ninety blog entries and nearly 40,000 words ago, the China Blog tiptoed into this space and became Worldwide ERC’s first blog.  It’s time for some new contributors, though, and so I’m turning back the keyboard.  May your experiences in China be as wonderful, enlightening and broadening as mine have.  It’s been real, folks.   再见!

The “City of Goats” is shining now!

When I first visited Guangzhou in 1995, the place was magical in its own way. A long history.  War and conflict.  And with China’s market reforms in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a retail and trade focus. Gray and run-down, Qingping market, was an incredible place to spend hours looking for knickknacks and just coming to terms with the variety of animals on sale.  (Ostriches, fox, scorpions, you name it, they had it.)

Well, the 2010 Asia Games – think “Olympics for Asia” – opened last Friday and the City of Goats, as Guangzhou is nicknamed, sure doesn’t look very goat-like.   The Canton Tower,  topping out at a bit under 2,000 feet, became operational right before the Games and radiates and shimmers with a gorgeous lighting display. Boats ply the Pearl River bedecked in neon and playing traditional Chinese music over loudspeakers.  Hundreds of searchlights scan the skies.

And when there are sights to be seen, people go out to see them.  This past weekend, I walked a couple of kilometers along the river people-watching. Ah, the promenades… grandparents, parents, kids, young lovers, students, street musicians and magicians, a festival of humanity. 

The chance to participate in such events is one of the joys of having an international assignment. But it’s more than just the event itself; it’s the opportunity to watch the reactions of the local people around you and learn what you can from the experience.  It’s enjoying the beauty of a very spiffed up city and it’s spending time chatting with the local residents complaining about why their taxes went to pay for the frills when there are other pressing domestic needs. (Some things are universal, eh?)

But for now, I’m happy to just go out and admire the lights!

"The Gong Show" Chinese Style
Part of moving, living and working in China as a foreigner is getting used to the hazing and testing that comes with being a newbie in a new land.  Using chopsticks, holding one’s alcohol, eating unfamiliar foods, and maneuvering through the pitfalls and perils of an evening of karaoke are the common tests, but occasionally the new foreigner is asked to put on alone or star with others in a performance for work colleagues.
 
The purpose of the performance is to test the foreigner’s Chinese language ability, knowledge of China, and most importantly, provide the Chinese staff with opportunity for riotous laughter.  In short, it’s the Chinese version of “The Gong Show.”
 
Undoubtedly, I’m dating myself.  “The Gong Show” was a US television program popular (to some people) in the 1970s where contestants performed some kind of talent act, i.e. singing, juggling pies,  riding a unicycle, whatever.  The judges hit a gong to eliminate the really bad or embarrassing acts, the contestants looked deflated, and audience members congratulated themselves on having enough dignity and good taste for never having done whatever the contestant just did.  In essence, this was a precursor to today’s “reality television” which apparently has infested most of the developed world.
 
Well, the final competition for the first local expatriate talent show here is coming up in another couple of weeks.  There are evidently expatriates here who have volunteered to prepare a speech or some musical or talent performance in Chinese, complete with instruments and costumes, and complying with guidelines such as “the speaker should speak in a loud voice and inspire and impress the audience with proper expressions and gestures,” “the speaker should be confident and at ease,” “the dress code is formal or smart casual.”  My favorite guideline is:  “Grammatic mistakes should be avoided.”  Amen for that.
 
I haven’t found anyone in my circle of expat friends who has summoned the courage to participate but I’m looking forward to attending the final competition … as an audience member.
Ah, those young 'uns...

At Worldwide ERC’s Global Workforce Summit in Seattle this past week, the Global Advisory Council had a good discussion of different generational approaches to mobility:  Just what do those Gen X, Gen Y, and millenials expect out of a mobility programs often run by Boomers?

It’s always a bit challenging to graft western generation nomenclature into the Chinese context, since of course, the cultural context and experience is quite different.  Years ago, one of my Chinese colleagues and I were having this same conversation and I got the message very clearly that those labels and demarcations just don’t apply to Chinese. 

“We’ve got a new generation at least every five years,” said my colleague.  Seemed a little short to talk about generational change in what to my middle-aged brain seems like just yesterday, but I’ve come around my colleague’s point of view.  The nature of change in China is just so fast that there do appear to be differences in outlook, expectations, and attitude – and certainly technological capability! – over much shorter periods of time.

