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Thoughts from a Balcony


There's been little opportunity to write much recently, courtesy of intrusion by the corporate world. That said, as I tap this out from a hotel balcony in Hangzhou, China, I can't pretend it's all bad news. I'm here to put together a series of presentations for a giant Chinese company. And I really didn't want to come.

No, really. Travel is great as long as it takes you somewhere you want to go, and I thought I knew what to expect, because I've been to China before. That was around ten years ago, and I'm sorry to say that I hated the experience. The parts I visited were filthy, and full of dejected people who never smiled or made eye contact. I was here then to photograph a new showpiece factory. On one floor there was a massive unguarded hole through to the level below; the grounds were a safari park for terrier-sized rats, and the employees seemed terrified of me. I asked my guide to encourage them to smile and look at the camera. 'I'm sorry,' he said, 'They would feel it inappropriate.'

China now seems an entirely different country. Everywhere I go I'm met with smiles and open friendliness. All the young people have traded their grey tunics for Dolce & Gabbana. In a few short days I've fallen in love with the place and its people. I've seen very little trace of the closed-off, separatist doctrine that I'd expected. Sure, I've been asked to avoid using maps of China in my graphics, but if that's what's needed to make a point, no one's going to get too stressed. It's all very laid back and remarkably pleasant.

We're working here on presenting the scale of the Chinese market opportunity to the western world. There's an open invitation to sell our products into this gigantic country, where there are more children under two than there are people in Canada. This is a country that's bursting with vitality, where the newly powerful youth are awake to climate change and the world community.

Communism has always had a huge theoretical appeal. The notion that all are equal, that we should share our wealth so that all can enjoy it is undeniably persuasive. But history has shown us that it just doesn't seem to work in practice. Corruption, greed and sloth take over and the ideals crumble.

Looking around me today I'm filled with the feeling that these guys are going to get it right. Sure, they've some way to go yet, but there's so much to learn here, as they themselves learn this new phase of their existence. Today it seems to me that, in a world where lunatics brag about who's got the bigger bomb, China could just end up saving us all.


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