What Happened In China?

What Happened In China?

Ajarn.com legend tells all

If anyone had told me in late 2002 that I’d imminently be getting some Chinese work experience I’d have presumed they were offering me a job in a restaurant. However by mid-February 2003 I found myself in the position of boss for the China operations of a multimedia-based English language course provider i.e. an ambitious language school.

How and why it was seen fit to promote me from my comfortable Director of Studies type job in Bangkok to position as guy in charge of making sure we don’t get ripped off by the newest entrants to the WTO is for another time. Other topics you won’t find covered in any of the following articles are a guide on how to find work in China or which are the best and worst places to work – as they are topics I can’t claim to know much about. What I’ve put down in words are a few of my experiences from the relatively short time I spent living and working in Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen. Therefore they are written from a ‘newby’s point of view rather than that of a seasoned China expat expert. Hopefully my observations will compliment the more factual information in this section of the site.
First Impressions

Outside China one tends to imagine the Chinese having a strong work ethic and all rushing around like good little workers in their attempts to build the perfect money making socialist state. Therefore, coming from Thailand I was expecting Chinese universities to be a hive of productive, knowledge inducing activity, as opposed the Thai norm of a hive of pointless, non-productive, face saving activity. Reality at one of Beijing’s top universities was a bit different as I soon found out.

We entered into an agreement to take one of their University Press’s TEFL course books and transform it into a more interactive, less drop-dead boring, CD-ROM & web based course. Our geeks in Bangkok handled the IT stuff, but the majority of content adaptation was handled by a team of Chinese lecturers from the university plus one of our own teachers who worked alongside them. From the start it became clear that despite the Press’s imposition of a tight deadline, the Chinese staff weren’t going to be rushed into anything urgent. In fact getting them to remain awake for more than two consecutive hours was an achievement in itself as a typical working day began at 10am, then, almost immediately, adjourned for lunch at around 11.30am. A leisurely lunch was followed by an afternoon nap, however by 2.30ish all members of the team were in a conscious state and work resumed . . . . until 4pm when it was time to go back to the state supplied living quarters known as ‘home’.

Long commutes from distant Beijing suburbs couldn’t be blamed for the short working day as most faculty lived on campus. I met one professor who was born on campus; went to school at the university’s primary and secondary schools on campus; took her degree on the same campus; spent all her working life at the university where she studied; met a fellow academic and got married on campus and last year had her first child at the hospital on campus. “You don’t get out much.” Was the least sarcastic thing I could think of saying, after confirming that the Chinese government didn’t use bonded labour in their universities.
Money matters

There’s lots of it to be made in China, as can be witnessed by the huge number of western companies beating a path to set up shop in the ‘communist’ state. Large multinational companies usually form Joint Ventures with Chinese counterparts. This option isn’t open for small businesses which either have to set up a Representative Office, the first, relatively un-bureaucratic step to having a legal business in China or form some kind of matey partnership with a company or, in an English course provider’s case, a college or university. Both have pros and cons – e.g. the former will enable the Chief Representative Officer to get a working visa and therefore pay tax but technically you can’t do any actual business as Representative Offices can’t make sales, issue receipts or receive money from sales into the company bank account. So, it sounds like one of the pros might be that if you don’t officially have any sales then the office has no income, therefore no corporate tax. Sounds logical but, unfortunately, the taxman, knowing that all R.O.s break these rules which don’t exactly encourage companies to set up an R.O. in the first place, calculates corporate tax as 10% of the office expenditure, as they know income will be coming from somewhere.

In the case of the small business entity I worked for, a cosy partnership with a university is the way we went. The university provided working papers and accommodation for our teachers, pretty nice office space and a couple of very able young English lecturers to work with us. Together we jointly promoted software for intranet/internet/CD-ROM based language learning courses and self-access centres. The university doing their part by providing introductions and allowing us to use their students as guinea pigs. This arrangement proved successful, except that all money from clients gained via this partnership was paid into a university controlled bank account and they could only transfer money out of the country, via their New York bank account, once a year. This, as anyone who has worked for a small business which requires a steady cash flow knows, isn’t particularly convenient.

