木已成舟(mù yǐ chéng zhōu), 生米煮成熟饭(shēng mǐ zhǔ chéng shú fàn):
The timber has become a boat. The rice is cooked.
A Chinese proverb meaning that what is done cannot be undone.
This thought was very much on my mind this week, as I spent time with my various offices in China – mainland and Hong Kong – and reviewed business, prospects and work.
And, I think, I was particularly sensitized because of my recent trip to Cuba and my observations about the people. It is impossible not to begin to benchmark and compare – despite the fact that according to a few of my readers I am a “cretinous stooge for the totalitarian Communists of Cuba” and now I imagine China…what can I say.
Still, in this country, with pockets of incredible wealth and prosperity; of amazing innovation and creation; of ingenuity and just plain smarts…stories like this one are a jolt…
Read here from the BBC.
It tells the tale of five Hong Kong booksellers who vanished in 2015 and last week showed up on Chinese TV “confessing” to promoting and selling “unauthorized” books critical of communist leaders on the mainland.
This is a story we might have seen 50 years ago and read with horror, yet today it barely registered in the West and, let’s not forget, it was a fairly hard line, conservative United States President – Richard Nixon – who so long ago helped to “chop the wood and get the rice boiling” by opening China to the US and the West.
I can never be in China without marveling at all the changes that have occurred here since I first visited, back in the 80s, when I entered through Shekou and had to pass through a “Museum of Chinese History” before I could get to the street – a museum that did nothing but highlight Chinese advancement through the years while the decadent West languished. I was assigned a dedicated secret policeman calling himself Michael Jackson (Michael Jordan was the other popular name), who was at my side 24/7. I have written about this before…the only car on the road for miles and miles, the Friendship Stores where only the elite could buy Western goods, the impossibility of actually speaking with anyone, no access to local currency – you get the picture.
Today you enter freely through modern air terminals; the cars are new and numerous…as are the traffic jams…with Maseratis and BMWs and you name it; the Friendship Stores are decaying hulks surrounded by Cartier and Vuitton; get on WeChat and you can speak to anyone and do just about anything you can think of, and currency is open to all.
Yet, surrounded by the latest fashions (global and Chinese), a sea of expensive designer bags, and a never-ending clicking of fingers on smartphones, I could not help closing my eyes, as I queued up to leave the plane on an internal China flight, and picturing a sea of people dressed alike in the same drab outfits, shuffling along…a scene that was the norm until almost 1980.
It was only some 35 years ago that the Fashion Revolution began on the street and in 1979 Pierre Cardin, the famous French fashion designer, staged the very first fashion show in China in modern times.
Today, Chinese journalists, tourists and the just plain curious travel to border cities near North Korea to ponder what it was like in China only some 50 years ago. Read further here: TIME.
And now, the society that transitioned from a narrow government-imposed Brand Slave identity to a self-imposed global Brand Slave position craves individualism and personalization, with many Chinese niche fashion brands exploding all over the world.
And yet, connecting to Facebook or Twitter is spotty if you even can connect at all – and many of your favorite shows are streamed without key scenes, as government censorship protects you from anything antigovernment or anticommunist.
On the other hand – who needs Facebook or Twitter when you have WeChat…and can do so much more with it…
The real question is what can we learn from China? And will the timber stay in the boat and the rice on their plates?
Here is my view.
There is a huge absence of the Digibabble fever that so pervades Western digital development, usage and valuation.
As Connie Chan of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz put it, “While Facebook and WhatsApp measure growth by the number of daily users on their networks, WeChat cares more about how relevant and central it is in addressing the daily, even hourly, needs of its users.”
Jack Ma talks about learning from American retail. He unabashedly buys tons of local TV time to drive digital sales. He intrinsically gets, in true Sam Walton tradition; that you follow the consumer to where the money is. In a day, Alibaba ships 4x the number of packages that Amazon does (lower average orders to be fair) yet makes a profit…HMMMMMMM – maybe that’s real disruption (a topic for another time).
WeChat is about lifestyle. And life is social. The Chinese get that and have from the start. Yet Mark Zuckerberg who seems to follow that thought, “Humans are fundamentally social…So…if a technology doesn’t actually help us socially understand each other better, it isn’t going to catch on,” uses it to argue that virtual reality will make people feel more connected to the real world…kind of like Amazon’s drones. Listen:
What’s happening in Asia is an inspiration – and not only WeChat…but that’s more about proof of what’s possible. It’s proof that everything starts from a conversation. There were 2,000 years when everything happened through a conversation, then a blip when the web came out when behavior was very structured – you’d go to websites, look for things to buy, and it was straight-up merchandising when you’d assume there were no human beings behind it. In Asia, the conversation was never removed. That’s why people are discovering the world through those apps.” – Stan Chudnovsky, head of product management for messaging products at Facebook
More to ponder:
More Chinese students study outside of China than any other country’s students study outside of theirs.
The Chinese are buying up real estate all over the world – as an investment and to protect their money from the government – but they are not just buying in big cities and in huge blocks. They are buying residential and across the US, Australia and Europe.
Although many Chinese cannot afford to travel both due to time allotment and money, more and more do, spending $230 billion in the countries they visit.
And of course foreign investment in China continues to grow.
All of which leads me to this thought:
青出于蓝而胜于蓝 (qīng chū yú lán ér shèng yú lán)
Indigo blue is obtained from the indigo plant, but such color is bluer than the plant itself.
Bottom line? The disciple has surpassed the master.
According to the Best Countries Report, published by the U.S. News & World Report, in collaboration with WPP’s BAV and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania:
China is perceived as the number one country in the world in which to start a career.
Ai Weiwei, the legendary Chinese artist and dissident, put it all in perspective:
To survive, China had to open up to the West. It could not survive otherwise. This was after many millions have died of hunger in a country that was like North Korea is today. Once we became part of global competition, we had to agree to some rules. It’s painful, but we had to. Otherwise there was no way to survival.
Let me end with a personal story, from my recent visit, that spoke volumes.
I went to see the Jewish Refugees Museum, a history of the Shanghai Community of European Jews who were saved from the Nazis and their allies by the Chinese during World War II. It is a most moving exhibition, made even more so to me by the family names I recognized, as a number of my friends’ parents and grandparents were saved in Shanghai. And our young guide, a local volunteer, spoke with pride about the communities – both Chinese and Jewish.
As we were leaving, a few buses pulled up and out came the students from a local school…it seems that schools visit every day – it is a part of local history and culture. What distinguished this school, an international school, was that the instructors and all the children, despite being local, all spoke English as that is the language in which they are taught. One of my friends, an “old China Hand” remarked that they would all go to school in the US or England…
Chinese students learning, in English, about China’s role in saving Jews from the Holocaust…
The indigo is bluer than the plant…
So you can argue, as they did in Davos, about growth in China being 6% or 4% and bemoan the double-digit slowdown.
Or you can view (as I did) with cynicism the tears of Xi Jinping – but do pay attention to his use of social media…
Or listen to Mao…yes Mao (save the knee-jerk cretin remarks…). Listen:
The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you. The world belongs to you. China’s future belongs to you.
The timber will never leave the boat and the indigo is the most amazing blue – time to learn from ourselves…back to basics….
What do you think?