Anecdotally, my MBA classes do seem to be more assertive, more questioning, and perhaps a bit less diligent in doing assigned homework than some of the earlier groups I taught.  Employees have higher expectations of managers and are not at all hesitant about walking away when those expectations aren’t met.  The high regard and strong preference in which Chinese employees used to hold western companies and management has all but evaporated as foreign companies now fall behind government and domestic companies as preferred places to work and grow careers.  (War for talent, any one?)  Those changes have resulted in a spate of strikes, labor shortages, and higher turnover.  I once was sharing some survey data with a class which said that at any given time, 54% of Chinese professionals working for multinationals – as opposed to about half that in western countries – were actively out in the job market seeking better opportunities.  “That low?” asked one of my students.

While the multi-decade economic boom that China has enjoyed has undoubtedly resulted in some generational compression, it’s still tough to stifle a laugh when a 40-year-old colleague laments some omission from a team that’s composed of 35-year-olds.  Yeah, those younger folks … just gotta watch ‘em.

Now That's NOT Mobility!
At Spring Festival when everyone is heading home for a long, relaxing holiday of jiaozi and good cheer with friends and family, it’s always an awesome experience for foreigners to watch mobility in action. Trains, planes, and buses clog the transportation corridors and the equivalent of entire nations of people are on the move within China.
 
Alas, even that stress can seem like the good old days when everything grinds to a halt, a situation happening with increasing frequency given the number of new cars hitting the road each day here. (In 2009 China became the world’s largest car market with more than 13 million new vehicles – and drivers – taking to the streets. And sales are up 36% this year over last year.) New cars + new drivers = traffic jams that really something to write home about. 
 
And there have been some real traffic jams to write about in recent months. Beijing, with 4.5 million cars and 6.1 million drivers, added numerous new subway lines for the 2008 Olympics and has six ring roads encircling the city with a seventh on the drawing board. But the traffic, despite driving restrictions, grinds to a halt with regularity and much public grousing.
 
But the mother of all traffic jams occurred just a couple of months ago on a 60-mile stretch of road between Inner Mongolia and Beijing. Traffic came to a halt. For 10 days. Yes, you read that correctly – 10 days. Well, perhaps not a complete halt, if you call moving an average of half a mile a day actual movement. Makes that commute you have in North America seem like a piece of cake, eh?
 
Perhaps the highlight has got to be how well the stranded folks handled being stuck. People broke out decks of playing cards, local merchants did a brisk business in selling noodles and snacks, and there weren’t any reports of road rage.
 
Earlier this month I was in a very remote and mountainous part of southwestern China. My friends were taking me on a drive through the mountains to see the terraces of rice fields and we got stuck in our own little traffic jam on a two-lane mountain road, the kind of place where there’s a cliff on one side of the road and a solid mountain of stone on the other. A couple of vehicles had bumped each other and so everything stopped until the authorities and the insurance agents arrived to sort things out.
 
Well, our traffic jam didn’t last more than an hour or so, but the conviviality those of us caught behind the vehicles was great. We ended up being invited to dinner by some officials from a nearby local village who also rounded up a local guide who took us to the most incredible off-the-beaten-path cave that I’ve ever seen. Getting stuck in traffic turned out to be a very lucky and enjoyable thing for us all.
Strike!

The past summer was a busy one for HR professionals in China for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the new-found voice of Chinese workers.  At several car manufacturer and auto supplier plants here in Guangdong, workers went on strike against their foreign employers.  Strikes aren’t prohibited under Chinese labor law, but they’re also not encouraged as a method of resolving disputes.  Strikes, after all, are a challenge those in authority. 

The automotive industry strikes began several weeks after a series of tragic employee suicides at the local manufacturing plant of another major foreign employer resulted in big headlines, government expressions of concern, and a focus on the working conditions in Chinese factories which enable low manufacturing costs.

After a few weeks, things did settle down and although there were numerous anecdotal reports of other labor actions in other companies throughout the summer, none received the publicity that the automotive strikes received.   But the strikes were interesting for a couple of reasons:  role (non-role?) played by Chinese trade unions, some of the work situations complained of, and how the companies responded.  In addition, the strikes raised issues concerning the role of foreign enterprises in China, implications for the global economy  because potential cost increases of manufactured goods, and the general working conditions in some Chinese factories.

And then, of course, there’s the issue of salaries. In the case of Foxconn, the manufacturer which had multiple employee suicides, wages nearly doubled over the summer, a situation in which some found a silver lining.

