By Steve Kelman
Here’s a collection of brief dispatches from a land of conspicuous consumption:
I had read an article somewhere in the Western media to the effect that sales in most luxury emporia in China – the often-enormous outlets for Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Cartier, etc. – were pretty small, because a lot of wealthy Chinese used the Chinese stores just to look, and waited to buy until they were traveling abroad, where prices for the luxury items were considerably lower than in China. I raised this with a Chinese friend in the luxury industry, asking whether these stores in China would be able to survive. No problem, she replied. First, the luxury companies were aware that their Chinese outlets functioned significantly just as shopping windows, but regarded the investment in Chinese stores as essential for maintaining their brands, so Chinese would buy them abroad. Second, many mall owners gave these luxury stores free rent, because their presence raised the mall’s stature and allowed them to get higher rents from other tenants.
A number of American brands are becoming increasingly dependent on China – Coke is putting literally billions into investments in Chinese production capacity, and if you read the annual report of Yum Brands, which owns KFC, you would conclude the company is all about China, where it leads McDonald’s in market share. So it is interesting that a significant number of the Chinese students I have asked about this say they don’t go to KFC or McDonald’s, and don’t drink Coke. Not out of anti-Americanism, but for reasons Americans would recognize – the food is fattening and unhealthy. These students aren’t necessarily typical, but they may be harbingers. If I were these companies, I’d be slightly worried.
Wine is slowly becoming the tipple of choice for an element of the chic and the wealthy, though it is far from displacing China’s famous (I would prefer to say “notorious”) baijiu grain alcohol, especially among government and Communist Party officials, for whom no banquet would be a banquet without it. With their passion for brand names, Chinese have become big buyers of high-end French wine. But I was interested to see in visiting an upscale Chinese supermarket a wine section, dominated by mid-range French wines, but also featuring some American, Chilean, and Australian varieties. China is itself now the sixth largest producer (by volume) of wine in the world, just behind Argentina and ahead of Chile. (The US is fourth.)
Macy’s is setting up a Chinese website to sell their products, both branded and store brand, to Chinese. China Daily reported, to my surprise, that “the retailer is a household name in China, largely thanks to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which is broadcast internationally each November, and the holiday movie Miracle on 34th Street, which was set at the company’s Herald Square store.”
The latest trend among graduating college students, according to another article in China Daily, is to wear formal wear popular during the Republican period (1911-49), such as the high-collared suits worn by Sun Yat-sen for guys or qipao
(often called “cheongam” in the West) for girls, rather than Western-style caps and gowns. This is an interesting fashion statement, indicating independence both from excessive Westernization and from the styles of the Communist era.
Posted on Jun 14, 2012 at 7:03 PM0 comments
It is virtually impossible to get a reliable answer to a really important question about the US-China relationship: To what extent do the Chinese people admire and respect the US, and to what extent do they see themselves as our adversary, rising while we are declining? How many seek friendship, how many want superiority?
The most obvious reason it is so difficult to answer this question is that there are no opinion polls or independent research to consult. But a second reason is that, unless you speak good Chinese, the people with whom Americans associate in China are inevitably a biased sample of the population – people who speak good enough English to have a real conversation with Americans, and who are sympathetic enough to the US to wish to do so. Americans who are interested in China but don’t speak the language are frequently reminded of a “nationalist” current on the Chinese Internet that accuses the Chinese government of being too “soft” on America, and seeks more belligerent government responses to issues ranging from holdings of US dollar-denominated debt to efforts by the Philippines to claim South China Sea islands that China claims for itself.
I do not have an answer to the question of which group is larger. But I do want to assert a more limited claim: there are definitely real Americaphiles in China. It is hard to know what percentage they are of the population, but there are enough of them, and many of them are in elite enough positions, that in my view it would be politically difficult for the Chinese government to adopt a stance of thorough hostility to the US.
I thought about this as I was listening recently to a Chinese student telling me, “As long as we don’t have freedom in China, we will be poor no matter how much money we have.” That’s a very “American” thought, and this student associates the thought with American society and with the desire that China become more like the US. There are many Chinese students, professors, and professionals who fervently espouse ideas such as the “rule of law” and who agree that the Chinese economy will lack significant innovation without political, cultural, and Internet freedom.
