May You Travel in Interesting Times

Travelling the Silicon RoadBEIJING — Being Americans, we sure picked an interesting time to send me to China. And I’m not just talking about what is happening in the semiconductor industry here.

Over the past nine months as I prepared off and on for this trip, one of my most frequently visited Websites has been China Daily’s English site. Naturally, I’ve been keeping tabs on what’s going on here in China beyond what I can see with my own eyes via China Daily online (we in the vanguard of the brave new world of online publishing have to support one another).

Let’s look at some of the top headlines today: China Cautions Yuan Moves, Urges U.S. Export More (that was the site’s lead story, as of this writing). U.S.-China Textile Talks Fail – U.S. Negotiator. U.S. Hails China’s 2nd Manned Space Mission. China Rejects U.S. Rights Report as Meddling. Arkansas Mother Gives Birth to 16th Child.

OK, that last one is apropos of absolutely nothing. But you see the common thread here, don’t you? The day before, those headlines would have included: Snow ‘Astonished’ by Changes in Shanghai (for those of you not up on current events, Snow refers to U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow, here in China with a U.S. delegation to push for more reforms of China’s capital markets, the revaluation of the yuan, etc.,).

There’s so much to write about in terms of this blog, that I hardly know where to begin. I could post three or four long entries per day and still not touch on all there is to say.

In speaking with the secretary general of China’s Semiconductor Industry Association this morning, he discussed how he had just come back from a business trip to Japan. We talked a lot about how the United States and Japan — at least certain elements within our respective governments — view China as an emerging threat either economically or politically.

But Mr. Xu pointed out that a study conducted in Japan that concluded, based on a number of economic and social factors, that China’s economy is about where Japan’s was in the 1960s. The first thing that flashed through my mind was the launch of China’s Shenzhou VI spacecraft yesterday; it was in the 1960s that the Soviet Union first launched men into orbit, followed closely by the United States; we eventually overtook the U.S.S.R. in the race for the moon.

Then, later in the conversation, Xu cited the launch of the Shenzhou spacecraft as an example of what China can accomplish when it sets its collective mind to the task. He likened China’s resolve to reach space to its resolve to bring its semiconductor industry into the 21st century. Again, I thought of the United States space program in the 1960s; we were hopelessly behind the Russians when President Kennedy pushed us into the space race.

And yet look what we were able to accomplish. I think China can accomplish great things too, both in space, and with its chip industry. But as everyone has made clear to me here — government officials, entrepreneurs, executives, students and people on the street — China recognizes that it needs help to get there and actively wants that help. And unlike the United States and its former rival, its people don’t seem to have an interest in dominating the world, they just want what’s best for China, managing a country of 1.3 billion people and growing, as it emerges from the shadow of the Cultural Revolution and transitions to a market-based economy.

Engaging in Dinner Diplomacy

It occurred to me today that as a stranger in a strange land (not all that strange, really) I’m on a diplomatic mission of sorts, whether I realized it or not — the Chinese are just as curious about Americans, as we are about them, and they want to know what’s going on over there, as much as we want to know what’s going on over here.

And just as my preconceived notions are breaking down, I’ve done my share of American myth busting. Like for example today, I had to explain to my interpreter, Tony (that’s his Western name, his real name is Zhike), that no, not every American owns a gun, and we don’t run around shooting each other all the time at the drop of a hat.

I had to tell him that I did not own a gun — never have even fired one, in fact. Furthermore, I told him that no one I know owns a handgun, and if you factor out the people that hunt deer and such (do know a few of those), gun ownership on the whole is uncommon in most parts of the country.

He seemed quite surprised by this; I suggested that he not believe everything he sees or reads in the media (and no, the irony is not lost on me). I also pointed out that I think everyone everywhere has preconceived notions about foreign lands to which they have never been.

But then apparently there is more to knowing a country and a people than just visiting, or even living there. I had dinner last night with one of my colleagues from Electronic Business China, Wang Xiao Dan (Alma to us laowai), and her fiancé Dong Ming.

Ming had studied abroad for several years at the University of Maryland before coming back to China to be an urban planner, a job which keeps him busy with all the growth here in his native land. We were talking about myths and preconceived notions that Westerners have about China and its people, and how the Chinese are nothing if not pragmatic, and that communism as the Chinese practice it really had nothing to do with ideology and never did. He relayed a story about once meeting an editor from the Wall Street Journal that had lived in China 10 years, and an argument that they had about Mao Zedong.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaThen he told me that he had the impression that I understood China better, having just been here a few days, than this guy had after living here a decade. I was flattered, shocked even, and wasn’t sure what to say. I had to point out that while I pride myself on an open mind, and the fact that I’m a reasonably good observer of the human creature, I had my own preconceived notions about China.

So as my first week in China draws to a close, and I sit in a train rattling through the night from Beijing to Shenyang, I hope that I can continue to live up to Ming’s estimation in the weeks ahead.

Original Comments

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a blog entry of mine that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. While its former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge), as far as I know, this blog content isn’t hosted anywhere else on the Internet, hence my reproduction here.

at 10/13/2005 2:59:12 PM, Jim Schuessler said:

I appreciate your transparency Jeff. Your experience brings to mind very similar first impressions from my initial visit just one year ago. The enthusiasm and directness of the Chinese I met on the street contrasted sharply with my preconceived notion of how Asian cultures behaved. These people had passion for life I could relate to!

You mentioned the increasing income disparities the Government is concerned about — one image that sticks in my mind is a BMW 7-series slowly passing a horse drawn cart on a new Shanghai boulevard. You need pictures on this blog! I hope you have a good camera. The pictures I took are a terrific memory jogger. (If you post your email address, I would like to send you the link.)

Kudos to the editors of Electronic News for funding your trip — it is the most engaging fare I’ve ever seen in it’s “pages”.

at 10/14/2005 8:14:36 AM, nelson hoffman said:

with the enthusiasm of the people and government policies tosupport that enthusiasm, is there any chance Americans can produce electronic products considering China’s tremendous cost advantage?

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