Archive for the ‘Rants & Raves’ Category

Rant: China Might Want to Consider Soft Power Too

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

By any measure China’s awe inspiring embrace of Africa is impressive.  Let’s put aside the staggering financial statistics on how many billions of dollars Beijing is spreading across the continent or even the scale of its natural resource haul.  Honestly, there is no comparison because no other country or countries come close to the breadth and depth of china-africaChina’sengagement here.  While the Americans and Europeans meet in conferences and write report after report on the dismal political and humanitarian conditions in Africa, the Chinese are building deep roots here as part of a century-long investment.  From Algeria to Angola, tens of thousands of Chinese construction crews are laying the foundation of that investment with the building of countless roads, bridges, hospitals and other desperately needed infrastructure.  For that, there is widespread appreciation across many levels of society for Beijing’s ability to persevere where both national governments and international donors have largely failed.  Not far away, though, from those construction sites, problems are beginning to simmer that if go unchecked could severely compromise Beijing’s long term agenda in Africa.

China is not just bringing piles of cash and construction trucks to Africa, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are also making the long journey to resettle in cities like right here in Kinshasa.  These immigrants, like Mister Chen who we profiled Mister Chen1ctpearlier, are coming here in search of opportunity and to build a better life for their families.  They are opening businesses large and small in out of the way neighborhoods that largely go unseen by the casual observer.  In so many ways, the Chinese entrepreneurial enthusiasm is a welcome addition to poor and dysfunctional communities that essentially operate outside of the formal economy.  In short, the Chinese are bringing desperately needed jobs, goods and services.  Human culture being what it is though, there is also tremendous risk with how the Chinese ultimately assimilate with Congolese and other African cultures.  Initially, the arrival of those Chinese business were greeted either with indifference or welcomed as a positive addition to the community.  Now, however, the first rumblings of unease are beginning to emerge as some communities find the Chinese presence to be more problematic than they had initially thought.  This issue was most recently brought to light in Namibia where the growing competition from Chinese hair salon owners prompted the government to place an outright ban on Chinese ownership of these types of beauty parlors.  Separately, I am hearing more and more firsthand reports from Congolese who have friends and relatives working on Chinese construction projects who complain that Chinese foremen are becoming increasingly aggressive with their local employees.  It has been well documented that in countries such as Congo-Brazzaville, Angola and Algeria (source: China Safari, 2009) that many Chinese employers lack cultural sensitivity skills that would endear them to local populations.

To many Chinese, these so-called “soft skills” are meaningless.  The common retort from many Chinese business owners and project managers is that local workers complain because the Chinese work harder and demand more from their employees than do African companies.  The fact that local workers are complaining about working for low wages or not being paid at all just further reinforces that Chinese mindset.   In fact, the emotional standoff between Chinese merchants and their African critics is very similar to the same arguments made about cultural insensitivity by the Chinese in certain minority -populated provinces in China.  Now, let me be very clear here.  I do not have an opinion as to whether or not the popular sentiment held by the majority Han culture in China is correct or the views of minorities who feel their cultures are being paved over.  I will leave those questions to far more learned observers.  My point is that the debate is so similar.  The Han perspective emphasizes economic development as evidence by infrastructure construction.  Sentimentality for culture or religion is rarely a priority when measured against infrastructure development in economically deprived regions.

Considering the tremendous speed the Chinese are moving in Africa, particularly here in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there may good reason to allocate a small percentage of that investment to building cultural ties between the Chinese and their African hosts.  The Congolese, for example, seem overwhelmingly positive about the Chinese arrival.  They regard the Chinese initiatives with optimism and see their enthusiasm for Africa as welcome relief from the failed policies of the West.  That said, the DRC is an extremely volatile country where a spark can light a blaze in seconds.  If the Chinese are not carefully with their cultural investment, it could handicap their broader regional agenda.

THE FRIDAY RANT: French??? Really???

Friday, February 12th, 2010

stupid_american_idiotChina’s reform era is now entering its third decade and just now, in 2010, are Americans beginning to awake to the importance of learning Mandarin.  Now when I say “beginning to awake” I mean the alarm clock just went off and you’re that groggy kind of awake, not fully alert.  For most Americans, French or Spanish is the choice when studying a foreign language in high school.  Even those options are dwindling rapidly in many American schools as budget cuts ravage the country’s public education system.    The problem though is not limited to just the public schools.  Many of the country’s most elite private high schools, with tuitions exceeding $40,000 per year, still do not offer what I would characterize as a “strategic language” (Chinese, Arabic or Russian).   Again, it’s French or Spanish, and in some cases even German (yeah, go figure).