There was much speculation this summer that these industrial actions might presage some broader type of social unrest or that strikes at these plants might start waves of strikes elsewhere in the country.  With the benefit of a few months’ breathing room, that hasn’t materialized.  Why?  Well, the intensity of issues often varies from plant to plant, disputes in domestic companies may often be resolved via less open confrontational methods, government controls on media and electronic communications can slow the spread of news, and with an economy that remains strong, labor shortages are causing wages to rise in any event.

The drama of the strikes aside, there’s certainly an increased awareness of workplace issues among the Chinese rank-and-file with whom I’ve come in contact.  Management matters.

Return to Middle School
When cinders from the fireworks going off a few meters away started falling on my head, it was time to beat a dignified retreat and acknowledge that, yes, the middle school reunion had been more enjoyable than anticipated. 
 
China is in the midst of its week-long National Day holiday, the equivalent of the US 4th of July.  Along with a Chinese friend and his family, I'm off to visit his ancestral home in a part of southwestern China that appears only as a blurry smudge on Google Earth because it's so mountainous and remote.  One of the week's major activities:  Attend his middle school reunion as a distinguished invited foreign guest.
 
While most rural students today can go through high school, thirty years ago, middle school was the end of the line for all but a lucky and talented few.  So an opportunity to get everyone together after 30 years was something not to be missed.
 
Having a chance to participate in real activities with real people in real situations is a great way to learn about social values, mores, and goals of the Chinese employees one works with here; even the most sophisticated Ph.D. who's lived abroad and speaks another language fluently may be only a generation or so removed from village life.  Despite not being able to speak a word of the local dialect and not having any common memories to fall back on for chitchat, I accepted the dinner invitation.  Heck.  A Chinese dinner banquet.  I've attended a thousand.  What could go wrong?
 
Two days later, my appreciation for celebrating Chinese – and their stamina – has been renewed.  Dinner led to karaoke.  Karaoke led to bus trips to even more remote villages which led to enough walking and climbing to exhaust a mountain goat, to say nothing of a middle-aged, overweight office desk jockey.  We had innumerable toasts to friendship, success, and who knows what else, and delicious food about which I didn't really want to know anything.  (Knowing and understanding can be vastly overrated.)  Thank heavens for “foreigner's privilege,” the rubric under which one can plead ignorance of or unwillingness to participate in an activity because of potential for acute loss of face!
 
So after the dinner-that-turned-into-two days, it's nice to settle into the slower rhythms of village life.  Slower, but not quiet.  There's a band of eight ladies dressed in pink traditional garb parading up and down the street banging drums and clanging cymbals several times a day to advertise a local furniture store.  Ah, village life.
Voices:  French Perspective: Narrowing the culture gap requires a bilateral effort

Maggie A. is an exchange student from Lyon 3 University, France, who has studied in the international MBA program in Lingnan (University)College, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China, for one year.  Two years ago, she went to Meiji University (Tokyo, Japan) as an exchange student for one year. She teaches languages as a part-time job. Her hobbies are travelling and playing music (piano, flute… and now dizi!).

By Maggie A.

When I read last year’s Voices, I noticed that more than half of them deal with the ‘culture difference’ issue between a foreign manager and Chinese employees.  They emphasized the need for open-mindedness, for knowing about the culture and for respecting local values.  I could not help but react to this and play the devil’s advocate.

First, we should get rid of the idea that a foreign manager coming to China will be, by essence, a source of problems. Of course, it is more difficult to work with a foreign manager than with a local one.  But it should be considered as a chance, too, in a country where very few locals had the chance to go abroad.  In fact, it is an example of diversity, with all its advantages and drawbacks.

Moreover, Chinese employees should, too, learn about the foreign manager’s culture.  According to me, the best way is to ask your acquaintances who worked with a foreign manager from the same country to tell you about his or her experience.  But keep in mind that all countries are different; do not take for granted that if your friend’s boss was German, your French boss might be similar.  Actually, an even easier way to learn how to work successfully with a foreign manager would be to ask him, when he takes office, to expose his working methods, values and ways to communicate, as well as his behaviors and their respective meanings.

Last but not least, I think that the foreign manager should first undertake a training period, i.e. working with a local English-speaking Chinese manager, and/or a foreign manager who has been in China for a long time. I also think that a program similar to the ‘Buddy Program’ implemented by Lingnan College (one Chinese student helping one exchange student to get accustomed to the local life) would be great, too. After all, learning about the Chinese culture is as much about reading the Analects and Daodejing as about eating xiaochao (a special stir-fried dish) and dianxin (dim sum pastries) or drinking dounai (soy milk) and liangcha (an herbal Chinese medicine tea).

