Posted by: 1of10boyz | January 31, 2012

China Impressions at 6 months


I was asked by a friend the other day what my impressions were on China and the Chinese now that I live among them. He had taken some courses during his training on China and wondered about how I felt and what my impressions were. Since we have been in China now for 6 months it is a topic that deserves some thought and a thorough answer.

I don’t know if my experience is a good point of reference for China as a whole. What we have experienced in China, I think, is unique; but then everyone that has a work experience in China would probably say the same thing. There are so many locations and so many differences between work environments and living environments that no two people will have the same experience. Even for those of us assigned to the “Nuclear City” that Haiyang is becoming known as will have unique experiences and our perspectives will be different.

Our experience is most truly influenced by my employer, Westinghouse, and their desire to make this experience the best that it can be (my opinion anyway). I will also say that my Westinghouse experience is strongly influenced by the team of people that are working here. I am glad, grateful in fact, that I am not at the other Westinghouse location here in China. I think that the team that is assembled here in Haiyang is perfect for me. My background is better aligned with the vision of the management team here. The management approach is one that suites me personally and professionally. The situation that exists in other locations here would be much more difficult for me to deal with.

I think that our management truly cares about giving us an experience that will make us better employees when our time here is complete. Having said that I also think that we are lucky that it appears that way to me, it is probably more by accident that it is by design. My perception after working for almost 20 years for companies that are responsible for these kinds of massive infrastructure projects is that in most cases the rubber never meets the road, it’s all talk and no action, and it has mostly been smoke blown where I don’t want it. So what is it about this location and the team we have that makes me feel like the stars aligned and all of the best intentions actually became reality? Not even sure I can answer that question, but the work environment that exists here have heavily influence my impression to this point.

Some background might be helpful. My family doesn’t really know what I do for work, they never really have. What I have done for work in the past is not something that most people understand and the explanation typically involves many technical terms that need an explanation as long as or longer than the original intended discussion. It might also be that I just really don’t know how to explain what I do.

This job is at least a little easier to explain, most people understand from their own personal experience buying a car or a house. They are familiar with the process of looking things over and making sure that they are getting what they are paying for. They understand that sometimes things are not exactly like they are supposed to be and they expect that someone, the car dealer or builder or manufacturer will take those concerns and fix them or at a minimum provide an acceptable explanation for why it is just so. For my current assignment, it is my job to do the inspection at major and significant transitions in the contract.

My job in a legal term is best described as Due Diligence. I am responsible for the coordination of efforts at transitions in the contract from one entity to another. I track and manage the list of items that are not just so. In order to do that I have to know what it is and what it is supposed to do. I have to know what can be acceptable and what is not. I have to know a little bit about everything and more importantly I have to know who it is that is supposed to everything about each thing. I will eventually get to know more about how the AP1000 nuclear reactor is put together and how it works than just about anyone else. That important fact is why I wanted this job in the first place. There are going to be dozens if not hundreds of these units built over the next 15-20 years. I want to be involved with those plants.

Westinghouse is over here providing the Chinese with a huge leap forward in technology in nuclear power. We are official a technology transfer team. Now I am not really comfortable deep down inside with selling them this information, I am still programmed so to speak Pro-American. Inside, I am still very much at conflict with Communism. I am certain that it is not a better way. It is, in my opinion, a very poor counterfeit of some very lofty ideals. What we have in America is very special and unique. Our way of life makes it possible for us, Americans, to be successful; as individuals, as people, and as a country.  It is as fundamental as our political system; the laws and direction that were established at the beginning of America were inspired by God. Yes, I am one of those kinds of Americans.

Ok, enough on background and back to impressions. The people that I interface with at work are without doubt some of the brightest people in China and quite possibly the world. Of course, that also makes me pretty dang bright too, so there is a little bit narcissism here to. I think that I have been a little narcissistic all of my life, I don’t know how it happens but ,I have always felt like I had something to say that was important, I had something to do that was important, and if you didn’t want to hear it or be part of it then I didn’t need you around.  My apologies to those that I might have offended in my life but it wasn’t intentional.

The point with that is that I think that the Chinese are that way. Not so much as individually narcissistic but like as a Race. That someone is Chinese and they have existed as a culture and as a people for as long as time is recorded provides them with a confidence that really makes them collectively feel better than everyone else. The interesting thing about that as I reflect and analyze it is, that where an American can individually feel confident and important, regardless of any other condition, a Chinese would not feel individually the same. Their confidence would be based not so much on their own abilities but on the collective sum of family, community, and history. As an American, I can feel great about myself and that is good for me, but it doesn’t necessarily help my children feel great and it certainly doesn’t help my neighbors or the people in my village, town, or city feel the same way. Whereas, the Chinese feel great in exactly the opposite way, they feel great as a city, town, or village because of the heritage of being Chinese. In the short time I have been here I haven’t seen the kind of narcissism within individuals like I would see in Americans. I am certain that part of that is due to my inability to effectively communicate and converse with the vast majority of people here; however, it may truly be that the standard and expectation that we have based on past experience from being American will not exist here. My perspective is that I don’t see the self aggrandization here that we so in America.