Therefore, when we could, we tried to get clients and partner companies to help us out:

Me: “When you get paid by the client can you transfer the money into a Hong Kong account.”
Boss of Chinese partner company in Shenzhen “Yes, no problem.”

And so, it came to pass that the deal was done, the learners signed up and the client paid our partner. Time for us to get our share paid into a HK company account so that the money can actually be put to use now and not in 10 months’ time. But it wasn’t quite as simple as popping into Shenzhen HSBC and filling out a few forms. The eventual solution involved our partner handing a bag of RMB to a friend of a friend he’d never met before who then took the bag over the border, passed it to someone else who took it to HK Airport where they met the secretary from our HK office and handed it over.

Our next cunning plan was to try to get client companies & universities to pay in cash. That way the money could be used easily or taken out of the country and changed for useable currency in Hong Kong – the only place where you can get a good exchange rate on your RMB. Initially the idea of international currency smuggling sounded a tad glamourous but when you’re actually going through the customs scan at the airport or are in the permanently lengthy queue at the HK land border your mind tends to wander as you wonder what will happen if an official finds the 200,000 RMB stuffed in your pockets & luggage. Are the Chinese serious about breaking currency export laws? Do you get arrested? Just a warning? Would they let you out of the country?

In the event, I was only pulled up once, by a young guy in an ill-fitting uniform at the HK land border who padded me down, put his hand in my jacket pocket and pulled out a wad of about 30,000 RMB. He just smiled and put it back. Maybe I was just lucky that he didn’t notice the other 5 identical wads I had in other pockets and bag, maybe he just didn’t give a toss. A month or so later the subject of getting funds out of China cropped up in a conversation with a Malaysian partner – she told me that her friends, senior managers of accounting firms did the same thing when they flew back to their Head Offices in KL – always brought a bag of company cash back with them as every other way to get money out involved way too much paperwork and bureaucracy . . . . even for accountants.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch

Dealing with Thai HR bosses teach you patience and to see through polite delaying tactics, but it doesn’t really prepare you for the Chinese who are in a league of their own when it comes to being demanding and expecting every business transaction to be conducted on their terms or not at all.
Think back to when you were young, you’ll remember the uncoordinated fat kid who lived in your street, you tolerated him for 90% of the time but for the other 10% you faked being best mates. Why? Because he had something you wanted - the only genuine Adidas World Cup ‘86 leather football. You could use his ball, but when you wanted to you knew you had to suck up to him big time. He knew this and would only let you have the ball if he could be Gary Lineker – which was akin you having your four year old sister as Peter Beardsley. You hated this but you sucked up, gave him the captain’s armband, borrowed the ball and the fat kid was happy as he played on his terms. Now, fast forward 20 years, jump a couple of continents and the fat kid is the Chinese HR boss sitting opposite you.

I was given advance warning about what to expect and my handy guidebook had also advised me that in any dealings I should “Be like water, not stone” during negotiations. Not a problem for me, I foolishly thought.

However, the number of times something was agreed only for it to be unilaterally ‘un-agreed’ and reopened for discussions only a few days later was amazing. There appeared to be no one trigger that led to these U-turns. I had a very able Chinese assistant to translate and accompany me and she reassured me that I hadn’t offended anyone unwittingly or for that matter screwed up and made a tit of myself. In fact she was as taken aback as me.

