China Reflections

Dated more than several hundred years BC, China is an ancient civilization that can be broadly categorized into the prehistoric, ancient, imperial, and modern China timelines. The modern China that our MBA class of 2013 experienced May 11th – 19th will remain imprinted in my mind as fascinating a memorabilia as a country can offer to a tourist of a week.

In this paper I try to capture not only the planned itinerary of industry visits, but also all that I absorbed in the two cities, Shanghai, and Hangzhou – the people and my walks in the evening, the smells and food, billboards and the weather, and my adventures into back alleys haggling with Chinese people over the calculator while I buy faux designer brands.

Before delving deeper, I would like to state that my humble observations in this paper are merely reflective of a visitor trying to soak in an entire country and its various cultures in a short period of one week, and so some portions may be biased, naive or even totally oblivious to the actualities of a country as historic, vast, vigorous, beautiful, and ambitious as China. Our tour began in Shanghai with sight seeing activities of the White Buddha temple, the Bund and some gardens in the City, where we dispersed into the red brick stone streets to finish the day shopping for Chinese jewels and souvenirs - pearls, jade, and silk.

Beginning the trip with a visit to the Buddha temple was apt in my mind since Buddhism prevails as the most popular religion in China. Throughout the visits to the Buddha temples, including the one in Hangzhou, there were indications of the religion being derived from Buddhism in India. For instance, there was a striking resemblance in the statue of Mercy, the female Buddha, with the Indian Hindu god, Ma Kali. Another noteworthy evidence in this context is the Pagoda structure, which is a derivative of the Stupas in India.

In the Four Heaven Kings room, Buddhism depicts a strategy to get rid of evil in order – first is the angry face Buddha seeking evil with a snake in hand, followed by a kind face Buddha with an umbrella in his hand to catch all evil. The third Buddha has a mandolin to make evil sleepy, and the last Buddha is armed with a sword to kill the evil after it falls sleepy – simplistic yet interesting. There were other rooms in the temple with more Buddha statues, including the female Buddha Mercy, standing on a sea turtle.

Each temple we went to had a raised threshold at its entrance that represented a barrier to keep evil spirits out. Besides Buddhism, the other two philosophies prevalent in ancient China were Confucianism, and Taoism. Confucianism emphasized on education, and was well established until the Opium Wars, when ancient China realized that a rigorous merit based system to delegate power was futile if they did not develop their militia to stand up against Ocean People’s sophisticated weapons.

The Taoism philosophy centers on the principle that good and evil, right and wrong coexist, and there is no good if there is no evil in this world. The gardens in Shanghai contained symbolic representations of these three religious practices. Religion in modern China has always been a point of contention since the establishment of Communist Party of China or the CCP in 1921. Religion remains suppressed, and if a lack of belief in the higher power translates to a lack of a checks-and-balance system, one can conjecture that it has created a void in the country’s general sense of morality.

Here I’m going to quote our tour guide in Hangzhou, Joe, who explained, “Only about 20% of the Chinese believe in Buddhism, most Chinese believe in themselves. ” This point, also mentioned in China Road (Gifford, Rob) gained my attention in light of the Chinese economic reform that has been so rampantly adopted by the CCP after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Chinese people are focused on increasing their wealth and rightly so, after experiencing years of poverty, and suffering.

As a native of western Chinese province exclaims in China Road, “I want to live! Because we are tired of just surviving”. This is the China that I witnessed in my trip – in full swing midst their economic reform, with businesses booming, and construction at its peak in whichever direction I looked out my windows – be it from the bus, trains or my hotel rooms. The theme in both Shanghai and Hangzhou was a mix of subtle socialist control, with capitalism blending in to make the whole atmosphere of China unique.

This is where China seems to be heading in the near future - on one hand there is the government propaganda of ‘social harmony’ being ingrained in the minds of the Old Hundred Names, as far west to cover every foot of rural China, while on the other hand there are neon-lit billboards of big multinational companies on the well connected network of roads in the coastal cities. The CCP is the biggest political party in the world with more than 80 million members.

Even the tour guides are members of the CCP – which makes you question how rehearsed the guide is, and are they showing us parts of China or facets of Chinese growth that only the CCP chooses to be revealed to foreigners? CCP members seem to be spread out in every functioning aspect of a working society – for instance the judge in Paul Taylor’s (director of US Commercial Center in Shanghai) case, who went to court to get compensated for his house (which was being demolished by the state to construct a metro station), had not only never been to law school, but was a member of the CCP!

Another striking piece of information obtained during discussions with Paul was the fact that telecommunication industry in China is all state owned. Now, I do not think it is as bad as North Korea, where the government randomly shuts power, inspects people’s homes to check what CD is stuck in the music players (electricity is cut-off), and if the content found is even slightly anti-government, the residents are taken to labor camps. So I know it is not that bad, but I still do not know how severe the repercussions in China are if you heard speaking anti CCP?

And should you be wary of what you speak with the constant fear that the state can overhear your private cellular conversations? Or perhaps the Old Hundred Names living in the villages, and the middle and upper classes of the cities have nothing to speak up against after years of indoctrination by the government? This still remains a mystery and I wonder what efforts the Chinese government (or for that matter any communist state) takes to ensure that foreigners remain ignorant of such dynamics between them and its citizens?

The industries we visited were a good mix of both wholly private owned such Geely Automobiles, as well as corporate entities with government stakes such as the food and beverage company Wa-Ha-Ha. Something that I had wanted to see was the actual production floors and manufacturing conditions of the Chinese worker. But having read in newspapers about the terrible working conditions of the laborer in the plants, it is probably not a realistic expectation as a visitor to witness this in person. Another aspect of China I would really have liked to see is a western province comprising of farmlands.

Rob Gifford’s informal interactions with the Chinese farmer made me want to witness their hardships, and gather their take on the Chinese fast growing prosperity as a nation, and how it has affected their lives. What I experienced in China can most closely be described as a country in midst of its Industrial Revolution era, and just for this fact alone, I’m grateful for this visit – for where and when else can we be witness to an Industrial Revolution during our lifetime, besides reading about the European and American eras in history books?

In my learnings during the visit, it appears that China still has potential to set up new manufacturing bases despite the labor rates increasing two-fold recently. China is also sensing a need to shift labor-based industry to knowledge based. As the east coast becomes polluted with the increasing demand for new construction of apartment buildings (Chinese moving from inland to coastal provinces in search of better opportunities), as well as industrial and commercial offices, the Chinese government is now incentivizing foreign investments in the interior western provinces, to develop those economically backward regions.

Given the rate of growth, if the inland provinces were to develop as fast as the coastal cities, I can’t help but wonder naively – where will all the paddy fields and farmlands go? Just as with any developing nation, China holds great promise on the surface, but not without consequences. On one hand you see extensive infrastructure in terms of roads and highways, and public transportation, but on the other hand there are the grave realities of not having access to clean potable water, the high levels of carbon dioxide and other pollutants in the atmosphere, and the wide economic imparity among the different classes of society, to name a few.

China – a great country indeed. But if there was one word that comes to my mind when I think of China is ‘dualism’ - A civilization trying to be a state... A fundamentally communist country embracing capitalism for the prosperity of its people... An agricultural and an industrial economy… A peaceful yet extremely ambitious state... Striving for both social harmony and economic prosperity… A land of unique opportunities and equally unique challenges… And so on. Almost as if the country is living up to its ancient philosophies of the Chinese Yin and Yang, and the coexistence that Taoism is all about.