The United States is the midst of a foreign language crisis.  Not only do we not teach languages very effectively, but we remain focused on the wrong languages!  According to the New York Times, almost 50% of the country’s schools still teach French while only 4% have a Mandarin program.  4%!?!?! This wouldn’t be quite so upsetting if French wasn’t the dominant foreign language choice.  Unlike Chinese or the other strategic languages, French is shrinking language.  Yes, given both France’s and Canada’s shrinking birthrates along with many former French colonies turning to English and even Chinese as their foreign language of choice, every year there are fewer and fewer people who speak French

Commercial_Appeal_logoHow can people not see what is going on? Well, exhibit A: An editorial this week in the Memphis, Tennessee newspaper “The Commercial Appeal” that decries the growth of Chinese at the expense of, you guessed it, French. (Scroll down to the comments below the editorial as they are also highly recommended for insights in America’sdestructive provincialism — note, the comment by your blogger “EricOlander”).


The news is not all discouraging though.  While French remains the predominant foreign language, the growth of Mandarin Chinese classes in both public and private schools are on the rise, according to the New York Times. Sadly, the vast majority of these programs are located in areas with high concentrations of Chinese-Americans who already have a connection to the culture and the language.  Yes, ABCs (American Born Chinese) play an important role in our country’s linguistic development, but for the growth of the language to have any significance it has to go well beyond the ethnic enclaves all the way to the mainstream.

Americans across the educational spectrum had better get their foreign language priorities straight very quick or the much discussed demise of American influence, prestige and global power will continue apace.  The catch, though, is that most folks in the USA won’t have any idea what happened and when they do, they won’t have the skills to understand a word of what happened.

BYD Auto: China’s Canary in the Innovation Coal Mine

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

6a00d8354c5f6569e20120a6abdf21970bOne magazine article does not make a trend or even represent one at that.  However, BusinessWeek’s recent article “behind all the hype” surrounding China’s economy should give China’s economic planners some cause for concern.  There is a growing sense in many Western countries that China’s industrial “brand” is becoming increasingly tarnished.  Already, consumers are becoming alert to the notion that “Made in China” is potentially a warning sign for sub-par, even dangerous, products.  Year after year, Chinese products consistently draw headlines for poor quality.  Just as with any product, it is important to remember that brand perception is not a rational science.  Yes, the Chinese milk, pet food and toy scandals all had an impact on how consumers feel about “Made in China” and, for many, Chinese products have yet to recover.

That said, Chinese manufacturers and government leaders will contend that less than 2%-3% of Chinese exports have been tainted in any meaningful.  2%-3% does not seem like a lot, yet when evaluated against the hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese exports those figures are potentially alarming. Amid a growing chorus of China manufacturing critics ranging from BusinessWeek to author Paul Midler who explains that Chinese business culture is largely responsible for the country’s deteriorating reputation as a global manufacturer, officials in Beijing have rightly identified domestic innovation as a solution.  Merely acting as the labor in the production process is no longer a viable path to growth and long term economic stability.  China, they say, must innovate to grow.  Once again, I pose the question: can Chinese businesses power the necessary technical and creative innovation to help the country move its way up the value chain?  Regular CTP readers know that I remain skeptical though a critical test looms that may prove me wrong.

The news this week that Chinese battery and electric car producer BYD Auto is building 1.5 billion RMB testing facility to enhance the company’s R&D capacity may mark a critical milestone in the Chinese innovation debate.   This massive investment in R&D will serve as a clear demarcation between the skeptics who question China’s innovation capacity and those who see China emerging from being a BYDBMWpure-play manufacturer to a product innovator.  BYD, in so many ways, is the ideal test case for this experiment.  Its early products represent the lazy, copycat product development that has given skeptics, including myself, ammunition.  Afterall, their S6 crossover SUV was a blatant ripoff of the Lexus crossover.   Moreover, their logo (right) is painfully similar to that of BMWs.  OK, so let’s let bygones be bygones and give the company the benefit of the doubt that their early foray in to brand marketing drew on painful habits of the past.  Today, with their focus on R&D, BYD is a new company with a new innovative drive.  Afterall, Warren “The Sage from Omaha” Buffet himself 230 million dollars into BYD, so how bad can it be, right?

Well, we will soon see.  It all depends on the E6 — BYD’s flagship electric vehicle that is reportedly powered by a state of the art lithium ion battery that can travel 300 miles/400 km on a single charge.  The car is scheduled to be unveiled later this year fleet sales only.  Now, with BYD, there is reason to be skeptical.  This is a company that for a number of different reasons has failed to live up to its own hype, much less that imposed on it by others.  Projected sales figures have not materialized along with difficulties in achieving its electrical battery storage capabilities as advertised are just two of the key hurdles confronting BYD’s credibility.  If, however, the E6 does actually work as predicted, then it clearly demonstrates the potential of not only this company, but China as a whole, to break from its past an idea-copier to an idea-generator.

Public Opinion & Spin Control in China

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009


Quite a few blog entries and articles have been posted around the web regarding the CCP’s initiative to “channel public opinion.”  Authors mainly cite two pieces of information:

a) Hu Jintao’s June 20, 2008 speech on the role of news media organizations in undertaking a dialogue between the Party/Government and the public.

b) An August 13, 2009 publication of the All-China Journalist’s Association that discusses guidelines & recommendations for certain agencies that may need to respond to sudden public rancor.

