It’s 7:00am on Sunday morning and I reluctantly get out of bed, immediately down some coffee and head for the shower. At 8:00 I meet the driver of a “hei che” (black taxi) just down the street from my apartment. He greets me by asking if I’ve eaten (a common greeting among Chinese people from rural areas) and we take off toward the highway. A half hour later we’re driving through an industrial complex on the far south end of the city. We pass by buildings with logos of big western companies like GE, Volkswagen, IBM, until we come to a large, ominous cement building with a steel gate and guardhouse. My driver gets out and goes over to show the guard his ID. He’s interrogated for a few minutes, and then gets back in the car and we drive through the gate onto the grounds of the world’s largest and most infamous electronics contract manufacturer – Foxconn.
A Taiwanese company, Foxconn does most of its manufacturing in Mainland China (where the labor is cheaper). Just about ever major electronics company in the world – Dell, Apple, Nokia, IBM, Intel, Motorola, Samseung, HP, to name a few – does at least some of its manufacturing with Foxconn. The company owns a plant in Shenzhen that employs somewhere between 300,000 – 500,000 people – in one factory! The company has over 1 million employees in all of China, most of them migrant workers from China’s poorer inland regions. Foxconn is the latest Chinese manufacturer to come under scrutiny for poor labor practices, after it was discovered last year that 12 employees committed suicide at the Shenzhen plant within 5 months, half of these occurring in the same month. At the same time, a reporter was roughed-up by some guards at one of Foxconns facilities for trying to take some pictures (this story is especially amusing because of the way the writer talks about how the reporter claimed that he “was within his rights” to take pictures from the street – if he’s spent any time in China he should realize that “rights” in China are all relative, depending on who you are, where you are, and who you know). Its not surprising then that the guard yelled at me to put the camera away after I took the picture below.
Foxconn distribution center in the Beijing suburbs
Inside the building is dark, and I walk up a steep flight of stairs, then down a long hallway until I finally arrive at an empty classroom at the far end of the building. This is the first class I will be teaching at a big company, and needless to say, I’m a little nervous. My students filter in late – it’s 9:00am on a Sunday morning, and none of them want to be there. But has we begin class the mood lightens up, and I discover that despite hating their jobs, they are all eager to learn and advance themselves. Some of them even have the ambition to start their own companies. For most of them, I’m the first foreigner they have ever interacted with for an extended period of time.
My second assignment, which came a week later, was my first “VIP” class. VIP classes usually involve teaching a senior executive one-on-one. My student would be Mr. Liu Chaoan, Chairman of the Board for the North China Power Engineering Co. (NCPE), a large State-Owned Enterprise (SOE) that designs power plants in China. The plants they design include coal, IGCC (at type of gasified coal), nuclear, wind, solar… you name it. “Mr. Liu has very basic English,” I was told by my boss, Ben. “Your goal however is not so much to improve his English level, but to help him have a good time learning English. Entertain him.”
From the perspective of a corporate training company, this makes sense. Most of these executives are in their 50s and 60s, and have a lot more important things to worry about than English class. A few lessons a week is not going to do much to improve their English, at least in the short term. But this guy works with many international partners and clients, and probably is tired of communicating through a translator. At the same time, it sounded like he was not too happy about learning English, and saw it more as a chore than a path to advancement. Whatever the obstacles however, it would be my job to help him overcome these.
Not NCPE, but another large & similar SOE building
A human resources agent named Mr. Chen greeted me in the lobby on the first day and showed me to Mr. Liu’s office. He opened the door and stepped into a cavernous office that may be twice the size of my entire apartment. A long conference table stretched across one end with a TV mounted on the wall in front of it, some chairs and couches were gathered around a small table in the middle, and Mr. Liu’s giant desk was situated at the other end. Mr. Liu greeted me enthusiastically, but I could tell he was nervous. Then he paused for a minute and asked Mr. Chen if I could speak Chinese. I answered for him with “keyi,” which basically means, “I can.” He smiled and invited me to sit at the long conference table.
He served me some tea and then immediately lit up a cigarette. I began asking him very basic questions about himself using English, but interspersing Chinese where I thought I would be needed. He began to loosen up. Then I took out my computer and showed him some pictures I had prepared for the class (basically I just googled “funny pictures” and came up with a few good ones). The first was of a small kitten with the peel of some kind of fruit carved into the shape of a football helmet on it’s head (you’ve probably seen this one before). The second was of a hamster holding a machine gun. The last was two pictures of the Mona Lisa – one was the classical painting, and the other had been edited to make her appear to have blonde hair and breast implants. It said “Mona Lisa after a week in the US.” Mr. Liu thought this was hilarious. We proceeded to the textbook from there, but I could tell he was having fun. The next class I showed him some pictures from my travels around Europe and Asia, and in turn he showed me his pictures from his trip to the US. “This… my friend.” He said, pointing to a man smiling next to him in one of the pictures. “He is President of Beijing University.” They were sitting on the edge of a lake in Montana with the snow-capped Rocky Mountains in the background. This guy is the boss.