Voices:  Ukrainian Perspective:  History and China

Oleksiy GUSHUL is a fulltime student in the international MBA program at Lingnan (University) College, Sun Yat-sen University, in Guangzhou, China.

By Oleksiy GUSHUL

To successfully do business in China, you need to understand its history.  You can ask: “Why?”  First of all, just for the respect of the country you are going to do business in.  Second, it can help decipher the behavior of workers.

History can unveil a lot of clues about present culture levels and behaviors.  Chinese culture is a high context culture due to 5,000 years of history.  Learning history can help you to understand the Chinese indirect approach in delivering the message, understand secondary the level of context, and understand how “guanxi” works.  Government promotes harmonious society, because the most prosperous time in China was when country was in harmony, without drastic changes.

There are many examples:

China was long occupied by foreign countries, so the Chinese see foreigners as intruders and at some points look for “revenge.”  They don’t like to be told what to do for their best, directly.  Eventually the country will return to that position and will be again The Middle Kingdom.

The Cultural Revolution also left a big imprint on the lives of ordinary workers:  They are very submissive and reluctant to initiate changes.  It’s not the common case, but it happens.

“The Iron Rice Bowl” habit dies hard.  At most of the state-owned enterprises, this policy still echoes in employees’ attitudes towards work.

But I must admit local workers are very diligent and hard working, if you have the right approach to them.  Learning about their history and culture will bring great value to the foreign HR staff.  

Recently I heard one real story:  A foreign CEO of a big company just received a new position at the local factory.  It was just before Christmas.  Some of the Chinese staff weren’t happy with his appointment.  After making inquiries with the Chinese managers, the new CEO decided to have Christmas day off for the whole factory.  Soon after that, he was approached by a worker who thanked the CEO for the extra day off and who also told the new CEO that Christmas had never been a holiday for in this company.  

Local management played the new CEO.  Can you imagine how furious he was?  The CEO was ignorant enough not to learn this fact from China history and culture beforehand.

There is a saying: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” This is the truth for every place, not only for China.

Voices:  Indonesian Perspective: The Basics

09210271-Ann-蓝.jpgMark Giorgini’s student Varian CAHYADI is a fulltime student in the international MBA program at Lingnan (University) College, Sun Yat-sen University, in Guangzhou, China.

By Varian CAHYADI

For a company that chooses to go global, understanding other countries’ culture is essential to the success of its operation and establishment.  There are so many unique cultures throughout the world, often so unique that many people quickly get caught in what we usually call “culture shock.”  Sometimes culture shock can be so intense that it can affect the performance of a person or even a company as a whole.  It is obvious that we should avoid this problem if we want to progress overseas, especially in a country as unique as my country, Indonesia.

As the world’s largest archipelago with more than 18,000 islands, Indonesia has been acknowledged as the “Sleeping Giant” of South-East Asia.  In my past experience studying and working abroad, I often find myself puzzled by questions directed to me about my country.  This made me conclude that although Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago (covering quite a visible area on the map!) a lot of people still find themselves wondering where exactly Indonesia is.  After a bit of explanation, statements such as “Never heard of it”  and “Really?” or even “Indonesia is in Bali?” often were present.  That is why in this article I’m going to talk a bit about Indonesia.

is a country with great diversity.  There are more than 700 ethnic groups currently living in Indonesia, each with their own unique culture, language and way of life.  In our country, other than background, religion also plays a very important role in shaping people’s lives.  We acknowledge 5 different kinds of religion which are Moslem, Catholics, Protestant, Hindu and Buddha.  Understanding that different people with different backgrounds will behave significantly differently from others around them, avoiding stereotyping, and promoting respect toward others are essential in order to maintain harmony in our relationships. 

Knowing different ethnic groups’ language and their way of life or even knowing about their religious beliefs will really benefit foreigners in dealing with Indonesian people.  For example, Indonesians who are Moslem have their long Friday prayers every week, and a company that employs Indonesian Moslems must allocate time for those people to realize this duty.  Another example would be if someone speaks to you loudly, that doesn’t always mean they are scolding you; depending on their background sometimes it is how they usually speak to a friend. 

Also, Indonesians would not tolerate it if they are being criticized in public, something considered as intentionally making fun of them.  Generally, Indonesians are mostly considerate to one another, so taking into account other people’s feelings when trying to do something is very important in order to avoid conflicts.

Perception and how people look at you might determine how well you do here.  Whoever you might be or whatever you might do, if you are able to get around well and could give great impression to people while maintaining good relation with others will really help you progress in a long run.

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