你的计划是什么? / What’s Your Plan?
——《纽约时报》“往昔岁月（The Way We Were）” 专栏作家托马斯•弗里德曼（曾三次获普利策奖）。
What’s Your Plan?
“Countries that don’t plan for the future tend not to do well there.”
-- Thomas Friedman, in a NY Times column entitled “The Way We Were”
In this column, published a few months back, Friedman decries the paralyzing impact of unprecedented bi-partisan political deadlock in Washington over the planning and policy decisions essential to charting America’s future.
This “hyper-partisanship” blocks America’s progress, despite a host of other very positive trend lines involving innovation, energy, entrepreneurship, diversity, revitalization of the manufacturing sector, and so on. The paradox is worrying, to say the least.
His focus in this column is mainly America as a country, although he makes a passing reference late in the piece to companies, implying a clear (and obvious) parallel for the relatively positive prospects of companies which plan well for the future versus those who fail to do so.
This is obvious, yet it seems worth commenting on. What applies to countries and companies insofar as planning ahead also applies to individuals.
There are several points which strike me about this as relates to China.
First, China’s Five-Year Plan (FYP) really needs a better international communications effort. Outside of China, it is widely misunderstood. The average foreigner -- if they have any idea of what a Five Year Plan entails -- associates it with a bygone era of highly centralized Soviet-style economic planning.
Add to that the communiques and work plans which emerge from Party Congresses, Plenums and NPC meetings, and it’s a complex picture, sometimes involving inconsistent and confusing rhetoric.
Of course, experienced and interested multinational investors in China have executives and consultants very well-versed by now in the 12th Five-Year Plan, already beginning to read the tea leaves on the 13th. The same goes for the work plan which emerged from the Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress.
One big difference today compared with ten years ago is the degree to which China moves global markets: equities, commodities, you name it. A perfect example was the sharp plunge in most world equity markets the day after the initial communique of the Third Plenum was released.
Traders and analysts had high expectations that this document would provide highlights of bold new financial and market reforms. Markets tanked because the contents were considered vague, and omitted many important policy questions.
Those who understand China well would have known that the details of a Plenum’s decisions are not contained in the initial communique, but in the work report which normally follows a week or so later. Unfortunately, around the world, those who misunderstand China vastly outnumber those who understand it. Therein lies the rub.
Markets didn’t plunge the last time this happened, ten years ago, in part because China had not yet reached the level of global economic influence and integration which she enjoys today; in part because of the mood of uncertainty which preceded the recent ten-year leadership transition; and in part because of the vexing economic and other challenges which the new leadership faced.
Uncertainty carries significant economic costs.
China has come a long way indeed in terms of transparency since my first visits in the mid-1970s, but there is still a pressing need for more transparency and a better ongoing external communications program.
I said publicly at a recent luncheon presentation in Hong Kong that after nearly 40 years here, I still find China a very confusing place, more so than I did 20-30 years ago. That wasn’t false humility. I mean it.
The 5 Year Plan and related plans like the ten-year human relations plan are examples -- in the context which Friedman was discussing -- of China’s strong points. That’s not to say that all the goals of each Five-Year plan are achieved, or even that the plan itself has always been launched in a timely manner. Still, it is a well-established, highly detailed planning tool with tremendous impact in guiding economic decision-making.
Contrary to widespread perceptions outside China, the embrace of market economics with so-called Chinese characteristics -- part and parcel of the ongoing open door and reform era -- did not erase the importance of the Five-Year Plan. Far from it.
I think it could be argued that the FYP is even more important today than it was before.
What needs to be improved is telling this story to the world outside, on an ongoing basis. This is not purely for the benefit of foreign investors and business people. It is in China’s best interest to be better understood in this era of globalization, for multiple reasons.
Although Friedman was writing about countries, my sense is at the individual level, younger Chinese are keenly interested in career-planning and life-planning advice.
For those fortunate enough to attend college, they wrestle with a host of questions: which major field of study to pursue? How important are internships, and how do you find one? Is an advanced degree essential in today’s market?
My suggestion to younger friends is to keep asking questions of a wide variety of older people, to gain a better understanding of your prospects, opportunities, and the best paths forward. Unfortunately, schools generally don’t do a very good job of providing wide-ranging career advice.
Family or personal “guan-xi” is great, but over-reliance on it can be risky. Of course it can open doors and find jobs, but it also carries a certain amount of baggage and obligation. Ultimately, you’re on your own, unless you want to be a dependent child for life. If that’s the case, then your career choices are not so important anyway, except insofar as your own self-respect goes.
I recall a conversation in my senior year of college with my Sanskrit teacher, a very distinguished older Professor with whom I had never previously had a one-on-one conversation. He asked me about my plans post-graduation. As I recall, my response was not very cohesive because I hadn’t quite figured out how to bridge the gap between what I dreamed of doing, and the reality of the job market.
He asked me if I played chess. I said, yes, but not to a high standard. He said that did not matter, as long as I applied the strategic thinking process of chess to my career planning. Always think and plan one, two, three or more moves ahead.
It seemed like good advice at the time, and I’ve since discovered it was very good advice indeed.
As the Year of the Horse begins, it’s a good time to think about planning where we want the horse to take us, while not forgetting to effectively share our trip plans with those who need to know.
The same goes for companies, and their leaders.