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[Chen Weihua] A canny way to get things done

When China first opened up to the outside world 30 years ago, Chinese people applying for jobs at foreign-funded ventures learned that they had a better chance of getting the job by answering questions in the way a U.S. jobseeker would.

For example, a Chinese engineer who had operated machine tools for 20 years would previously have modestly said “I know a little bit” when asked how familiar he was with the machine. But that wasn’t the American way he was told, instead he learnt to reply “very well” in a confident tone.

Over the past decades, American motivational speakers and outward bound schools have become popular in the Chinese corporate world for training staff, developing positive thinking and cultivating a can-do attitude. Books on the subject have also been translated into Chinese and become best-sellers.

Some Chinese people may argue that their 2,500-year-old idiom “Old man Yu moves the mountain,” a story about a 90-year-old leading his children and grandchildren to move a big mountain, is the original source for the country’s can-do attitude.

However, few Chinese back in the 1980s, or indeed just a few years ago, would have imagined that a can-do attitude would be widely used by Americans to describe Chinese people. From business executives and newspaper columnists to government officials and politicians, more Americans are praising the Chinese for their “can-do” attitude.

In fact, many Americans have watched in awe as China’s economy keeps growing to the extent that it is expected to surpass that of the United States in 20 years. Everything from the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and high-speed railways to the ever expanding manufacturing industry and the pace at which China builds its cities is reminiscent of the U.S. after World War II or New York City in the early 20th century when most of the city’s skyscrapers and infrastructure were constructed.

When I interviewed General Electric CEO Jack Welch 10 years ago, he said he had been ordered to complete the Shanghai plastic factory in 11 months because the gigantic Shanghai International Convention Center was built in just 13 months.

The speed of Shanghai’s growth was a showcase for the Chinese can-do attitude in the 1990s, following on from the speed of Shenzhen in the 1980s, after the southern city became the country’s first special economic zone.

China’s can-do attitude is now so ingrained that in the past decade it has literally spread to every town, county and city in the country.

If the current pace of urbanization continues, China could build a new Chicago every year until 2030. That is more than 1,500 new buildings that are over 30 stories high, Jonathan Woetzel, a director at McKinsey’s Shanghai office, wrote in a report last month entitled “China’s cities in the sky.”

Vincent Lo, chairman of the Hong Kong property developer Shui On Group, Eugene Kohn, chairman of architectural designers Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates and Alan Plattus, a professor of architecture at Yale University all cited the strong can-do attitude among Chinese people and local governments in a recent seminar at the Asia Society in New York.

This is a big contrast from the late 1980s when government red tape was the source of frequent complaints among foreign investors, prompting then Shanghai Mayor Zhu Rongji to speed up the approval procedure with a “one-stamp” service.

As China’s great social and economic transformation has invigorated its can-do attitude, making it recognized around the world, some Americans have started to lament the loss of that attitude in their country.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has become so frustrated that he has repeatedly used China’s ongoing green revolution and infrastructure modernization as a way to prod the U.S. government into action.

The strong can-do attitude is still there in American society, however the increasingly partisan domestic politics have severely weakened the U.S. government’s capacity to get things done.

Many in the U.S. hope the ever more evident Chinese can-do attitude will serve as a model for the U.S. 

By Chen Weihua

Chen Weihua is deputy editor of China Daily U.S. edition. ― Ed.

(China Daily)

(Asia News Network)