Conference season is picking up, bringing with it the usual parade of flower-studded lapels, luncheons with the dark-suited comb-over crew, and keynote addresses in which Westerners remind the Chinese that they invented gunpowder.
One should be wary when pontificating on what “Chinese people” think, feel or believe. The most sage of the China watchers I’ve interviewed almost always temper their predictions with a blanket statement along the lines of “but I could be entirely wrong.” Consider it something of a safe-harbor statement for doing business (or living) in China. I, too, will offer a similar caveat.
Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure that Chinese audiences are getting tired of being reminded of their glorious history of innovation that occurred thousands of years ago. No conference season would be complete without some Western speaker commenting that it was the Chinese who had invented the printing press, or the compass, or paper money or some other wonder of the pre-industrial world (as one did at a recent conference).
I’m assuming that these comments are meant to ingratiate the speaker to the audience, but it’s akin to a Chinese speaker referring to the pony express as an example of American ingenuity.
A better strategy might be to bring up some modern technological achievements that China is proud of today. Here’s a crib sheet for keynote address writers out there.
TD-SCDMA – Yes, believe it! We’re talking about the much-maligned Chinese-developed third generation (3G) mobile standard. TD may have its problems, but let’s not forget that there was virtually no telecommunications industry of any merit in China three decades ago. TD may also pave the way for China to be a player in a 4G world. While we’re on the subject of telecom, let’s throw in Huawei and China Mobile.
BYD – The company, originally a maker of batteries for cellphones, is forging ahead with plans to make a commercially viable electric car. Analysts I’ve spoken to say the firm has an uphill battle, but at least they’re giving it a shot, and their plan underscores a real push China is making on clean technologies. Furthermore, Warren Buffet is a BYD investor, and who are you to argue with the “Oracle of Omaha”? Stay tuned for our upcoming issue for a profile of BYD.
Alibaba.com – Alibaba founder Jack Ma is China’s Horatio Alger story of the internet era, and the firm has grown to become the world’s largest B2B website (self-professed). Sister site Taobao’s pretty cool, too.
China’s spacewalk – I’ve written about this before, with the opinion that it was hardly noteworthy. But here’s the counterargument: The dude walked in space! Well, maybe he just stuck his head out of the hatch for a minute or so, but given that astronauts are used in advertisements hawking anything from milk to cars, it’s clear that “Chinese people” think it’s significant.
This is hardly an exhaustive list, but it’s a start. Let’s work together in bringing this conference season out of the abacus era and into the twenty-first century.