The more I read about the activity of “channeling” in China (kudos to HKU’s China Media Project), the more I start to think of government “spin” in the United States.  China can’t control public opinion, and I believe they don’t seek to do so anymore as much as influence it.  Like any government, it wants to have its version of the story told.

I used to think that the Party had an unfair advantage because it controls the fourth estate so absolutely, but to see the widespread usage of and engagement of internet BBS, Blogs, and SMS information exchange, that sense of unfairness has eased.  And after living through US media coverage of our own government these past 8 years, I don’t find myself as fervently believing our own media’s independence which affects how I view the Party’s efforts at spin control.

For the most part, I view the efforts by the PRC government to build “channeling” skills as an effort to rid propaganda departments of stodgy tired phrases and rigid stubborn personalities.


Keeping Up with Public Opinon In China – The Party’s Dilemma

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

womanHow does the Chinese public know what it thinks?  My own characterization of the last 30 years posits three stages of evolution:

1) from the Communist Party and government institutions telling the population what to think,

to 2) telling them what they’d like them to think,

to 3) telling them what they are thinking.

This latest stage coincides with the now ubiquitous activity of public opinion surveys in the PRC.

The Communist Party does not see itself as omniscient.  It actively needs to get a read on the population and balance public attitudes and perceptions against the Party’s own interests.  Since the Party’s basic interest is the retention of power and social stability, it can use public opinionto  engage in a dialogue of sorts with the public.  But assessing public opinion is getting harder these days, and it moves at a faster pace than traditional polling can sometimes keep up with.

The China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong provided a translation of a very insightful article that explains how the Party and government agencies believe public opinion can sometimes be a crisis.  The crisis articulated in the article is one of ability to react to meet or confront the opinion.  The root of this is the manner in which opinion can be expressed via the internet or mobile phones – general word of mouth.  Consensus for action among a subset of the population can be reached before the Party and government even understand the root cause.

people shouting

I found this all the more interesting in light of a speech given by Hu Jintao that Drew Thompson of the Nixon Center wrote about

in his most recent paper on responses to refugee crises in the PRC.  In the paper, Drew highlights the new emergency response

planning that China has implemented which I connect to mass issue incidents that are directly related to crises of public opinion.

While I have moments of viewing this evolution with optimism and pessimism, it is, of course, only half the story because public opinion expressed through surveys and digital communication reflects only the urban and sub-urban population mindset.  There are still another 600 Million individuals who don’t have the same benefit of voice that the 700 Million wired/wireless population has.

To Be Continued….

US-China Conferences

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

I am attending a conference in Chicago on global branding that aims to marry best practices from both countries. It is difficult to pull this off because the location always dilutes the efficacy of one side.

In this case, the China side will be hard pressed to intimate the realities of China brand building activity. On the other hand, the Chinese attendees will likey absorb more key/useful learnngs than US attendees.

Such is the case when trying to have cross cultural exchange; format matters and it is difficult to consistently allow the presenter a conducive format while offering the attendee a consistent experience.

3 Reasons to be Skeptical of China’s Plan to Build Media Empires

Friday, October 9th, 2009

media1Another year, another plan by China’s propaganda divisions to build giant media empires that it feels will help better position the country in the global media marketplace.  After the Olympic torch relay debacle last year, plans surfaced that Beijing feels that its side of the story is not getting out there.  So the 2008 plan  was to build an Al Jazeera-style all news network to rival CNN, the BBC and France24, now this year they want to expand beyond news to create full-scale media empires.


(中文) 中国悬而未决的中东外交政策

Thursday, October 8th, 2009


因此中国政府从根植于革命意识到基于务实政治的政策调整必然经历了一个走势急剧的学习曲线. 今天,中国中东政策的中心目标可用一个词来概括:平衡. (more…)

Update: China’s Innovation Challenges

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

The World Innovation Image

The BBC/Public Radio International program “The World” just wrapped up a five part series on innovation in China that dovetails nicely with the blog post/podcast that we filed earlier this week on CTP.  Correspondent Mary Kay Magistad delves deeper into many of the same issues that we raised in our discussion.  If you are interested in China’s path towards higher levels of technical and creative innovation than you will find this five-part series quite valuable:

Is “Chinese Innovation” an oxymoron?

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

innovation1Li Kaifu (李開復) is the closest thing China has to a web 2.0 rock star.  No one else in China’s small circle of technology titans comes close to achieving the international name recognition and buzz this guy generates.  For starters, the mere fact that he was the object of a Google-Microsoft love triangle that ended him fleeing one tech giant for the other is enough to give this guy major props.  That said, separating the noise from the signal on his actual accomplishments is brutally difficult not just because it’s China but also because of the very nature of his former benefactors who themselves have very little to show for all their effort in China.