China through the looking glass

Now the time has come
To talk of other things –
Of strawberries and jellies
And other would be kings.

Looking through the glass at China you can not see the story behind the door; the story of five generations whose lives were defined by the last 60 years.

The children of the revolution are now parents and grandparents. The world they were born in is nothing more than a memory, replaced by a reality which has, in many cases, lined their pockets but taken them to strange places far from home. The structured environment of the local communes and certainty of communist socialist ideology was left behind as people followed economic opportunities to the cities and overseas. In their new surrounding they remain fiercely loyal to their home towns, but as each generation passes the ties become weaker. Now, after three generations of suffering and sacrifice, they find themselves confronted by generations as strange to them as Gen X and Y were to us Baby Boomers.

So what does it mean? Simply that the generation gap is alive and well in China just as it is in the U.S., and that it is a human one not specific to any country. At the moment we are preoccupied by our own circumstances, an economic crisis which is playing out in our living rooms, bank accounts and the world stage. Against this backdrop it is easy to see China as some competing ideological and economic megalith. Even for those who have visited China it is easy to be overwhelmed by the endless skyscrapers, the ancient monuments and differences in culture and language and not see the circumstances of people’s lives. The reality is that China’s 1.4 billion people go about their everyday lives preoccupied by their family, jobs, schools, bills, what’s for dinner, in-laws, keeping up with the neighbors, and generational politics just as we do.

The difference is that in their everyday world there is only one child and perhaps one grandchild. The child/grandchild is the future and no sacrifice or expense is too great to ensure the future. The children of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s suffered through natural disasters, political upheaval and rapid social and economic changes. While they were proud of their parents’ generation’s successes in ending the 100 years of humiliation and sacrifice in uniting their country, these successes and accomplishments were not theirs. For them education was a privilege which could not be taken for granted. Jobs and promotions were secured through complex relationships and long working hours. Parents worked where and when required and saw each other once or twice a year. Children were often raised by their grandparents and money was to be earned and saved for the child’s education. I have known parents who work a second job doing manual labor just so their children could have extra pocket money at college. To them sacrifice was and is a way of life and the only thing that mattered was their duty to provide for the next generation.

What has all of this dedicated sacrifice produced? Strawberries and Jellies. Strawberries are the name given to the children born in the ‘80s and Jellies are the children born in the ‘90s. Strawberries (because they are easily bruised) are also known as the generation of “Little Emperors.” They were the first one child generation so they grew up as the sole adoration point of two parents and four grandparents. From the moment they were born they received the best of everything their assembled subjects could afford. No expense or effort was spared. Grandmothers would be up at the crack of dawn hurrying to the produce markets to secure the best of what could be had summer, fall, winter and spring. Ironically, Grandmother’s home cooking was eventually replaced by McDonalds and KFC, as the Emperor’s tastes changed and he or she demanded to be rewarded for each accomplishment with a trip to the sacred grease pit of choice.

On the other side of the equation was a constant, often crushing, expectation that the assembled self sacrifice would prepare the way for the “emperor’s” future successes. A stunning school record, a degree from Beida, Tsinghua or Fudan (the Harvard, Yale and UCLA of China), a masters from one of the top international MBA schools, a stint at one of the major international investment banking firms and then on to earn the first billion or so as a warm up to taking over Berkshire when Warren retired. Academic excellence was number one, beginning early in the morning until late at night, six and a half days a week, including extra classes, tutors and summer school. As teachers remain with their students through their middle and high school years and are rewarded based on the test scores of their pupils, between them and the families it was and is a constant pressure cooker with little room for exercise or play dates. Unsurprisingly, the generation which has emerged feels overburdened and underappreciated, leading many to take a “me generation” attitude. Disappointed parents and/or grandparents await the return of the prodigal son/daughter, hope for a strategic marriage or have shifted their focus to the next generation.

Jellies, the children of the ‘90s, are subject to the same pressures and adoration but they are considered even more delicate than their Strawberry predecessors. They are the glam children, the “shiny” generation, constantly taking pictures of themselves for their Facebook pages. They have never played with real toys. Their play area is the cyber world. They do not understand how anyone could exist without a camera/cell phone/i-pod. They dismiss Strawberries as jealous malcontents who do not have their keen fashion sense and superior communications skills. According to their teachers they are less respectful but more open to emotional motivation, i.e. if they like you they will do anything you ask but they do not respond well to commands. They are less concerned about education and more interested in fashion. They know all the major foreign brands but they are savvy consumers and will deliberately buy Shanzhai (look a-like copies) as a personal statement even when they have the money for an original, whereas a Strawberry would automatically go for the original.

The Strawberry’s retort is “defective baby formula.” Somehow it all sounds very familiar. The only thing we know for sure is that there will be more generations and that each generation eventually finds itself at the helm of society.

In writing about China it is easy to dwell on the differences in culture, custom, governance and outlook. Through the looking glass of our own reality it is easier to discern differences than similarities. We often fail to appreciate that as humans we have more rather than less in common. The difficulty is that the circumstances of those we see are not familiar and hence their actions seem mysterious. We forget that in our own world our actions are just as mysterious to those looking at us.

As China’s importance as a market grows we need to understand their circumstances as a precursor to understanding their actions. While it would take more than a lifetime of study to scratch the surface of China’s 5,000 year history and culture, understanding the last 60 years is necessary if you want to do business in a country which is so rapidly changing. After all, if you want to sell things to Strawberry’s and Jellies you better understand who they are and what they want.

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