I have just returned from a most thought-provoking visit to Beijing. I was there with our Ashridge MBA students – a fabulously interesting and gifted bunch – and our visit combined sight-seeing with study. China is the world’s 4th largest economy and is growing fast. China also holds 20% of the world’s foreign exchange reserves and is manufacturing most of the world’s goods – as well as disposing of much of the world’s waste. It is hard not to become blasé about the huge numbers that are bandied around about China, but the sheer scale and efficiency is genuinely mind-boggling.
We were lucky enough to be invited to visit a number of companies, as well as to be given lectures on Chinese culture and economics at the Graduate University of Chinese Academy of Sciences. While I am sure we were given a fairly sanitised view, what struck me most about the experience was how brilliantly capitalism and communism complement each other in China. Unlike the rather abrupt regime changes of the West, the gentle opening up of the market in China seems to be delivering sustainable growth to a culture that feels cheerful and entrepreneurial. While rapid industrialisation is widening the gap between rich and poor, and the World Bank estimates that pollution is costing China 10% of GDP, I was nevertheless awed by China’s potential. While the individualism of the West may threaten the very core of western capitalism, the communitarian mindset of the Chinese – currently formalised through Communism – may help it make the transition to a market economy that is ultimately more sustainable than the West’s.
My chief concern, however, is for the Chinese to do capitalism their own way. What shocked me most of all were the brochures we were given for a company we visited that sold children’s clothing. All the models used for their high-end brands were beautiful white western children. We challenged this, only to be told that, in China, if you want the best for your children, you want them to be like Western children. How tragic that one of the world’s noblest cultures might be in danger of being seduced in this way. As our gnomic Zen Master told us, the West is a dog barking at a shadow: China barks because it hears the West barking. I think our challenge will therefore be to refuse to be flattered by such imitation and to hold China to its cultural past, for all our sakes. For all of its serious flaws, their version of capitalism may ultimately be the only one that can redeem globalisation.