Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Blessed is the cheesemaker

In a speech delivered at the LSE, Malcom Turnbull gives an Australian's view of China and refers to the assumption by Americans they will always be the strongest, richest and cleverest nation on earth. He goes on to suggest that there is evidence of a growing sense of inadequacy, and the realisation, not limited to Americans, that the rest of the world is becoming outclassed by China: "Nobody who has visited Shanghai could be unimpressed".

Well, yes. But the experiences of many of the expatriates who have lived and worked in China for some years may cause them to give a wry smile at the "cleverest nation on earth" bit, having found incompetence, mendacity, inflexibility and general stupidity and lack of sense among many—or even most—of the clients and employers they encounter. The miseries of being an expatriate trying to make a living in China are described by Froog with justifiable anger.

But there is another side to the Chinese character. In the blog of an American globetrotter called Heather I came across an account of the achievement of a young Chinese man called Liu Yang who went to France to study management, fell in love with cheese, learned all about it and became a cheese maker. Now he is single-handedly introducing cheese culture to Beijing with his artisanal cheeses, handmade in his workshop. Although most of his clients are expatriates, he is slowly winning over Beijing locals. Heather's blog has a link to a Mercedes-Benz ad in which he talks about his business.

Clearly Liu has enormous energy, initiative, determination and sheer ability. Of course he is only one out of 1.3 billion, and there must be several hundred millions in China who lack all these qualities and resemble those Froog has encountered, but there must also be tens of millions who could one day do the sort of thing that Liu Yang has done.

This is an inspiring thought. Or perhaps a frightening one.



Froog said...

I'd really prefer not to be "known" for my more negative posts on China, OMF.

The one you cite is an especially ranty and self-indulgent one; a necessary catharsis after a particularly frustrating work experience. But I feel I should point out that, although my major gripe was with the irrational sensitivities and culturally-programmed evasiveness of my immediate Chinese employer, the client company (and so, probably, some of the vacillating managers) that so irked me was French.

It's rather touching to be reunited with Heather online. I know her slightly in the real world, having met her through my blog (and a mutual friend, in one of those rather unsettling coincidences that Life sometimes throws at you) a couple of years ago - but she's been a bit of a recluse lately.

Liu Yang is indeed an inspiring example. I suspect China may have an above-average proportion of such people who are extraordinarily motivated towards self-improvement. There are lots of entrepreneurial opportunities here in the ballooning economy, and a strong desire to escape from poverty (and, indeed, to escape from the whole damn country) driving this. However, the zeal to develop small businesses is not helped overall, I feel, by educational standards or the general social culture here.

My gripes about China are not directed against Chinese people individually, but against the things that impede their intellectual, moral, and cultural development: a language (particularly its writing system) that eats up far more schooling hours than any other in the world; an education system that has always been desperately mediocre at every level, and is doomed to remain so because of hopeless underfunding; a political culture that is endemically corrupt and, I think, unfixable.

I think it's a particularly worrying sign for China that such a very large percentage of its brightest and best a) received the best of their education overseas, and b) eventually emigrate.

Froog said...

And surely Mr Turnbull must have been joking about that Shanghai remark? Or does he really not realise that Shanghai was built by Europeans?

Tony said...

Well, I should think he does. But what Shanghai is today must surely be in some measure due to the Chinese even if it was based on the entrepreneurial spirit which the Europeans brought with them along with their architecture.

Froog said...

I think the Chinese had their own entrepreneurial spirit. What the Europeans brought were things like a longer-term view in planning, a work ethic, the rule of law, and a sense of wider social responsibility.

People get too easily seduced by Shanghai's old buildings and its ferment of commercial activity. If you take a second look, it's every bit as squalid, corrupt, and inefficient as anywhere else in China. Slightly more so on the corruption!