Now that I have started to set in summer mode with a more relaxed work schedule, some fuzzy things that I pushed on the back-burner of my mind pop back with clarity. One of them? I'm probably not going back to China for work.
This is not a little thing for me.
The first time I went to China was back in 2007. At the time, I was attending the international part of my MBA program (not unsurprisingly called 'Doing Business in China'), and I was also visiting a few of the contractors my company at the time was working with to produce non-woven hygiene products for the operation room and latex gloves. Both activities did require a lot of restaurants and drinking, but also a first direct contact with something that a relatively well-traveled Westerner like me would still describe as a truly foreign culture.
I'm not going to throw too many insipid anecdotes at you, but it's worth noting that in 2007 when having a business class at Shanghai University, students that wouldn't be happy with an economic or marketing theory the professor was presenting would stand and declare it offensive for the central communist party. This would happen about once an hour, leading to the professor shutting down this part of his class and switching to something else. I would later understand that this was one of the few remaining cultural reflexes still deeply embedded in Chinese society that were already fading away. Soon enough, fully embracing the benefits of global trade and attracting foreign money was front and center for the country.
Back then, I also discovered a country investing a large chunk of its still frail GDP and a part of its soul in massive industrial and urban projects. With some officials and university staff, we visited by bus a new quarter-million-people neighborhood destined to be a modern "automotive city." The city was still empty, but officials would tell us it would soon be full of activity and a leading part of China's future. As the bus drove through empty cycle lanes in empty parks, we were stopped by the police patrolling this pristine zone. After a two-minute discussion with our very upset officials, the police team became quite apologetic and would escort us for the rest of the tour, ensuring no one would bother us anymore. This 2007 China was wilfully shedding some of its old communist skin to become something else. It was still a genuinely communist country where Tiananmen could only be heard as a touristic keyword, and with a central party planning the future, deciding who would be expandable and personally thrive out of interest for the "common good."
I returned in 2011 to teach executive MBA students at Shanghai University. Since then, at least once a year, I have also worked with European and American multinationals on innovation in the Chinese market.
I never saw the China of 2007 again.
Like many foreigners that went and worked in China for a long time (most of them probably more educated and wiser on this very topic than myself), I still saw the underlying rigidity and potent drive of the central party, but I would also saw how the Chinese citizens would seize the space given to create, innovate and reinvent who they were as participants in the global economy. Participants. Never global citizens. And if I met many citizens disgruntled with some parts of the central party politics, the power of local oligarchs, or the lack of privacy, very few were questioning the overall logic of pushing the country forward as a win-win scenario with the West.
In 2020, just ahead of the Covid period, I felt things changing again. My students' curiosity about the West dropped out considerably, and the well-deserved pride in China's achievements began to be tainted with what I perceived as more and more resentment toward the West. As one of the non-Chinese professors who could still discuss with them BYD or QQ intricate positioning, the fall of OFO, or how Alibaba was anything but an Eastern version of Amazon, the mood shift didn't affect me personally. But I felt it all around, and many small things changed. This was the time when Jack Ma was disappeared and Ant Group's (Alibaba's mothership) valuation was slashed a few dozen $ billions–sign 'o the times. Then Covid hit us, and after the initial wonder of hospitals built in a matter of a week in Wuhan and other provinces, things got complicated. The lockdown period didn't make things easier. The poor quality of the Chinese vaccine and the hardening of the central party's grip on the country didn't help either.
I'm still in contact and working with quite a few people, but I never went back physically to China. I am probably giving my last MBA class for students in Shanghai as we speak (my choice, mind you, I'm shifting a few things around), and I don't see many positive signs for me in China's future.
What I see on the horizon is even more tightening on China's tech sector and a form of insularism that doesn't surprise me one bit as I was talking about the big internet splintering back in 2019. Not that the U.S. sanctions on critical tech (Europe in tow) surprise me, either. In any case, this is building a very negative feedback loop, and major foreign investors don't consider China export priority number one anymore. If Apple is already switching manufacturing to Vietnam and India, the next step will be disentangling its sales from the country. I'm not sure Western car manufacturers or luxury brands got the memo yet (if they did, they probably don't want to read it). Ironically enough, the worst part of the Western culture has already hit the younger demographic, and the country starts to fold back on itself more and more. There is this not-so-weak signal of how many Chinese travelers stay in China and don't go abroad as much as they did before the lockdowns. In all this, the major looming behemoths that will put the country in dire straits are certainly the aging population and when (not if anymore) the mega real-estate bubble will collapse.
The end result of all this is that China is closing down. Let me correct: has closed down.
In the book "The Fourth Turning", William Strauss and Neil Howe theorize that our civilizations go through 20-25 years cycles that influence the dynamics of societies throughout history. And that, more or less, we always go through four stereotypical cycles—First Turning (High) emphasizes new beginnings and cooperation, Second Turning (Awakening) brings social upheaval and quest for freedom, Third Turning (Unraveling) experiences crisis and Heroic rebuilding, and Fourth Turning (Crisis) represents transformative crises with Artists leading reconstruction for the subsequent First Turning.
It's difficult not to believe all the West is already knee-deep in a Fourth Turning while China is getting there, too. The next ten to twenty years are admittedly going to be tough, but hey, there's a hint of optimism at the end of the tunnel. Don't get me wrong, anyone thinking it's time to discount the huge energy and potential of China, though, is making a huge mistake. The path they're in is going to be quite tough but the momentum of these last years is still unbelievable. What weird times we are in.
For now, though? I'd love to be proven wrong, but I don't believe there will be any professional reason for me to back to China in the foreseeable future. I'm quite sad about it and, at the same time, so grateful for this long-lasting opportunity I had to visit the country, work with so many fascinating people, become less biased about the values of the West, and maybe become a tad less arrogant about them–keep in mind that I'm French and arrogance is like a kidney.
All that being said, I don't know what it means for you and your company, and I'm not sure I even represent a trend or a weak signal by myself.
But I might be a canary in the coal mine 😗
EDIT: As a side note I read this morning the feedback of Dao coming back to China (as a foreigner knowing the country and speaking/reading Mandarin). And yes, this has been like this for quite some time but now the disconnect is fully on.