An example - prices, terms & conditions for an agent are agreed verbally in Chinese & English, and the agent confirms they’ll draft a contact for the three parties, ourselves, the agent, who is dealing direct with the client & the client to sign. The fax arrived a couple of days later and it was as though a day of seemingly amicable & productive discussions had never occurred. The nearest reason for the umpteen unilateral changes, conditions and stipulations made by the agent that myself, or my assistant, can get is that we must be flexible as the client is very important and wouldn’t accept what agreed anyway. To the agent’s surprise this led to me ask questions such as “Why did you agree to terms that you knew weren’t going to be acceptable to your client?” . . . all of which fell on deaf ears. As my assistant helpfully told me, telling people to “Stop wasting my f%$king time” tends to cause loss of face, therefore the only option was to head back for another round of meetings and, as it transpired, more multi-course, round table, mega-meals.

A theory was now formulating in my slowly numbing brain . . . I realized that if any business talks were being conducted, and mealtime was approaching then it was better to steer clear of any important issues until my hosts had been fed and watered. I’m not sure what was on the menu for lunch when there weren’t any visitors present but needless to say, a slap up Chinese round table lunch was something that everyone present in meetings looked forward to immensely. “OK, we agree the price should be xxxx RMB.” basically equated to “Sod this, I’m hungry.”

The rules of the meal are simple, the host company pays and therefore they get to impress visitors by offering the innards of a number of endangered species cooked (or uncooked) in a time honoured traditional way i.e. a way where quality of taste is directly proportionate to the percentage of oil and fat in the dish.

Actually, most food isn’t too bad but knowing where to start and how to eat the various dishes that are passed in front of you and, more importantly, what to avoid if you don’t want to spend the following 12 hours on the toilet are all useful skills. As is guestimating – from the importance of the host’s staff who are present - for how many hours the meal will go on for and, therefore, just how much of your life will ebb away during forced, polite lunchtime chit-chat where a mention of ‘Wild Swans’ results in a scanning of the menu rather than a discussion of contemporary Chinese literature.

One other experience worth relating is that wine served with a posh dinner isn’t for drinking – at least not in quantities larger than a mouthful. About 12 of us were present at a dinner, a couple of westerners, a few Chinese English teachers & professors, university administrators and the VP of the university – a very nice guy. The food was ordered and a wine list called for, it was scanned knowledgeably by the VP who, eschewing the best Ulan Bator’s vineyards could offer, settled for a bottle of old French plonk, a few steps up in quality and price from the local homebrew. A couple of minutes passed and a single bottle arrived, I looked at the other English guy present, we both wondered when the other bottles were arriving as clearly one bottle doesn’t go far with 12 people – unless you possess Jesus-like qualities, which the VP clearly didn’t as around 60 millilitres of wine were measured out by a methodical waitress into each glass.

Everyone sat eyeing the wine, waiting for the VP to make his move which he duly did with a toast to the success of something or other. I was just about to down the half glass of wine when I noticed the Chinese contingent had barely taken a mouthful. Managing to slyly pour the wine from my mouth back into the glass, I put it back onto the table. Quick as a flash, a professor stood up, another toast to the success of something different and another teaspoon of wine was sipped by all. By the time it was my turn people were struggling for relevant topics to toast success to and the best I could think of was simply to thank the VP for the meal and of course the delicious wine, just a pity there wasn’t more of it.

Finally, a little tip I learned from a local English professor in Beijing . . . . If you’re ever in the position of having to arrange a multi-course lunch, at your employer’s expense, then order loads of food that your spouse and kids like. This particular professor’s family seemingly loved shrimp as several kilos of them, piled up of serving trays, appeared during the meal. Needless to say at least one tray-full went uneaten, at which point the request for a doggy bag went out and the family’s evening meal was taken care of.
SARS (Sensational & Antiquated Response Syndrome)

My time in China coincided with the rise of SARS but as far as I know the two events were unrelated. In March 2003, the world became aware of the spread of the SARS virus in China & HK . . . .the world outside China that is. In Bangkok, my girlfriend was forced to cancel her trip to Shanghai because the Thai authorities declared “All travellers returning from Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, Singapore and Taiwan must stay home for at least 14 days or face legal action.” and she didn’t fancy the idea of being treated like a leper upon her return. Life at the Shanghai university where he had our offices continued as normal, as did my weekly trips to Beijing and occasional visits to Shenzhen in Guangdong province, where SARS was first spotted, ignored and later covered up.

