Where Does the Truth of China Lie?

Travelling the Silicon RoadLately I’ve been thinking a lot about China, obviously, and how in the last 15 years or so, it has tried to maintain its totalitarian style of communism while embracing a free market economy. The reasons for this are as complex and varied as China’s long and turbulent history, I’m sure, coupled with recent events like the collapse of the Soviet Union and its economically and politically troubled aftermath.

Remember the U.S. spy-plane incident in China back in 2001? Even as tensions rose between Beijing and Washington, every U.S. chip executive doing business in China said it was business as usual, that they even laughed about the situation with their Chinese counterparts.

I think that perhaps one reason why the Chinese perhaps retain a political and social chill to the West, even as they court Western business and an open market, may be their previous brushes with Western-style economics. In that light, in spite of what one may think about communism and totalitarianism in general and China’s domestic policies and human rights record in particular, who can blame them? After all, Western imperialism exactly hasn’t been China’s friend, historically speaking.

And history, it seems, is wont to repeat itself, at least to a certain degree.

I’ve sat through keynote speeches by semiconductor CEOs, and when they speak of China, they often invoke images of the bold, gleaming modern skyscrapers of Beijing and Shanghai and the sprawling new fabs to be found there, sounding nothing so much as if they were Cortez describing Tenochtitlán, or El Dorado, the fabled Lost City of Gold. But a more apt metaphor would have them sounding like the intrepid Marco Polo, having returned from his journeys with his merchant uncles to the far end of the Silk Road, describing the exotic wonders of the mysterious Cathay in the Far East, and the business opportunities to be had there.

Sometimes, executives and analysts speak in such glowing terms about China and its growing domestic consumption and demand for chips that I can’t help but be reminded of British imperialists and traders of the 1800s. That may seem a bit harsh, but when I think of what spawned Great Britain’s Opium Wars with China — namely a trade imbalance; it seems the West didn’t have that much to interest the average Chinese citizen back then, until British traders started importing opium from India — I can’t help but draw the parallel. Sometimes you can almost literally see the dollar signs in people’s eyes in this industry when talk about China.

But before the angry e-mails come sullying forth, this is not to say that CEOs relocating their manufacturing to China and courting the Chinese domestic market for chips and chip equipment are akin to the British circa the 1840s and 1850s, literally forcing China via the British military and its Western allies to accept the importation of opium. This is not what I’m saying at all.

But the metaphor is nevertheless apt. Today the West is once again looking to make economic inroads to the East, and indeed, many Western politicians look at the trade deficit with China today and consequently worry.

But this time around, it is certainly a different China than that of a century and a half ago, both culturally, economically, ideologically and militarily. In fact, there are those that speak of China not in the warm, glowing terms often used in the chip industry, but in just the opposite. To those people China is something to be feared, either economically, or politically and ideologically, as a rival to the West, particularly the United States, as China emerges as a global superpower.

To these people, Chinese oil company CNOOC Ltd.’s bid to acquire the U.S.-based Unocal was certainly an example of why China should be feared. For myself, I couldn’t help but think it incredibly ironic, given a historical context.

So where does the truth lie? Is China a boon or a bane for the West, and more specifically and germane to us, the chip industry?

I haven’t the foggiest idea. I’ve never been there, and the few Chinese people that I’ve gotten to know well in the course of my life have all been Chinese Americans, having been born and raised here.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaI suspect, being a long-time observer of the world around me — a reporter is nothing, if not an observer — that the truth lies somewhere in between those too extreme visions of warm and fuzzy economics and political/social gloom and doom. The world is often more mundane than we think (although not always, fortunately and unfortunately). And I suppose, ultimately, this is my task, to find out where the truth lies. Rather a tall order, for just a month’s time, but then perhaps that will be enough to at least glean an inkling of truth.

Wish me luck.


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.

Original Comments

at 9/21/2005 2:06:35 PM, Chipod said: Are you there yet?

at 9/21/2005 4:10:30 PM, Jeff Chappell said: No, actually I’ll be leaving within the next few weeks for China, and then spending a month traveling to the various technological and industrial centers, such as Shanghai and Chengdu.

at 9/26/2005 2:25:19 PM, Dan said:

If you can post links outside of RBI in your “library,” I suggest Henry Blodgett’s series on Slate, the last of which is at http://slate.msn.com/id/2117502/ Most interesting…

at 9/26/2005 10:54:30 PM, Dave Brewer said:

Please don’t follow the interactive map that accompanies these articles; at least not to Shenzhen. I travel there frequently for my employer and with light traffic on the roads, through Immigration and Customs, Shenzhen is merely 30 minutes from Hong Kong (give or take). Many people have begun buying homes in Shenzhen to commute to Hong Kong; not unlike the people commuting from Connecticut to NYC.

The map location shown of Shenzhen makes it out to be considerably further north; nearly to Shanghai, although the distance inland is about right. In any event, have a great trip; the bit of China I’ve seen so far has left me eager to return whenever the opportunity presents itself. The food is a veritable palette of visual and taste treats, but from a Western perspective – some dis-assembly is required (meats, fish, or foul). When in doubt, just follow your host to see what should be discarded or consumed (and proceed slowly until you teeth are skilled in discerning bone from flesh). The flavor rewards are well worth learning to eat the au naturel preparations. Bon voyage.

at 9/27/2005 4:03:56 PM, Greg Zhou said:

Hi Jeff, It’s interesting to read your article. You will need to understand Chinese history, culture, and mentality a bit more before you can find the answers to the questions you posted in your article. The traditional Chinese way of thinking is rather passive and inward looking. They built the Great Wall over many centuries just to defense themselves from lootings by tribal people in the north. They seek society harmony more than materials wealthy (relatively and statistically speaking).

