TempleWell, here I am on CA378 returning from three months commuting back and forth to China with all kinds of impressions and memories swirling around in my mind. What a complex and contradictory place it is. Some people making fortunes while others sell spring onions on the pavement; 1.4 billion people but no-one starving; 7.3 million university graduates this year and 25% from last year are still unemployed. At the same time there is a shortage of technical workers – some 6 million. There’s a message in all this as 600 universities switch back to vocational education and growth rates hover at around 7.5% with some mini-stimuli from the government. Apparently, 50% of GDP is Government funded.

Whilst such growth rates are unthinkably high in Europe, they are the minimum required to stand still in China. To slip below might lead to “social discontent” the bogeyman of the ruling elite: those who must never be criticised, those with a smooth-talking PR machine at their finger-tips and a controlling interest in all things political and commercial. What else is there in society? People? Culture? Foreign policy? All ebb and flow to the undercurrents of politics and commerce in modern China. This civilisation stretches back over 6,000 years yet it has little sense of its own recent social history. Censorship takes care of that. Still, people are happy with their lives. They are better off than at any time in their history. A hundred years ago women had their feet bound. Today some are running large companies. Everyone has a roof over their head, state education and basic health care.

Everywhere it’s busy. The streets throng with people dressed in global look-alike fashions, western cars, crowded buses and a melee of scooters, mopeds and bicycles – the latter oblivious to every traffic convention – just like London! In Nanjing, they all harmoniously weave their way through tree-lined streets and in Shanghai race relentlessly along elevated highways between forests of closely-built apartment blocks. Trucks are banned from city streets – less pollution and safer cycling. American fast-food outlets are popular. When McDonald’s first opened, some Chinese couples held their weddings there!

The trappings of the West are everywhere. But, away from the mega-cities, westerners are still something of a public curiosity. My partner and I were a walking photo-opportunity for anyone on a day out and our presence in the audience of the local opera was reported back to us the following morning by a Chinese friend in London. There is little hope of a ‘private life’ for anyone it seems. Every train journey is monitored with scans of ID cards and only the most circumspect of comments are passed at public gatherings. But in private it is a different matter.

“The religion in China is MONEY” was said to me more than once. If money is the religion, then the cathedrals are the lavish shopping malls which swarm with believers enjoying the air conditioning on sweltering humid days. They are also escaping the air pollution which is a serious health hazard as well as blocking out blue skies by day and stars by night.

If you are considering becoming an ex-pat employee in mainland China, go and visit the specific location first with whoever is accompanying you. Cities vary. The internet is restricted which is frustrating and there’s only one English-speaking TV channel of the 42 offered by the state. But the living is relatively inexpensive. Living in another culture is always fascinating and there are inevitably trade-offs to be made.

Have you worked in another country for a significant length of time? What were your experiences?

Part 1 of 3

Jacquie Drake

Jacquie Drake

Dr Jacquie Drake is Founder of cool-leadership.com and Editor of the cool-leadership newsletter.

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