I recently made a same day trip from Beijing to Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province. Jinan and Beijing are about 500 kilometers apart. I left Beijing on the 11:00 am high speed train (ultimately bound for Shanghai’s Hongqiao Station), and arrived back in Beijing at 9:45 that evening, following a series of meetings, a presentation which I gave, and a scrumptious banquet of Zibo, Shandong cuisine.
The high speed train averaged 300 km per hour. We arrived in less than two hours. For those who stayed on the train for the full journey, scheduled arrival in Shanghai was about six hours from departure time in Beijing. Really fast.
China’s high-speed rail network is now the largest in the world, and despite some lingering image issues relating to safety, it is changing the face of business travel in many parts of the country.
In the mid 1970s, the experience of business travel in China was akin to watching yourself in a slow motion film. The first step was persuading a Chinese host organization to issue you a formal invitation letter, which in turn enabled you to apply for a visa. Once that process was eventually complete, you boarded the one daily train service from Hong Kong for the nearly full-day journey to Guangzhou, some 135 kilometers away. The next flight to Beijing was not available until the following day.
There were no direct flights linking Hong Kong and Beijing until some years later. Until direct air links were opened, it took nearly 36 hours to get from Hong Kong to Beijing (1,971 kilometers) on the fastest available modes of public transport.
This seems shockingly, unimaginably slow by today’s standards.
The significance of this dramatic change is not simply about the greatly reduced time required to go from point “A” to point “B”.
There has been a phenomenal acceleration in the movement of people and ideas in China since the late 1970s. This is huge progress, without which China’s economic miracle would not have been possible, but it also poses many challenges relating to change management.
It’s an obvious blessing for the vast number of ordinary Chinese people whose standards of living have been dramatically improved, who also enjoy greatly enhanced personal mobility and choice, educational opportunities, and connectedness with friends and family.
The challenges arise because such rapid change stretches the limits of people’s ability to cope. That’s true for individuals, families, organizations, and for society as a whole.
Managing phenomenal change also places enormous demands on what leaders need to do to be effective in their jobs.
My trip to Jinan revolved around an invitation to speak to a group of business leaders on doing business in America, with a focus on business customs and etiquette.
When I mentioned to my daughter than I was preparing a talk on this subject, she reacted with some surprise and asked in a slightly humorous tone: “Are you still qualified to talk on that subject?” Her point was that since I’ve lived outside of America for nearly 40 years, perhaps I might be somewhat out of touch with current business customs and etiquette there.
Her question started me thinking about the comparative rates of change in China and America during the past 40 years, and the relative challenge of keeping abreast of those changes in both countries.
Although the whole world has experienced big changes during the past two generations — many of them driven by the impact of new technology — no major country has experienced the pace and scope of fundamental changes that China has.
Most obvious and often cited are the embrace of market economics and other changes resulting from the Open Door and Reform policy; an integral part of which was granting Chinese citizens a far greater degree of personal choice and mobility in their lives.
In telecommunications, China leapfrogged the analog era and installed a world class national network, with the largest mobile and (very soon) internet user base in the world. In transportation, China built the largest high-speed rail network, an extensive new highway system, and more new airports than the rest of the world combined (56 more are planned by the end of 2016). In a wide range of basic infrastructure, the examples are too many to name here.
At the same time, the largest movement of people from rural farming communities to cities in human history is well underway, with profound effects at the regional and national levels.
In the business sector, the restructuring of state-owned enterprises from rust-belt behemoths to large listed companies has produced 73 Chinese companies big enough to be ranked on the current Fortune Global 500 list, up from zero a generation ago. In the non-SOE sector there has also been an explosion of new corporate success stories. On the global stage, Chinese companies have begun the march into international markets through mergers and acquisitions, IPOs, joint ventures and wholly-owned operating units.
On balance, despite having lived in Greater China for the past 38 years, I still think “doing business in America” is a much easier story to tell than “doing business in China” is. A big part of the reason why is the phenomenal pace and degree of change here. America has changed a lot as well, but not in as many fundamental ways as China has during this time frame. America is also a much more transparent environment regarding the flow of information.
One piece of advice I offered in my presentation in Jinan is to avoid making the assumption that the average American (or other foreigners, for that matter) understand China. In reality most of them find it confusing and complex.
Sustainable partnerships depend on mutual understanding and trust, which are not easily achieved. This outcome can only be achieved through consistent efforts to communicate, especially between groups with such different backgrounds. Ideally, this communication process should be elevated to a mutually agreed priority starting from the early stages of due diligence on any new partnership.
It was good to be back in Shandong, which is where my wife was born and also the home province of my first Chinese teacher. I first sampled Shandong cuisine in Beijing’s Feng Ze Yuan restaurant, and remain a big fan of Shandong cooking to this day.
Which brings me to another question which occurred to me during this recent day trip. Why is it that among all the Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong and overseas — including many offering Cantonese, Shanghai, Beijing, and Sichuan cuisine — there seem to be no Shandong style restaurants?
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