How has the experience of foreigners in China evolved?

Jun 16, 2023

You are reading an excerpt from my upcoming book, EXACTLY WHAT TO SAY IN CHINA.

My journey into the Chinese mainland began in 2004 when I disembarked a ferry boat in Shekou, Shenzhen, and entered a dystopian Shangri-la. These contradictory words are the best I can describe a bizarre yet wondrous new experience in China.

A small, parochial American company founded in the 1800s located south of Boston hired me because the specialized synthetic lubricants they supplied to the big three US automakers had shifted production to China. They needed someone to sort out numerous complaints and channel conflicts and develop new opportunities from an increasing number of locally made design decisions. My first foray into doing business in Asia was as Country Manager, Taiwan. I was conversationally fluent in Mandarin Chinese, but what I later encountered in Mainland China was astonishing in both delightful and incoherent ways.

"A land of contradictions" was immediately visual and experiential between the ferry terminal and Nan Hai Hotel's security gate. Exiting Shekuo terminal revealed a vast array of dirty Asian sidewalks, homeless kids, street vendors, and peddlers mixed with bike riders, scooters, and taxis spewing smog that swirled with the ocean breeze to create an exotic scent. But the backdrop was stunning views of manicured forests and Hong Kong's cityscape across the bay. Passing the gated hotel security about 100 meters from the lobby entrance opened the door to an oasis with Chinese characteristics that divided two contrasting realities, ordinary Chinese life on the outside and a privileged one inside.

As I write today, I am conscious that my "Country Manager, Taiwan" job title from 1996 has political ramifications that didn't exist before. While the "One China" question has endured since 1949, it didn't have many personal or business implications until recently, corresponding to the PRC's rise in relative strength and global influence. In 2004, ordinary people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait were aware of its undercurrents, but working together to "get rich" was a much higher priority. 

While it's not for sure that Deng Xiaoping literally said, 'To get rich is glorious' when in 1978 China embarked on an accelerated path of economic development, a mentality that prioritizes wealth materialized as if by decree from Qin Shi Huang himself, the founder of the Qin dynasty and the first emperor of a unified China. The dynamics of pragmatic wealth creation, Face or Mianzi (้ขๅญ), and nationalism coupled with contrasting values, priorities, and customs form the new Chinese arena, and untangling viable strands to advance mutual progress is now everyone’s China challenge.

Most leaders enter China unprepared to adapt to things they don't know they don't know, but you can change that with a free EXACTLY WHAT TO SAY IN CHINA Discovery Coaching Session.

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