If you get chance to visit the Forbidden City in Beijing, you will notice that the themes of art collections (mostly brush paintings) for the emperors (and senior officials/scholars alike) range from scenery views (mountains/creeks/lakes), stones with irregular shape, flowers, birds, vegetables, and insects, etc. Those are what they enjoy and admire.

On a contrast, the topics of western palace paintings are usually about wars, conquers, triumphs, and religions. Chinese love money but they also agree with the Confusions teachings, which condemned so-called “rule of jungle” policy because civilized people should behave differently than animals and beasts.

The conclusion is that the Chinese people are passive and peaceful people (relatively and statistically speaking) and the rise of China will not be a threat to western (or any other) countries. For example, they will compete for energy resources through acquisition (a recent attempt failed due to US government interference). However, it’s will be hard to imagine that China will send troops to oil rich countries to protect Chinese interests. Greg Zhou gzhou8@yahoo.com

at 9/28/2005 7:52:52 AM, Jeff Chappell said:

To Dan: It is indeed a very interesting account; it would seem I’m not the only intrepid Western blogger (of course this is hardly surprising). I encourage anyone who is interested to go over to Slate and check it out, just do a search for the author, Henry Blodget (only 1 ‘t’).

To Dave: As for the map, online map technology is still in its infancy, as we’ve come to find in preparing this site. As for exotic cuisine, bring it on! I’m actually a vegetarian, most of the time, except for when I travel, particularly abroad. I love to sample local cuisine, the stranger (to me) the better. When in Rome, emulate the Romans. And I love Chinese food, at least as it exists here in the States, so I look forward to trying the real thing.

To Greg: Thanks for you enlightening comments. Hopefully I will continue to garner more as the journey continues, which will benefit not just me but all of our readers. While China has its own internal violent episodes in its long history, I agree in large part with your assessment of Western vs. Chinese art. A very interesting observation; I would suggest that the same applies to much of the literary differences between the two cultures as well.

at 9/29/2005 12:27:43 PM, dave kees said:

I’ve been living in Guangzhou for the past 6 years. I think there is a lot of truth in the old saying: “Go to China for a week and you can write a book. Go to China for a month and you can write an article. Go to China for a year and you have nothing to write.” Good luck! davekees@davekees.com

at 9/29/2005 1:45:38 PM, Eric Fremd said:

Hi Jeff, I am looking forward to hearing about the progress of your trip…Just this year I went to China for my first time – it far exceeded my expectations and/or preconceived ideas from the U.S. media…I have spent almost 2 months this year in China (Shenzhen, Chengdu, Beijing and Shanghai).

My company (Brocade Communications) has an operations office in Shenzhen and our factory is just outside in Longhua…I recommend you go now and spend some time getting acclimated – 1 month is simply too short! Take in some tourist sights- see and experience the local culture. Chinese food is so different from region to region – it is so good! I love it all! Make sure you have the frog hot pot in Chengdu. You will eat and share everything off the plate with everyone around the table- just be aware that not many local places use serving chopsticks…

When in Shanghai make sure you stop by the famous Hooters Restaurant…and say hi to my girlfriend! If you want please put Brocade in Shenzhen on your list of people to talk to…we really have a world class operation there! I can put you in touch with the right people… Have a great trip! Looking forward to reading your reports… Eric Fremd efremd@brocade.com

at 9/29/2005 4:29:27 PM, Don C said:

On my two trips to China, I was struck by numerous things things: the incredible air pollution (I couldn’t see the ground when flying from Hong Kong to Shanghai, approx. 1000 miles, on a clear day); the rough and ready frontier feeling in Shanghai; the sight of donkey carts next to Maserati’s on the streets of Shanghai; the incredible skyscraper architecture in Guangzhau and Shanghai–pay particular attention to the tops of skyscrapers.

The lack of queues of people where we would expect to see orderly lines–everyone bunches together as a mass and moves out at once, including at stop lights with pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, cars, and trucks; some very anti-American propaganda editorials in the South China Times; the beautiful fashions worn by women in Shanghai; the constant smell of chemicals in the air. Be sure to take a course or two of Cipro with you in case you come down with an intestinal ailment–take it at the first signs or you’ll be sorry. Have fun. You are on a wonderful adventure!

at 10/3/2005 7:13:06 AM, Wade C said: Not sure if you’re there yet, but you are in for a wonderful adventure. I travel to Taipei, Hong Kong and Shenzhen twice a year, and if I’m lucky Shanghai once a year. There is no describing Shanghai! You just have to experience it.

I’ve been to LA, NY, Tokyo and Seoul and Shanghai is by far the best. I’ve read many, many books about the culture, history and etiquette and I agree with the above postings that the Chinese are a peaceful people and those that you run into will be more than happy to help you in anyway they can if you avoid the “Superior American Attitude.” Contrary to popular belief, we don’t know it all and the world does not cater to us as they once did. I believe you will enjoy your experience.

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