During April changes slowly became apparent as more people logged onto the internet or watched international news coverage and chose not to believe the official party line that all was well and SARS, if it did exist, was no more harmful than a chesty cough – take a couple of Vitamin C tablets and your average SARS patient will be right as rain in the morning.

The main sign of nervousness was the fewer number of people on the streets and subways and that the usually wait-listed Monday morning Shanghai-Beijing flights were only half full. Less than a month later, when the Chinese government declared that SARS was - as the international media had been reporting for some time – more than just a few old folks who ate wild cat dropping down dead - Shanghai became a paradise. Spring was in the air, no-one was on the subway, at the gym the Nautilus machines were always available and the streetside pirate DVD sellers cut prices in a bid to drum up trade.

I’d also noticed Beijing airport get steadily busier as more locals guessed something was up. I flew to Beijing the day after the government declared it to be the ‘SARS capital of China’, but confirmed the Olympics were still on, and promptly shipped a few mid-level officials off to the work camps for covering up the hundreds of cases in the capital’s hospitals. Whilst the government had issued a decree banning itinerant labourers from returning to their hometowns and prevented bus companies & the state railway from laying on any extra transportation they didn’t impose any restrictions on people with enough cash to buy plane tickets. Consequently the airport departure area was a bit of a madhouse as the middle classes made their exodus.

At this early stage of SARS mania the general public didn’t know was how many surgical masks to wear simultaneously. Three seemed to be the optimum number as Chinese tried to out do each other in hiding as much of their face as possible from fellow potential disease carriers, such as Immigration Officers who didn’t have the courage to ask people to remover their masks to check their features against their ID card photo.

In addition to the increased number of masked faces on the streets, the Chinese began to consume vinegar, turnips and cigarettes in larger than normal quantities as they were all rumoured to offer protection from the virus. At first glance ciggies wouldn’t appear to hold any virus killing properties, however if you apply a little lateral thinking, as the Chinese rumour mongers, a.k.a China Tobacco Corp, did it’s not hard to see that as ciggies could be a miracle cure. We all know they contain umpteen highly dangerous chemicals which more often than not end up killing the smoker, therefore, if these chemicals can kill human cells it stands to reason that they should be able to kill off an unknown virus within the body. All you’re doing by taking up a two pack a day habit is buying time by trading an early death from SARS for one in 30 years time from cancer – seems a fair deal.

Back in Shanghai I was ostracized by the university as I’d just returned from what, three days earlier was a healthy, vibrant city but was now, officially, the most dangerous place in the world. What’s more I’d been on a plane which, three days earlier had been the safest form of transport but was now officially a flying coffin. So I ended up having to work from my apartment for two weeks and report daily by phone that I didn’t have a fever or any other SARS type symptoms.

In early May I took a holiday in Thailand. When I returned I hoped to avoid another two week exile. My position was that:
a) Plane travel to Thailand was safer than, say, subway travel in Shanghai. My reasoning was air on the planes is filtered and all passengers were required to have SARS checks on departure and arrival, whereas the subway is the home of the unwashed masses.
b) Beaches in the south of Thailand, or come to think of it, any place in Thailand, had had zero cases of SARS infections reported – the only cases in Thailand were people who had recently visited Hong Kong. Therefore, the odds of catching SARS in Thailand seemed remote. Unlike in, for example, say, China.

The Dean of the Language Dept then put forward her argument. Her position was that:
a) The party line is that planes are disease incubators.
b) China has classified Thailand as an infected area.
So that was that, another ban.

