Mulberry leaves & silk gowns?

In spite of the fact we’re in Europe again, Mr B and I find ourselves keeping an eye on things in China and India. I suppose this is natural as we enjoyed our Asian time so much and also because from a professional viewpoint we find it an important perspective to bring to the table in EU-centric discussions here in Brussels.

One of the things expats in Beijing like to discuss is how the business environment has changed over the last 5 years as China has developed economically but more importantly in terms of self-confidence.

In both Mumbai and Beijing, it was evident that governments and the national business community had reached the point where they wanted to strike out on their own in terms of management and personnel. In theory there is nothing wrong with this at all – some would argue it is a sign of  successful economic development. Each government has a duty to nurture national economies as they see fit.

The other side of the coin are expat workers who increasingly feel marginalised, dismayed and concerned that companies in India and China are now trying to run before they can walk.

While many companies (both subsidiaries of western businesses and national companies) could demonstrate perfect mastery of technology and business processes, we heard many discussions about limits on critical thinking/the ability of employees to think outside rigid systems they had experienced directly and the problems this often posed for HQ. Most pointed to the rote-based education systems in both India and China that reward memorisation as opposed to abstract reasoning/independent  research more common in the western education system.

I’m well aware of how arrogant this sounds.

Most expats are experienced senior managers, sent to solve problems or set up new businesses and recruit the best local talent. Most of them accept if they do their jobs correctly, they’ll eventually make themselves redundant and either go home or move on to the next posting.  That’s expat life. Always has been.

Even during our short time in Beijing, however, we felt the times a changin’; the real problems friends and trailing spouses had in obtaining or extending visas, the increasing blocks on the internet, the visibility of police and PLA personnel on the streets, the growing frustration and concern of Mr B’s clients about ever changing rules on doing business there and subtle limits imposed on those trying to expand market share.

All this is a very long way of saying yesterday’s Financial Times carried an interesting Op-Ed about changing  business conditions in China which is worth a look. It’s not just Goggle re-considering whether the promise of billions of new consumers is either possible or desirable. I question whether EU-based businesses are the most competitive or those best placed to transfer skills to China but it is an interesting barometer of current thought amongst the expat business community in Beijing.

The Chinese have a proverb about perseverance, “with time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown”. It seems western businesses are increasingly feeling the fruits of their efforts might resemble the “Emperor’s New Clothes”.

One response

  1. Hello expat wife,

    This is Mr. B’s ex-colleague who is still dealing with “the growing frustration and concern of Mr B’s clients about ever changing rules on doing business there and subtle limits imposed on those trying to expand market share.”

    Anyway, was at a recent AmCham Business Climate Survey event as well and a quote we got out of that was “China rewards persistence” — but how long can you survive?

    And gosh, aren’t I glad that the Expo is in Shanghai? All the crazy restrictions imposed on foreigners give me a headache.

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