China has never been high on my list of places to visit. Crazy perhaps, but if I can’t ride my bike there it’s not a priority. Not a particularly helpful attitude, however, if one’s building an international network of cleantech organizations given that China is a huge market. We’d already found Global Innovation Network (GIN) partners in Finland, Germany, Italy, and Mexico; now it was time to look toward China. So I flew to China for a week to expand GIN’s small footprint on to Asia.
Our usual approach to a trip wasn’t going to cut it for this trip. KR and I never plan where we’re going, leaving most of the specifics to the wind and chance. Planning for this trip was different; I spent a month trying to pack as many meetings into five days as possible. I was fortunate enough to make contact with some folks in China (thank you Diane , Tony and John!) that took pity on me and helped arrange 12 meetings in both cities. Preparations included getting a Visa (China wins the contest for easiest and fastest visa ever – three days for a six month visa), getting GIN documents translated to Mandarin, reading every “How to do business in China” article I could find, and arranging the logistics of a schedule that had me arriving in Shanghai on a Sunday night and leaving Beijing the following Saturday night.
I was actually looking forward to the 11 hour flight there, chilling out while hitting the keyboard is a real treat (no comments, please). I could read and get some work done in peace and quiet. I might even find the time to read a book, something I can never seem to finish. So, I settled into my seat at 3PM on a Saturday, waved goodbye to LA, and got to work, expecting to land in Shanghai the next night 11 hours later.
Three hours over the Pacific the plane icon on the flight path tracker started heading in the wrong direction — back to LA, not China. Must be a glitch in the system, it was a 777 after all. Wrong. Long story short, the pilot finally informed us that we had an electrical issue and we were going back to LA. This started a series of events that included rebooting the trip for the following day, cutting my stay in Shanghai a day short while lengthening my stay in Beijing an extra day.
One of the results of the one day delay was that I was switched from American Airlines to Cathay Pacific. For those of you thinking about going to China, write this down: Cathay Pacific is one great airline experience. It makes you wonder what the f__ happened to US carriers?
It’s impossible to get an accurate impression of a 1.2 billion person country in just six days, but its also impossible not have lots of impressions from such a different experience, whether accurate or not. So, here are my net takeaways, which I reserve the right to change after more investigation:
- Shanghai and Beijing, huge cities of 20+MM people each, are both very similar to other large cities and very different. Different language, style of dress, cultural heritage, history, race, forms of transportation, and of course a totally different system of governing. Yet, they’re full of people just like you and me, hustling to get somewhere, stuck in mega traffic, everyone reading their smart phones, lots of stores we’d recognize, and more people willing to smile than scowl.
- China isn’t as “foreign” a culture as say, Nepal, or some parts of South America. Everyone pretty much stays in their lanes while driving in China, except using the right or left shoulder is a congestion-beating technique widely practiced. Try driving in Kathmandu or Arequipa, Peru to experience the thrill of anything-goes-anywhere-cut-and-thrust traffic. Shanghai and Beijing may be in a developing nation, but these cities look and feel prosperous and grooving. Pretty much everything works like electrical grids, subways, etc.
- China has a huge middle class (by number of people, not by % of the total population) that seem pretty happy. While business customs are a bit different, business is business. Kids wear weird outfits. Commutes, kid’s education, electronic toys are all subjects of conversation. Things seem pretty normal.
- The presence of a controlling government is everywhere, but subtle, and its a “given” to the Chinese. Want to get on Google or Facebook? Nope. Lots and lots and lots of security check points in public places. Pretty much only good news reported in the newspapers. Government is business in China. Freedom of speech, thought and protest are only missed when you realize that most other folks in the world don’t have them.
- What’s not normal is the scale of things. Massive office and government buildings for as far as you can see or as long as you drive. Parks are big and jammed with people. Roads are six lanes. Beijing has 24M people, 6 million cars, and 15 subway lines. No one lives in houses so there are high rise apartment buildings everywhere.
- International airports, no matter where, are all the same. Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing airports are all modern and pretty well run. Most signage is in Mandarin, but there’s enough English to get by. Starbucks, Apple, Armani, McDonalds, et. al are all there, pretty much recognizable. Chinese airports are also remarkably fast in the security and immigration processing department. In fact, one pretty quickly realizes that China has systems that move lots of people very efficiently (not counting street traffic) in most areas.
- Waiting in line is a contact sport. Don’t take offense, its just part of everyday life as you’re as likely to be elbowed aside by a 70 year old grand mother as a 16 year old.
- To state the obvious, air quality is appalling, affecting everyone, everywhere, all the time. It’s just always grey and overcast unless it rains, in which case its only overcast. Everyone knows this and the Chinese will I’m sure attack this problem with the force and scale that they’ve build a new industrial economy.
I’m going back to China in November with the Mayor so I’m going to get a second chance to experience China. It should be interesting to see the place after the initial shock has worn off.
Here’s what the trip looked like in pictures.