Then add the cultural attractiveness. The other day at a local KFC outlet, I noticed a little boy, with his parents, who was wearing an Annapolis t-shirt emblazoned NAVY. Others wear t-shirts with American flags. Add to this the dreams of hoards of Chinese young people, and their parents, to study in the US – not to speak of houses and other property the Chinese elite are buying here.
Do these currents represent a significant or fairly small part of the Chinese reality? I really don’t know, and I don’t think anybody does. They do reflect an ongoing debate about globalization versus nativism that is important in China just as it is important in the US itself. Recently the English-language Beijing Review featured a debate about whether China should adopt its own Mother’s Day, perhaps to be celebrated on the birthday of the ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius, who had a particularly devoted mother. The article noted that many Chinese are now celebrating American Mother’s Day, along with Christmas and Thanksgiving (something I discovered a few years ago when I started getting Thanksgiving greetings from Chinese friends). Supporters of a China-unique Mother’s Day said China needed to guard its Chineseness, while opponents said it was important for China to be international.
In terms of US-China relations, I think the message is this: there is an articulate group of Americaphiles in China, not the least among the well-educated, and a Chinese government ignores their sentiments at its peril.
Posted on Jun 12, 2012 at 7:03 PM7 comments
I was very happy to see in a recent post on FCW.com
by Matthew Weigelt that Dan Chenok will be succeeding the equally capable Jonathan Breul (who is retiring) as head of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. I am especially pleased because Dan was a student (and course assistant) of mine when he was studying for his Master of Public Policy degree at the Harvard Kennedy School in the late 1980’s, and because I had the pleasure of working with him when he was a civil servant working on IT policy at the Office of Management and Budget while I was administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in the mid-1990’s.
Dan served in government for, I believe, 12 years after the Kennedy School, and rose either to a GS-15 or Senior Executive Service position from an entry-level job, and I know from dealing with him that even a decade after leaving government, he remains extraordinarily devoted to good government and naturally takes a fed’s-eye perspective.
The transition at the IBM Center provides a good occasion to call attention to the excellent work of this organization in promoting academic research on public administration. The Center provides a significant number of grants each year, in the $25,000 or so range (which for an academic is a nice sum of money), to support research with a prescriptive bent on improving government performance.
Over the years, a significant number of both established and younger public administration scholars have received support for their research from the IBM Center. (My own research has not been supported by the Center, though I once wrote a think piece for them.) The research is published in working papers that IBM makes available. Generally, the quality of these papers is higher than would typically be the case for the in-house “research” reports consulting firms often produce, though they do not typically possess an academic rigor sufficient to allow them to be published in scholarly journals. Over the years, the IBM Center has produced extremely helpful and practical work on subjects such as collaboration across organizational boundaries, performance measurement, business process re-engineering, and reverse auctions.
I wish that other consulting firms that are big in the federal market would put some funds into efforts analogous to that of IBM, although IBM probably now controls the niche for the kind of work they support – i.e. work by academics that is scholarly but somewhat popularized. Accenture has had an Institute for Health and Public Sector Value, though it has a low profile and mostly sponsors in-house research. It also for a number of years supported a “best article” prize in the academic International Public Management Journal
. (Full disclosure: I am editor of this journal. I also do some consulting work for Accenture.)
We have a real need for more and better scholarship about public sector performance, and there are more and more good young public administration scholars. But it’s hard for them to get funding. Social science funding from the National Science Foundation goes overwhelmingly to established disciplines. Almost none of the major foundations support public administration research, with a number (such as Pew and Smith Richardson) having in recent years withdrawn earlier support for such research. The federal marketplace supports a number of large consulting and IT contractors, and in my view they should fill in the breach by finding a niche for research support on public sector performance improvement. Since IBM has its niche, I think another firm might want to specialize in a smaller number of larger grants to support empirical research (where data-gathering can often be expensive) of a standard of rigor sufficient for academic publication, but always having a practical aim and application. A firm might want to specialize in supporting a specific kind of research, such as on using IT in government or on performance measurement.
Any company willing to step up to this?
Posted on Jun 07, 2012 at 7:03 PM0 comments