COVID-19: Turning the crisis into an opportunity!

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. What started off as an outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei province of China is now a pandemic that has spread in more than 130 countries worldwide as we speak. In India too, the number of people who have detected positive has been multiplying by the day. Most of the state governments are waking up to the reality and state after state have been shut down.

In this sombre time, it may not sound so appropriate to talk about tapping opportunities that may arise. But then, one of the key jobs of strategic experts in counties is to always look beyond the obvious, see ahead of today and tomorrow and peep into the future.  In India, if such experts do that, they will see a window to turn this crisis into a long term, game changing opportunity.

Few weeks ago, when Corona virus had not spread like it is today, other than the human calamity, discussions were about how global supply chains have been disrupted due to the outbreak in China. Today, with China controlling the spread quickly using strong arm action and with the virus spreading all over, discussions around supply chain disruption have receded.  The focus today is around containing the spread as country after country have found people inflicted by the virus. However, when the dust and storm around the pandemic settles down in a few months, policy makers and industry experts will start pondering over putting all manufacturing eggs in the Chinese basket. De-risking from China for future would be top in the agenda.  Already, we are beginning to see some noise in that direction.

For countries and manufacturing companies, de-risking from China is nothing new. Many of them started doing it ten years ago when China, in the back of around 10% GDP growth for few years in a row from 2003 to 2011, was on fire as an economy. High economic growth also means increase in wages which shot up from CNY 750 in 2007 to CNY 2420 in 2018! Coupled with raising wages was the non-availability of skilled labour. A factory manager in Shanghai way back in 2012 told me that after the Chinese New year holidays, half the workforce would not return as they would end up joining companies which are located in provinces with higher minimum wages and with more overtime potential. Invariably mobile phones and other high demand product manufacturing units would suck up a lot of skilled manpower leaving other production units to scramble for trained manpower.

The logical option was to expand facilities out of China, if not to shift the entire production. Many Japanese companies who had put up factories in Thailand, Malaysia and later in China went and invested in Vietnam. It was a golden opportunity for India to have tapped that wave in that period. But we missed. Vietnam in spite of not boasting of very high skilled manpower but with relatively low labour cost managed to take advantage of the Japanese expansion plans. I was told that companies used to travel to interior Vietnam provinces and literally call out in the streets with microphones like in the feudal days as part of recruitment drive for factories!

India with its low labour cost and abundance of skilled manpower, still couldn’t feature in the agenda of companies looking at de-risking from China. And there are many reasons for the same.

It’s a myth that foreign companies just go by low labour cost when they try to invest in manufacturing facilities outside of their existing country bases. What they look for is whether the entire manufacturing eco-system is in place. China showed the world as to how to put that kind of eco-system in place that includes availability of low cost land in plenty, abundant skilled and low cost labour, low interest rate regime, tax benefits/holidays, access to ports, high quality infrastructure in the form of roads, highways, airports and sea ports, access to vendor base (this is particularly critical for Electronics and Automotive production) and more importantly what I call as the “hygiene factor”.  And this is the comfort factor which expatriates develop for the country where they want to set up production.

In India, we do not attach much importance to this while planning but, in my experience this becomes the key, tilting factor when choosing between options. If the team of expats who spend time in the country looking at options, do not feel comfortable about being able to lead a decent quality of life, they would never recommend that country. We should not forget that when a large production facility is set up, there will be hordes of expats who will be spending time during the project set-up phase and also later at supervisory/managerial roles when the unit is up and running.

That’s why I would not squabble if our governments spend money and resources to put their best face forward when foreign leaders visit here. For, many a times, there is a delegation of corporate chiefs who accompany these leaders and it is important that they carry a good impression of India as a country when they visit. In a Japanese company I worked earlier, the decision to invest in India which was lingering around for a while was finally taken when the group Chairman visited India and got impressed seeing the campus and Golf course of Infosys in Bengaluru!. I am talking of 2005 and fortunately the traffic situation then wasn’t as bad as it is today!

