When the Japanese were industrializing, they bought their models off the shelf. They meticulously copied everything from the German Army and the British Navy, including even the patches on the boilers of the steamships they bought. Eastern Europe took a similar imitative line towards American business after the fall of communism, ignoring the closer, perhaps more suitable, Western European models.
Even the old state-controlled Chinese economy was more entrepreneurial than the Soviets, and paid more attention to small commodity production and distribution.
I remember the end of the Cultural Revolution and the condescending smiles of Chinese in the market in Beijing as they watched Aeroflot pilots scooping up matches, soap, tomatoes and other goods that were in perennial short supply back in Moscow.
Even with that history, the efflorescence of entrepreneurship in China under Deng Xiaoping was still breathtaking, but it is interesting to investigate just how much China will follow the American model.
Just before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I spoke to some Chinese executives from Dalian brought to New York by the Levin Institute at the State University of New York to study how Americans conduct business.
Wang Jun, president of the Dalian Changhai Fengyi Aquatic Co. Ltd. left high school in 1980, just as the reforms were beginning and did a variety of jobs before founding the company, which now has about 400 people supplying seafood and aquaculture products, mainly to the domestic market.
Like most successful Chinese entrepreneurs of his generation, he did not come equipped with an MBA. Only a tiny percentage of Chinese went to university in those days, and management was not featured on the curriculum for those who did.
Wang came to New York to learn techniques to help his business when he returned, and he went to MIT, and to IBM in Albany to see how universities interact with business, because at his level in China, they don't.
Compared with US companies, even those not involved in the IT industry, embracing technology and working with universities, he saw a shortcoming in the Chinese company approach. Since Chinese companies compete on the basis of price, they rarely invest in technology, but with wage levels in China rising, he said, they may have to do so – although not just yet.
He took quite a critical approach to what he saw in the US. He agreed the trip he?d made had challenged many of his managerial assumptions, but he was equally prepared to challenge some of his hosts' perceptions.
Staying on the university campus, the glacial progress of renovation for a nearby dorm bemused him during his six-week stay. It was a world away from the fast construction approach of China. "Delay is not good for the corporate image," he said, showing greater regard for brand building and company reputation than many US companies. "A Chinese company would want to maintain its reputation of reliability," he said.
There are things Americans could learn from China, he suggested quietly – a fairly heretical concept even today. "Chinese have more flexibility than Americans – Americans are focused on revenue, and while that may make more sense for a big corporation, smaller companies need to focus on brand building, market share and so on. They can not do that when they have shareholders on their back." He has shareholders too, he said, but they are more like partners.
Similarly, while many American executives have an almost reflexive theological objection to regulation, Wang said China was making progress on improving regulation – and he approves, since it keeps the playing field level, which is essential as the economy expands.
No iron rice bowls here
American workers were never on the iron rice bowl, whereas China came off it only recently. He sees its vestiges in the expectations of his workers in Dalian, but sees the US model of a thinner safety net for the workers and more flexibility for the company as the target. Even a plastic rice bowl is too much.
After Hurricane Katrina, it has to be doubted just how much a Chinese manager would want to learn from the United States. There have been spectacular disasters across the globe and in China as well, but even most Americans were in shock over how ill-prepared their government and private sector were for a predictable disaster.
They saw evacuation plans that consisted simply of telling poor people to move, but making no provision for transportation or reception, or for the rescue of those stranded. The world's richest country did not conduct itself in a manner likely to encourage emulation. One would have thought that China, after half a century of extolling workers power, would be more inclined towards the European combination of social welfare and capitalism than the American ideal of mini-mal government capitalism.
Ian Williams is a New York-based journalist writing on politics and economics.
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