“Don’t bother telling a Chinese person to stick to a schedule” said Ke Long (of the Fujitsu Research Institute) in his opening remarks to a Japanese business lunch I regularly attend – confirming Prof Erin Meyer’s conclusions covered in our previous post on Chinese and Japanese attitudes to time keeping.
He was only 5 minutes late in finishing, but I don’t think anyone minded as his talk was thoroughly entertaining in fluent and only lightly accented Japanese – funny and revealing. Although he warned us he would not stick to the slides in the handout, he did in fact manage to cover all the key points, interlaced with many amusing stories.
He was born and brought up in Nanjing, which as he pointed out, did not have a happy history with Japan. So in 1983 when he was graduating from high school, he had no interest in Japan and had in fact applied to study English literature at the local university. He thought there had been a mistake when he received a letter saying he had been awarded a place to read Japanese. It turned out that the Chinese government, in an effort to prepare enough interpreters for a major Japanese government mission in three years, had cut all English, French and German courses and replaced them with Japanese courses.
He then wanted to study at Nagoya University in Japan, but struggled to get a passport. He was called in time and time again by officials who asked him why he wanted to go to Japan and what he was intending to do after his studies there. “You must not give the real answer, of course. So I said I wanted to study for the sake of my mother country and that I would return immediately. Neither were true.”
He was told to apply for a private university first before trying for more prestigious state universities like Nagoya. So he ended up at Aichi university, thinking that as it was named after the prefecture, which was bigger than Nagoya city, it should be correspondingly better, not knowing a well known dictum in Japan that the larger sounding the name, the worse the university.
To his amazement, he discovered that the entire Economics faculty were Marxists. “This is what I have escaped from!” he protested.
His insights on China, the US, Japan and the UK in his talk were:
- He highlighted greater inequality in the US compared to Japan and how it has increased rapidly. The top 1% wealthiest in the USA had 280 times more wealth in 2010 than the median, compared to the previous peak of 190x in 2004. He said on his regular trips to the US he is invited to houses of wealthy Americans, where 30 servants are not uncommon. Whereas the President of Fujitsu lives an ordinary life in a standard Japanese family house.
- Chinese people are so suspicious of the quality of goods they can buy in China that they prefer to import the exact same product, made in China, from Japan.
- China had a population bonus which explained its phenomenal growth, but this is ending. The male/female imbalance – particularly the fact that there are 30 million more males under the age of 20, is storing up trouble, socially and economically. The population is declining and ageing.
- China has to increase its Total Factor Productivity as a result, which means more innovation, but China is not there yet (despite spanking both Japan and US in supercomputing recently).
- His view on why American share prices are booming is that it is not Trump’s policies or that American companies are so wonderful, rather that Chinese money is pouring into American equities. It’s not going to Europe or offshore. Chinese diaspora funds are channelling the money from Chinese banks, even though China is trying impose tight controls on outward flows of money – since December 2016 investment in overseas properties and financial products has been banned. Presumably this will hit the UK property market too. Hundreds of regional bank officials have been arrested recently as the central government tries to crack down.
- Although relations between China and Japan have their tense moments, it was not likely that China would ever attack Japan as its sea and air forces are not sufficient. Its army is huge but largely manned by young only children, whose commitment to fighting Ke doubts. Furthermore army leaders are highly corrupt and wealthy.
- He thinks China would like to continue with friendly relations with the UK, as a counterbalance to the US. There is unlikely to be a trade war, but what should worry China and Japan is what to do about North Korea. It’s about time Japanese politicians stopped worrying about rightist kindergartens “amusing though it is” and came up with a strategic foreign policy.
- He does not fear a China economic collapse, but points to the slow pace of reform, particularly in the over investment in capital by state companies and the continuing stumble of the zombie companies. The fear in China is that reforming these companies will lead to unemployment, and China is not like Japan in terms of how it reacts to this. There are riots, with local government officials’ cars set on fire, he says.
- As for the wave since 2010 of Chinese students studying abroad in the UK and elsewhere, he says this is quite different to previous waves. The UK government will be dismayed to learn that there is no intention on the part of the Chinese students to return to China. This is education with the intent of immigration. Their parents also no longer want their children to come back to China and become civil servants as in the past, given the crack down on corruption going on. Many came to the West as children, studying at private schools, and have developed a taste for the Western life.
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