Sep 2018 - May 2020
As I’m halfway through my 25-hour-flight back to São Paulo, I’ve decided to register some of the thoughts that are tingling my brain for the last couple of days.
This was my first time in China and I couldn’t have had a better way to experience it than having this incredible group of 60 brilliant Oxford friends alongside me, pushing the limits of every discussion with provocative questions and insightful remarks. And well, we’ve indeed experienced it. We’ve visited different cities and companies of all sorts: small, medium and big; state-owned, privately-owned and publicly listed; industry, manufacturers, tech, disruptive, traditional… you name it. We’ve not only spoken to CEOs, founders and executives, but also with blue collar workers and regular people from the community.
China is a gigantic puzzle and even if I had spent 7 years there, instead of the 7 days that I did spend, I still wouldn’t be able to collect enough puzzle pieces to fully understand it. Yet, I’ll pass along my overall first impressions. Important: These are not Oxford’s nor my colleagues’ impressions and opinions, but mine.
To begin with, things that we take for granted are not available there: Google, WhatsApp, Gmail, Uber, Translator, Maps, Facebook, READING… Life today is very odd without them. Anyway, I thought I was prepared before I landed: VPN, WeChat, Didi, Baidu, etc. Forget it. These are not meant for us. We can’t understand it. Our credit cards don’t work there.
Asking for directions on the streets is also hard as the vast majority didn’t understand me and I didn’t understand them. Simple things like getting a cab and then telling the taxi driver where you want to go, or ordering food in a restaurant and actually knowing what you are getting, proved to be really challenging. That said, China was the least tourist-friendly country that I’ve ever visited by far, even though people were really warm and welcoming. It’s simply a different world.
Nonetheless, I was completely stunned with what’s going on in this different world. Whole cities built from scratch in under 3 decades, housing dozens of millions and with greater GDPs than many countries. Cutting-edge technology in all sectors, integrating people, companies, municipalities and services in ways that I hadn’t even thought of before. For the first time in my life, I felt old. The sensation was as if the train had departed and I was left behind at the station.
It’s not only about the technology, but also, about the way that the society is organised. There is this sense of purpose, collective effort, progress and long-term orientation which could not be crafted without an extremely effective leadership and vision. Moreover, companies, regardless of being publicly or privately owned, are seen as real national assets and supported accordingly by the government and by the society, to serve the greater purpose. Along with that, massive infrastructure deployments and huge incentives in education, science and technology forms the foundation of their growth and clears the path for a future that will hardly be matched by another country. It is happening.
However, it was also possible to perceive that all of this came with a cost. Censorship underlies all forms of communication and surveillance is real. Cameras are everywhere and they are connected to powerful face recognition AI systems, with which the government is capable of locating any of the 1.3 billion citizens within less than 15 minutes. Additionally, the government controls most of the relevant companies in the strategic sectors and their jobs are frequently related to political matters. There is also the “Social Credit Scoring System”, which makes use of the surveillance network and scores the citizens in regards of governmental criteria, which is later used to determine what one will be allowed to do. Just like Black Mirror.
However, the lack of freedom imposed to the Chinese seems to irritate the foreigners much more than the actual citizens. Of course, perception of freedom varies greatly across cultures and I am in no position to judge theirs. I might be wrong, but I had the feeling that they are, in general, happy to pay this price in return for everything they are getting.
The environment has also suffered. According to the World Health Organization, 283 out of the 500 most polluted cities in the world are in China and even with their current strong push to reduce carbon footprint, little progress has been achieved yet.
As for the companies visits, I could sense that all of them are trying to change that old western perception of Chinese products and services: “It’s China. It’s Cheap.”. However, there is a notable split in this matter: While most of the companies that we’ve visited impressed us because they are really doing remarkable things, there were a few of them that seemed to have everything staged and designed only to impress, with fabricated speeches and showcases while providing dodgy answers to our questions. I also got this impression while travelling by train, when I saw some buildings, warehouses and factories that happened to be completely empty inside, but looked majestic from the outside.
There was also part of the agenda of the companies to show how concerned they were with intellectual property, even though we didn’t touch on that matter. On the other hand, there is another part of the system that clearly does not care about it. There are huge shopping malls with several floors filled with hundreds of small stores that are selling counterfeit items such as designer watches, luggages, handbags, sunglasses and electronics.
Finally, while most of the people were kind and fair, there were some that were constantly trying to scam us in some way. I got scammed twice by taxi drivers and one, believe me, by the concierge of the hotel, that collected our money for the train ticket, and bought us an inferior one and kept the price difference to himself.
I left China with the impression that the astonishing development was only possible due to the vision that created this collaborative effort amongst all sectors, exchanging growth for freedom. It also struck me to see the contrast between the part of society that is trying to build something solid and the part that just wants to get something in their pockets at any cost and that made me wonder: Is there a bubble going on? How much of it all is even real? I have no answer for these questions.
Returning to my also emerging-country, I see that regardless of the answers to my questions, the future is happening somewhere else and during the years alone that we’ve halted everything else to discuss the Brazilian pension funds reform, China has grown more than the whole Brazilian GDP. Indeed, I need to hurry up to catch the next train, but this time, I’ll make sure I’ll buy my own ticket!Back to top of article