My next assignment was to teach Mr. Li, the Assistant President of SinoChem, China’s fourth largest state-owned oil company. SinoChem does some offshore oil exploration and production (Mr. Li’s division), but it also makes chemical fertilizers and other petrochemicals. Unlike the other classes, which are only twice a week, I teach Mr. Li almost every day from 12:00 to 2:00. Unlike Mr. Liu, Mr. Li is very energetic and enthusiastic about learning English. Originally from a small village south of Beijing (where most of his family still works as farmers), he seems to be the personification of the Chinese dream – working his way from being a farmer in the countryside to become a senior executive at one of China’s largest companies. I’ve grown to have a lot of respect for this man, despite the fact that he doesn’t believe humans are causing climate change (as I learned during one class). In fact, his company is at the center of the industry that I hope to someday make obsolete. As a wise man once said however, “the best teacher is the enemy.” I’m certainly learning a lot from him as well.
Some interesting habits of Mr. Li: he will shake his head and make an “ah” sound when I tell him something, which I used to think meant he understood. What I eventually discovered is that it only means he heard what I said, but not that he understood it (from what I’ve heard this is common among Chinese and Japanese). I was also watched in horror one day as, right in the middle of our lesson, he suddenly hocked a big loogie, and spit directly on the floor of his office. He’s done this a few other times since then. I new it was common practice for un-cosmopolitan Chinese to spit in the middle of the street, or even subway, but this took it to a whole new level. One evening he invited me to have dinner with him and his son, because it son was going to be taking an oral English exam the next day, and he wanted him to practice with me (not only was the dinner paid for, but I was also paid for the time). However Mr. Li spent a good portion of the dinner half lecturing, half arguing with his son about how he needed to practice English more. I could tell the boy was not having any of it. But we made some progress, and by the end of the dinner he seemed well prepared for the exam.
Despite the SinoChem building and office having the design and atmosphere of a modern, Fortune 500 company, I’ve learned about some practices that are surprisingly outdated and hearken back to the Mao era in China. One day Mr. Li told me that he had just come from a meeting with all the senior executives in the company, where they had performed “criticism and self-criticism,” a practice begun by Mao among party officials (all senior executives are required to be party members). Now on the service this may sound like a good idea, like the concept of “360 feedback.” But this idea doesn’t work so well in Chinese, were people are more concerned with saving face than with finding the truth and improving. And it doesn’t have a very good track record either. There were all too many times when Mao encouraged colleagues, academics and the general public to give honest feedback on what they thought about the government, only to follow it with a period of purging and “reeducation.” I can only imagine what these sessions must look like or what good comes out of them.
Dinner with Mr. Li Pilong, his son and secretary
Last Friday I immerged from Mr. Li’s office to find the secretary and some of her colleagues dressed in colorful cloths and with their hair in braids. I asked what they were doing, and they told me they were getting ready to go sing “party songs” with some of their colleagues. This was a general practice during the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s, when Mao encouraged the youth to march around singing patriotic songs (and causing chaos and destruction at the same time).
Everyday when I approach the ominous façade of the SinoChem building and see the fountains bubbling outside, I remind myself how lucky I am that I’m getting this peak into the culture of China’s SOEs. But it also reminds me how entrenched the interests are that continue to stagnate progress on addressing the most serious challenge of this century. Perhaps someday this building will be obsolete, but not for many decades at least.
So now I turn to my latest assignment, teaching two classes at Babcock & Wilcox Beijing Co. This company makes boilers for power plants, and is located on the far western outskirts of Beijing, almost where I used to live two summers ago with Niu niu’s family. The company has a large campus with many different buildings where the various components of the boilers are manufactured. I teach a class of engineers whose job is to provide technical support and quality assurance to the workers in the boiler component factories. My second class at the same company is for a group of middle management and support staff for the company’s senior management. For the first class I have to walk all the way across the campus to a dingy old office building, where as the later class is held in a very nice conference room in the corporate headquarters. After Foxconn, it was refreshing to find that these employees enjoy their jobs – for the most part.
The mixed impacts of China’s rise to economic prominence can be seen everyday as one walks, rides or drives down the streets of Beijing. However, I think the real harbinger of where China is headed is the inner workings of its most prominent companies. While many of the practices of these companies and their employees could be seen as backward, they are almost making enormous progress toward emulating western standards. This is most apparent in the desire and enthusiasm of my students to learn English and to continue improving themselves and their businesses until they reach or exceed western standards.
China Central Television, seen from the tallest building in Beijing, the China World Tower