This month a few observations following a much-needed break from Shanghai and an all-too-brief sojourn in England. But wherever you travel these days China is never far away …
There is much talk in Europe about whether China will start to innovate anytime soon. China boosters say it is already happening. One of them, in an effort to sell a book on the subject, has coined the horrific term “Chinnovation.” I am a bit more skeptical. When you dig deeper into the Chinnovators’ arguments, you invariably find that they’re confusing genuine innovation with what should be termed “derivation” or “adaptation” (at best) or “imitation” and “piracy” (at worst). Certainly firms like Ctrip and Dianping are successful, but they are not truly innovative, being just local adaptations of Expedia and Zagat, respectively.
There’s a product being launched in London with some fanfare (including ad placements on the sides of London’s signature red buses) that I believe actually originated in China: Nescafé 3-in-1, composed of cheap sachets of instant coffee where the milk powder and sugar are pre-added, but the taste and aroma of coffee is all but impossible to discern. This worked in a budget-conscious country where coffee is invariably sweet and weak (China). But what about the supposedly more sophisticated UK? “Chav coffee,” one friend of mine in London dubbed it, noting that pre-adding sugar will do nothing for England’s rising obesity stats. We’ll see if anyone likes it.
More and more wealthy Chinese are enjoying the English summer season. China’s nouveau riche are popping up in increasing numbers everywhere from Royal Ascot to Wimbledon; though neither the summer traditions of cricket at the Oval or a muddy weekend at Glastonbury seem to be appealing yet. The increase in wealthy Chinese tourists in England is due to any number of factors. There’s the cheap pound vis-a-vis the renminbi, the fact that there are now 57,000 Chinese students in the UK, the number of young rich packed off to English public schools these days, the luxury shoppers dropping in on Bond Street and the fact that these events (Ascot, the Derby, Wimbledon) are über-networking events for the world’s super-rich movers and shakers.
Some really indulged in the local customs. The traditional end-of-term drunken summer balls at Oxbridge colleges this year saw the routine tabloid photo spreads of posh drunk students in tuxedoes and ball gowns. But this year the main shot was not the usual sloshed Henrietta on her backside or some Rupert throwing up his Pimms in the Cherwell; rather it was a photo of two tuxedoed and chortling Chinese students holding up a comatose friend. That three-man stagger should be familiar to anyone who’s ever wandered through a street-food alley here on a Friday night and seen a businessman one Maotai over the edge being dragged by colleagues to a waiting (and very nervous) taxi driver. Welcome to the English summer, lads!
One final thought for the month from London: The very popular Blue Dragon Oriental sauces brand that allows you to instantly whip up a semi-authentic wok dish in your Islington kitchen has a new tag line that many a self-promoting consultant has been glib enough to bandy about in the past, but readers of China Economic Review must surely appreciate the irony of: “The East Made Easy.” If only, if only ….