One nation but many Chinas
If you’ve travelled or lived there then you'll know what I mean.
Yesterday afternoon I was eating in a top-class Taiwanese restaurant near Shanghai's financial district. As a guest, that is! Everything (and everyone) around me seemed international, connected, mobile – a bit like being in brand new international airport, but with much better food and seating.
For this whole trip I'd been feeling less savvy, less modern than my hosts. In each city they had managed transport, hotels, food, and work on their mobile phones; with my (now apparently chunky) laptop I'd felt like a visitor from a rather-less-developed country.
But today, having just pulled myself carefully away from an adhesive tape factory, and now being taxied into Ningbo city, the driver was chatting away and I found myself in "another China" again – his questions seemed to come from a different time:
Driver: "Have you got land?" [that's a common enough question with Taxi drivers here, like "how much do you earn?"]
Me: "Yes, not much – a small garden, some tomatoes, beans"
Driver: "Not for real crops then?" [Hey! My tomatoes!] "Don't you have shuidao in your country?"
Me: "Er…yes? Oh, no! I mean no." [just remembered that shuidao means paddy fields]
Me: "No, really. The UK doesn't have paddy fields"
Driver: "How do you grow rice? You don't have to import it do you?"
Me: "We don't grow rice"
You might be thinking he was an old man, but actually the driver was probably in his late 20's. He's not at all representative of China's young adult population of course, but he is a reminder that this is possibly the most diverse market in the world – the one where Apple phones meet watermelon carts, and where high speed trains flash between rice paddies.
The reality of "One nation but many Chinas" is a challenge that even Chinese businesses sometimes struggle with, let alone Western ones. It can affect marketing, operations, recruitment - even product design. If you're wanting to do business in China, my advice is : take time to explore this diverse this amazing, diverse country - read, watch, listen, visit and learn all you can.