Insights on China from a Good Friend

I spoke at a conference yesterday and one of our good friends was there. He’s a global traveler and spends much time in the heaviest commercial sectors around the world, meeting with the world’s largest companies.

He and I were speaking on the sidelines of the conference about the “Xi Jingping Thought” concept that we wrote about several weeks ago and what the impact on global business might be as a result.

If you will remember, President Xi has been given one of the highest honors that any Chinese leader could be given. A constitutional item has been added that now subscribes to “Xi Thought”. Or, as Xi thinks, so should we think. It places a tremendous amount of trust and respect on President Xi’s ideas, beliefs, and vision. Universities will be promoting and teaching Xi Leadership thinking.

It also streamlines and speeds up the process of getting new policy, direction, and vision established in the Chinese Government. The “speed of everything” in China will now accelerate, and the rate of change coming out of China could be unprecedented. The country has a tremendous workforce, limited regulation on R&D activity, subsidies to improve infrastructure and investment in new technologies, and the drive and ambition to excel. And now, a leader that can expedite the rate of change and even mandate it to a degree – will make it difficult for us to see every facet of the business world that will now be influenced, shaped, and molded by Chinese leadership and competition.

And, it makes the way we view China very complex as well: partner, customer, supplier, competitor, adversary.

The fact that Xi is generally a kind man is good for the rest of the world, and hopefully keeps the adversarial relationship in the background.

But make no mistake, his vision is to see China become the most powerful nation in the world (or to be seen as an equal to the United States) is clear and present.

It will shape global policy. The country will weigh-in and use its growing economic influence to shape geopolitics. It will play a more active role in foreign conflicts. And, it will perhaps use even more economic and political power to shape foreign policy and sway/influence the actions of foreign leadership (not quite nation-building, but close).

That has an impact on everything from global currency to military preparedness, investment and counter-culture. For most of you, I haven’t told you anything that you didn’t already know.

But it was a comment that my friend made that has me intrigued – and may be something that each of you has also noticed. Or, if you haven’t, you need to think about it.

He said that over the last 6 years, he has noticed a “marked change” in the use of English in China. Most people think about English as being the universal language of business. But, that’s changing. He said that the very clear message he is now getting across many facets of Chinese society is that when you are in China, you speak Mandarin. If you get into meetings where a Government official is present, don’t be surprised if the need for interpreters starts to grow because Mandarin will be spoken.

There are similar movements across parts of the United States, Mexico, and other close trade partners where a nationalism movement is pushing for the use of native languages. So, why can’t China do the same, right?

This is one of those long-term, subtle (yet disruptive) measures that can begin to tweak global culture. Let’s see how long it takes for major US universities to start requiring Mandarin for certain business degrees. Let’s also see how quickly translation technologies become more mainstream and in obvious use in cell phones and other technologies. We each have those technologies in our midst, we just don’t use them. We will.

As he mentioned this to me, I suddenly realized that I have been getting a variety of solicitations by e-mail for conferences all over China – in Mandarin. It just dawned on me that I was getting those solicitations in the past in English. Had my friend not mentioned this fact to me, I might not have noticed the change. I simply hit Google Translate to see what the message is.

I know many of our members getting the Black Owl Report work for global multinational companies. And, even many of our members that have smaller firms transact with businesses from all around the world.

I don’t know how quickly this is going to impact your ability to transact business – but it feels like something akin to the Cold War era where we had need for ‘interpreters for our interpreters’. We also knew of companies that had “plants” in meetings that fluently spoke multiple languages, but would only disclose one language in the business meeting – all-the-while taking note of everything being discussed and whispered across multiple languages. Perhaps cell-phone technology now plays that part.

But, this is part of an engineered culture shift. It’s highly anecdotal, but I thought it was fascinating enough to pass on to you. – Keith

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