Globalist Paper

China in My Life — A Personal Journey: The 1980s

How did China react to Japan’s economic boom in the 1980s — and its financial meltdown in the 1990s?

Credit: LIUSHENGFILM- Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • I hardly go to Japan any more. Not because of any conscious decision — but because the force of gravity has moved.
  • This was the age of discovery of China by European business — there was not much material to go on.
  • China's surge to becoming an economic superpower began in the 1980s, but the full thrust really took off just over a decade ago.
  • Japan has become more inward-looking, more insular, less global and more nationalist — just as China has increasingly opened to the outside world.

In the early 1980s, I moved from the history department in a British university to the French business school, INSEAD. The school felt the need to have someone who understood Asia and could instruct MBA students and executives on the driving forces and dynamics of that part of the world.

Japan was the main focus of attention — and apprehension. Publications on the secrets of Japanese management were being produced en masse.

The Japanese business guru Kenichi Ohmae published a book entitled “Triad Power: the Coming Shape of Global Competition,” in which he argued that for the business strategist in the 1980s, there were three key markets — the United States, Germany and Japan. Everything else was of lesser importance.

At the time Japan took up about 50% of my time, if not more. Throughout the 1980s and first half of the 1990s, I was commuting to Japan on at least a monthly basis.

Gradually, the NIEs and other parts of Asia began taking up greater interest and time. It was in the early 1980s that I first began visiting the Chinese mainland.

At INSEAD, we inaugurated a program for executives on “Doing Business in China.” Though the program was very successful — this was the age of discovery of China by European business — there was not much material to go on.

Doing business with China was more a matter of theology — or alchemy — than science.

My first real trip to the PRC took place in 1982 and took me to Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Xiamen.

Apart from accompanying a French business delegation as an advisor, I also gave some lectures at Sun Yatsen University in Guangzhou and the Institute of Foreign Trade in Xiamen.

It was a remarkable experience in very, very heady times. After giving a lecture one day at Sun Yat-sen University, I was asked by the students if I could join them that evening for a disco.

Though never much of a disco person myself, the temptation to attend a disco in China in 1982 was irresistible. When I arrived at the designated venue, I found the students listening to the music — but otherwise just milling about.

Rarely (if ever) in my life was my arrival somewhere greeted with more obvious joy. The point was, the students explained, they had the records, but they had no idea how to dance. Could I show them? I was grateful no one who knew me was present to witness this “spectacle”!

When the Tiananmen massacre occurred some years later, it was one of few times in my adult life that I wept. I imagined that many of the students I had known in Guangzhou and Xiamen at the time must have been among the demonstrators — and hence possibly among the victims.

In the course of the last quarter century, my trips to China have increased quite dramatically. These days, I visit China more often than any other country — on average about six times a year — and probably about 40% of my academic work is focused on China or, increasingly, on China’s global impact.

In contrast, I hardly go to Japan any more. Not because of any conscious decision, but because the force of gravity has moved.

Japan in the last decade-and-a-half has been a rather dismal place — especially so far as intellectual output and general global perspectives are concerned. It has become more inward-looking, more insular, less global and more nationalist — just as China has increasingly opened to the outside world.

China’s surge to becoming an economic superpower began in the 1980s, but the full thrust really took off just over a decade ago.

The changes that have taken place in China — whether in respect to global trade and investment or the mind-boggling transformation of its cities — are truly awesome.

Many pundits have been fond of quoting Napoleon’s alleged aphorism about China: “China sleeps — when it wakes it will shake the world.” In fact, almost certainly Napoleon never said any such thing, though with the benefit of hindsight I am sure he would wish he had said it.

China has risen from virtually nowhere to be the world’s third-leading trade power. It ranks annually in the top three worldwide as a recipient of foreign direct investment. Its increasingly massive economic global clout extends to all continents.

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About Jean-Pierre Lehmann

Jean-Pierre Lehmann (1946-2017) was emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, and a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. [Switzerland]

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