Fundamental to the differences that I see is like the nose on the face, there are some huge cultural differences between the US and China. I think that one of the things that people see no matter how long their stay is the give and take that happens in nearly every transaction. This is the biggest challenge for me as I believe that the Chinese most closely follow a saying that I contribute to Donald Trump, “it’s my job to get as much money out of you as I possibly can and it’s your job to not let me”. We see that every day when we go to the little shops and stores and negotiate and haggle for the final price. But that concept goes much, much deeper in this society. It is one of the fundamental building blocks of the society. It goes to the limited view of the interconnection with others. Once you are part of a family or closely associated group (which is like family) then you can rely on your family for support, whatever is needed or required can be obtained. Connections and favors from any of the family “network” connections can be called to meet the need. Outside the family, there is no concern or recognition. That is how you can see television images of people driving by accidents or injured people on the street as if they don’t care; because in reality they don’t. I have struggled with this as I have watched and observed people I know to be compassionate and caring, looking but not seeing situations that would normally require action.

The other major concern that I have is that the thought that would appear to exist that it isn’t wrong so long as I don’t get caught appears to be a key part of the cultural foundation. It leaves me questioning Chinese integrity and commitment to basic tenants of humanity. I think that it is really just a matter of the recognition of the “Rule of Law”.  In western civilizations the rule of law is part of everything that we do and how we interact with everything around us. So much so that until I arrived here, I didn’t really give it much thought, it is so ingrained into everything that we do that it didn’t even require any thought whatsoever. That is not the case in China; it has only been a figment of imagination for about 50-60 years. Some hundred years ago this country was firmly ruled by Emperors, the people were only slightly higher in significance than common slaves or indentured servants similar to those of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the USA. The Chinese empirical governmental process had basically existed in that manner for the better part of 5000 years, some 50 centuries compared to our little more than 2 centuries. I suspect that the people here have made great strides over the past century but they are A LONG way from the culture that exists in any of the former Empires and colonies that contributed to the Americas in the past some 500 years. The people however bright, have significant cultural baggage that makes it quite difficult to make progress. I willingly admit that this culture is not too different from that of the Koreans or Japanese and both of those countries have made magnificent strides that have made them markets to be envied. The challenge here in China is that the horrific events of significant wars and associated influx of funds to rebuild the countries with a significant Western influence are not probable. The opportunity to have made that kind of change was lost to the “greatest generation” when they did not provide the support that was desired, required, and necessary during the Chinese civil war. From a western point of view that is easily seen from the differences observed in Taiwan (ROC) compared to the PRC. With 70 years of history to review, it is obvious that the Allies should have been more willing to provide the support that was requested by the ROC leadership. Our manpower and capital losses could not have been any more significant than they ended up being. The difference is rather than losing many men and billions of dollars of expenditures in Korea and Vietnam, the memorials would have been for China instead. My observation and argument is that we would have already recognized the wisdom in that investment whereas we are at a loss to justify it in many cases given the results of the actual historic approach.

The absence of the rule of law has other implied problems. The people in this country have been without the ability to make choices for so long that they have forgotten genetically how to make good choices. The concept of “face” is so strongly ingrained in them that the ability to weigh risks and determine paths forward is stifled and effectively lost. They lack creativity in solutions, they are not able to effectively manage risks, and the solutions to complex problems lack sophistication. The lessons learned by the youth in countries with greater freedom can only make them better workers and managers in the companies of the future. The lessons learned from failure are not experienced by the youth of China. They are not provided with the opportunity to build potato guns or water balloon slingshots, that creativity and lesson from failure is lost and cannot be regained except through experiences in business where it seems unlikely because “face” must be saved.

So how does that all add up for what we are really trying to accomplish here in China? These cultural differences make it difficult and in my opinion almost impossible to create and maintain the kind of work environment and culture that are necessary for a top tier nuclear power plant. I am not saying that they are not going to be safe; I think that they can operate the plant safely. But, I am saying that they are not going to be a flagship for the world-wide nuclear industry right out of the starting gate. The management team at the government level is at least realistic and understands that their goal by the time we reach operations should be something closer to the middle of the world-wide pack. I believe that is very achievable. There will be several issues that have to be solved between now and then, the least of which is not culture. The operation of a nuclear reactor requires operators and manager that can access situations and make the correct decisions. I think that the biggest challenge getting there is understood, we know that culture is a problem.

It is quite difficult to really put a finger on what the other issues are. When we are looking at root causes we very often come to a root cause related to culture.

As far as how the Chinese feel about Americans, they love us. We are in a rather rural location, a class 4-5 city that is really trying to be a full-blown class 4. We don’t have a real university in the city and so the expats are still very much a wonder and get lots of stares out in town. When we go shopping it is not uncommon for the people to stop us and ask to take pictures with us. Haiyang is right on the cusp of being something completely different. I would estimate that there are probably 25,000 apartments under construction right now, and that number could easily be closer to 100,000 because it really is difficult looking at the exterior oft a building and guess how many units are in it. Unit sizes here in China vary from 30 m2 (325 ft2) to 200 m2 (2150 ft2) or more. The 3rd Annual Asia Beach games will be played here next summer.

The golf course near where we are is world class. It is heavily used by the Koreans that can play here cheaper than the can in Korea, including the round-trip airfare; so the course is busy. I am told that the night life here leaves a little to be desired. The non-chinese food is pretty limited with only a couple of choices. There is one KFC and we have seen a sign at a construction site that says a McD will be opening this summer.

We are always treated well, the shop keepers love to have us stop and bargain with them. I think that we all feel like we both win in those bargain sessions. We buy things so cheaply and they sell them at a much higher price than they would have if they were selling to the Chinese people.

The overall feeling that I have about the average-joe Chinese, including those that are part of the Communist party, is that they are just like about 80% of Americans. The political process just happens around them and they don’t really care too much. They are too busy trying to make ends meet and get ahead in life to worry about how things are really going in the government.

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