Everyone’s heard stories of the foreign teacher being the last to know what was going on in a school or college. Usually, you’re the last to hear when classes have been cancelled – you turn up and look like a real idiot sitting in an empty room for 50 minutes. This example concerns the guy who was responsible for overseeing one of our self-access centres at a Beijing university. The ‘SARS is real’ proclamation was made by the government on a Sunday, the following day, he went to his office as normal, noticed the campus seemed quite quiet but thought nothing of it – not having seen any news programs in the previous 24 hours. He waited for students and Chinese teachers to arrive. No-one did. He called the Language Department offices, but the phone went unanswered. There were no tanks on the streets so a student uprising could be ruled out but other than that he didn’t know what was going on as the only sign of life was the cleaning lady. Finally, he called the emergency hotline i.e. the Head of the Language Dept. on her mobile. She was at home, he asked what was going on “What are you doing at work? Don’t you know the university has been closed due to SARS? You should leave now.” was the panicked response. So remember, the next time your school changes the photocopying regulations without telling you in advance, things could be worse.
Ambitious Chinese seeks money hungry western partner

China may well be a nation of shiny happy people working to build the perfect socialist motherland, but when it comes to studying the shiniest, happiest kids all want to head abroad to gain their first or second degrees. Not necessarily to the USA, as it’s a dangerous place where planes crash into tall buildings on a regular basis, but to locations perceived as safe havens inhabited predominantly by English speaking white folks e.g. UK, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. (Let’s face it, anywhere where a suitcase of hard cash and a decent IELTS score will enable you to walk away with a Bachelors degree.)

Western universities, polytechnics, and centres of tertiary learning with enough money to print glossy brochures are all rushing to link up with Chinese universities which are awash with ‘new money’ kids. It’s not all one sided, from a Chinese perspective the appearance of close academic ties with a western educational establishment, no matter how well known it is, instantly makes the university more appealing to new students – something increasingly important in the new environment where all universities have to turn a profit.

The deals on offer range from setting up self-access English language centres, to offering western standard MBAs on-site or simply filling classrooms with bodies for pre-departure training which will equip the Chinese students with the knowledge and English language skills required to become fully integrated into western college life. Or at least that’s the claim even if it isn’t the real aim which is opening up a new revenue stream. There’s a load of money to be made and a load of parents willing to pay high fees for their only child to be enrolled on an Associate Degree program at the prestigious Yabby Creek Vocational School, in rural outback Australia.

Not that you can blame the Chinese uni administrators for hopping into bed with wealthy suitors from the west. Metropolitan unis in China are now competing fiercely against each other for the fees from middle-class students which are required to repay the huge debts that the majority of universities have incurred due to the overwhelming urge to build larger, more O.T.T. campus than their neighbours. The old game of one upmanship is alive and well in the hearts of university governors. It’s not enough for a new campus to simply be big, it has to also embrace every single architectural style from Mongolian to modern. And if the budget for heating systems, classroom equipment etc is reassigned for use in adding minarets to the main building then so be it.

At one university in Beijing, I saw a state of the art self-access centre with 100 networked PCs and, when I visited, 99 of them were unused – one was broken and the local Compaq guy was sitting, fixing it. The reason for so many vacant chairs was that in the rush to appropriate funds to build the new self-access centre in the language department, the need for an ornamental stained glass window, rather than a simple sign, proclaiming this was in fact the new self-access centre, was deemed more urgent than the need for software to run on the PCs. Therefore, the only use the new centre sees – until a budget for worthwhile language learning software can be approved – is when the network administrator logs on to chat to his friends on ICQ or when a couple of the tech-savvy teachers use the internet to check their email or visit the CNN website.

During my time in China I visited half a dozen major universities, all of which already had links with western unis, but there was a noticeable disparity in the standing of the western establishment compared to that of its Chinese counterpart. The Chinese universities were amongst the best in the country. The western universities, or at least the three UK establishments that had linked up, were hardly centres of learning that have set the academic world alight, think Colchester rather than Cambridge.

