DR. GEORGE KOO is former President of the US/China Business Association and an international business consultant.
In the autumn of 1993, the chief executive and the executive vice president of sales and marketing of a small Tennessee firm visited Shanghai with me to explore a business relationship with a local company. Early during our stay, I took them for a walk on the famous Shanghai Bund by the banks of the Huangpu River. The walkway along the river was full of local Chinese enjoying the warm, sunny Sunday afternoon. Young couples wandered aimlessly or simply stood shoulder to shoulder to gaze across the river without really seeing the busy river traffic below. Children out with their parents ran around shouting, chasing after balls, or simply letting out their exuberance and delight. Senior folks sat in twos and threes watching the lively scene and sipping tea or eating a frozen dessert purchased from the many vendors stationed nearby.
While these US executives, visiting China for the first time, were soaking in the good cheer, I asked them if the scene before them exhibited any signs of the police state that had been depicted by the American media at home. They had to admit that what they saw bore no resemblance to their preconceived notions of China.
In October 1996, another Chinese-American and I were invited to Xian, the ancient capital of China, to lecture. Over a casual lunch hosted by local government officials with an official from Beijing in attendance, the conversation was informal and lighthearted. One of the senior dignitaries reminisced about how he was successful in persuading some of the student leaders to tone down their protests during the "June 4 movement"--the Chinese euphemism for the Tiananmen protest of 1989. Thus their political activism did not lead to arrests even though they were blacklisted from pursuing careers in government. Instead, the students directed their energy elsewhere and became highly successful entrepreneurs, as the official noted with a touch of paternal pride.
While we were sightseeing in the countryside, a funeral dirge wafted from the public announcement system of a nearby village. One of the accompanying young officials in our group said, "This is the funeral music played whenever somebody important dies. Maybe it is for Lao Deng"--a familiar but hardly respectful reference to Deng Xiaoping, the former Chinese leader. Another member of the group replied, "Probably not. Nowadays anybody can use that music, including anyone in the village." Sure enough, at the conclusion of the solemn piece, the "village disc jockey" said that he simply played it for enjoyment. The official who took the music to heart became the butt of some good-natured ribbing from his colleagues.
These are casual conversations of the sort that could not have taken place a few years earlier. Conversely, such conversations are no longer noteworthy today because they have become commonplace--indicating how relaxed China has become. Americans with the opportunity to visit China invariably return home saying they saw the vitality of a purposeful people but did not see or feel the presence of an authoritarian state. Sadly, not enough Americans can go and see for themselves and must depend instead on the words of pundits and politicians, many of whom have been harshly critical of China ever since the Tiananmen protest in 1989.
20 Years of Change
My first trip to China was a personal visit with family members in 1974 when China still was tightly controlled by the infamous Gang of Four. China then was drab--nearly everyone wore the same blue or white shirt. While the people were friendly, they were guarded in what they said. Friends did not socialize except on rare occasions, such as welcoming a returning classmate from abroad.
When I started to advise US companies on doing business in China in 1978, China was just beginning to emerge from the uniform drabness I had previously observed. …