I spent this past week traveling in China with two Chinese-speaking colleagues, visiting customers and prospects with our distributors in Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Suzhou. Since presentations and demos in Chinese are understood much better than English, I haven't had much to do in most meetings other than some opening and closing remarks. I've used that extra time to discretely check email on my Blackberry, or to read a book on my iPod Touch.
This allowed me to finish James Fallows' wonderful Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China. Fallows has been a favorite writer of mine for years. I've read many of his articles in The Atlantic as well as several of his books. Fallows and his wife lived in Shanghai and Beijing from 2006 to 2008 and also traveled widely around China. This book collects the essays he wrote for The Atlantic during that period.
It was cool to be in Shenzhen or Guangzhou while reading his observations about the rapid development of the city of Shenzhen and the hyperactive manufacturing region that surrounds it. Fallows reports on people in many situations, from an Irish expat deal maker who connects overseas companies with Shenzhen-area manufacturers to billionaire business owners to the workers who live in the company dorms and work 12 hour shifts. He actually visits the places he writes about, whether it's a factory or a tiny, impoverished village in far western China.
The picture that emerges is extremely multidimensional, as you should expect from a huge country with over 1.3 billion people. Yes, China is centrally controlled, but it is also extremely open in many ways. Yes, it often seems that making money for yourself is the "religion" of China, but there are also people working to help the poorest people in remote western areas. Yes, China's growth is adding CO2 and other pollutants to the environment at a feverish rate, but environmental issues are being taken seriously and they are making real progress (though maybe not fast enough to avert various disasters).
This book has really improved my understanding of China's complexities, and it added greatly to the discussions I've had with my Chinese companions this week. I'm sure I'll get some additional perspectives next week in Taiwan.