For example, the University of Central Lancashire may well be a staffed by nice folks with a penchant for Suzanne Vega, holidays in Tuscany and clothing from Oxfam shops but that doesn’t alter the fact it only just creeps into The Times newspaper’s list of top 100 Higher Education institutions in the UK. (When I was studying for my A-levels I was offered a place there if I could pass two A levels at grade E or better.) Having visited Preston a few times and lived in Shanghai I tend to pity the Shanghainese kids who will be heading off to experience life in Preston. In years to come they’ll be asked “What’s it like living in a cold, repressive backward society?” and the reply will come “ Oh, life in Lancashire wasn’t so bad.”
Men in Black

China has come along way in the last couple of decades. Gone is the official ‘one style for all’ party hairstyle and you can now buy clothes in colours other than black . . . . or so I thought until I found myself in the departure lounge of Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai. The departure area has to be the most depressing place on earth, although inmates in Guantanamo Bay may beg to differ. It wasn’t just the bland concrete walls, the British railway station waiting room furniture, it was my fellow passengers on flight. About 100 of us were on the 8 am China Eastern flight to Beijing. (If you ever wondered where all the old McDonnell Douglas planes ended up after all airlines worth their salt ditched them in favour of Boeings & Airbuses 20 years ago, look no further.) Out of the 100 or so passengers at least 98% were wearing black coats or jackets – the exceptions were myself (grey Boss jacket original, not a copy, from the Export Shop on Silom 350 Baht); a trendy, in a mid-80s way, businesswoman (red leather jacket, think Michael Jackson in the Thriller video but more butch) and two students who actually looked like students – right down to the tattered jeans, Converse trainers and ‘White Stripes’ & ‘The Strokes’ patches on their duffle bags.

A member of the ground staff reached for the mic to announce the flight was ready to board but before she could utter a word the gate was besieged by a black clad mass all pushing and shoving to ensure that they were first on the plane and that it didn’t leave without them. On board getting to one’s seat was a challenge as you can always count on at least 20% of passengers to be in the wrong one. I have some sympathy as the seat numbering uses the western alphanumeric system rather than Chinese characters, but the number of people who appear to plonk themselves down in a seat they like and hope, in vain, that a stewardess won’t move them is pretty staggering.

In-flight entertainment for westerners consisted entirely of sniggering at what passes for English in the airline magazine and listening to your neighbour either snoring or coughing up his stomach lining. Meals aren’t served on two hour flights but if you’re lucky a stewardess will dump a very nicely designed snack box on your lap at the mid-point of the journey. The contents of the box appear to consist of free samples that the airline has been given by various food manufacturers. Pre-packaged contents range from various forms of dried meat and fruit, the Chinese equivalent of mini bread rolls and cakes to, if you’re fortunate, a Kit Kat.

Finally the flight landed and the stewardess made the announcement, which in English came across as a reminder for people to remain in their seats until the plane had reached the gate. Something must have been lost in the translation however, as, upon hearing the Chinese equivalent, half the plane jumped to their feet, retrieved their bags from the overhead luggage bins and made a beeline for the exit despite the protestations of the stewardesses who already had their hands full yelling at people for using their cell phones.

The desire to be free of the confines of the airline continued into the baggage claim where it was fun watching fellow passengers who thought they could save time, and influence the order in which ground staff placed bags on the carousel, by fighting for standing space in the vicinity of the spot where luggage begins it’s journey on the conveyor belt. You could also hear the sniggers of wiser travelers who didn’t check in any of their luggage, but took all 30 kilos of it as carry on, as they strolled past.

One passenger stood out amongst those who thought a plane’s overhead bins possessed Tardis like qualities, the ‘fruit guy’. For no apparent reason every flight I went on had one passenger whose carry on luggage consisted entirely of as many plastic bags of fruit he could carry. I could never figure out if the fruit guys were regular people who simply thought contracting scurvy onboard was a distinct possibility or were involved in something sinister such as small time tangerine trafficking, not as profitable as cocaine but even wannabe Pablo Escobars have to start somewhere.