Coming back to the hygiene factor, this includes availability of good international schools, safety for women, availability of their country cuisines and even stuff like “Not a dry state” or “No Beef Ban”…!

In the wake of COVID-19, it is my belief that India must put its best foot forward in pitching itself as a robust manufacturing destination to the world which is looking at options.  And for this the government must move on a “Mission” mode quickly and activate “Make in India 2.0”!  We may not be able to scale up the economies of scale of China but then we are not looking at China completely. Our pitch must be to position India as an augmenting base.

Compared to the 1st decade of this century when India missed the opportunity when companies were de-risking, I believe that we now stand a better chance overall and hence it’s worth taking a shot now. Our roads and highways infrastructure is getting better though it’s a work in progress. We can now boast of world class airports in all the metro cities. The ports infrastructure have improved leaps and bounds and our customs clearance processes have smoothened.  We could still do much better on the “Ease of Doing business” front, though!

Ergo, I do believe that with a focussed approach towards getting companies to invest in setting up production facilities in India, India can be a good option for companies contemplating to de-risk from China. For India, which is in desperate need of a boost to the economy, nothing works like expansion in manufacturing as it increases direct and indirect jobs.

Author and Economist Shankkar Aiyyar in his book, The Accidental India has documented how in India every landmark game changing event since independence happened as a response to a crisis. Going by that track record, we are in the throes of another crisis with COVID-19 and hopefully we will come up with a response that is game changing!

The last booster shot for the Indian economy came in the beginning of this millennium and that was due to a global threat of a bug! The Y2K phenomenon opened the flood gates for the Indian Software industry and helped erect a pillar for our economy called the “Services”! Twenty years hence, now, a virus could provide the booster shot for the economy if India gets its act together. That of getting the manufacturing ecosystem in place and tap the opportunity which could present itself in the coming months. It’s not easy. But then its not impossible either.

Covid-19 in the world and Comvid-20 in India!

Since the advent of Social media, “Going Viral” is considered the ultimate thing! As we speak, the world in general and India in particular are reeling from something that literally went viral. The Corona virus pandemic which is now being called by WHO as Covid-19 which started from the Wuhan region in China, has now been spreading rapidly across the globe.

In China where it all started, we understand that things are getting under control. The new cases are reportedly fewer which is a key indication of the virus not spreading further. The Chinese government has been swift in taking tough decisions including shutting down towns and cities in a bid to arrest the spread very early.

As one can expect in a globalised world as it is today, while the situation is getting better in the origin (China), there are other countries where Covid-19 is taking a huge toll. First Italy, then Iran and now Korea have been under the onslaught of the Corona virus in the last couple of weeks. And those who have visited the affected places like Italy and those who came as tourists from these countries into other cities have become silent carriers of the virus. So, countries like America and India have also come under the affected list. Though the numbers are low at this point in time relatively, considering the population in these counties and the viral nature of the contagion, the risks associated cannot be dismissed away.

The approach of the countries to the pandemic is also a reflection of these societies. In highly disciplined and if I may add, regimented countries like China, Korea and Japan for example, the governments moved fast, enacted tough strictures and the public fell in line. The results are there to see. On the other hand, in flexible and If I may say, slack societies like Italy, the government has been slow in action and reaction. It’s only today that we read of Italy taking a call to shut down parts of the country which have been affected. The damage is already done.

From the perspective of economy, it’s already been well documented as to how the global supply chains with its epicenter in China and in particular Wuhan have been disrupted globally. It is believed that Covid-19 will impact global GDP by over 2% negatively in 2020 and this is huge.  As the Corona virus signalled the first decline in demand of oil, Saudi and Russia decided to pump more oil in a battle of market share! Result – Price crash to the extent not seen in 25 years! The chain of events have led to the carnage in the stock markets worldwide. After a long while, we saw the circuit breaker being triggered at NYSE yesterday!

Apart from manufacturing industries affected by Covid-19, the other worst industries are those that deal with people. Travel, Hospitality, Tourism and Events sectors will see an impact worse than the Lehman crisis time! It would be sad if the next summer Olympics being planned in Tokyo in July 2020 is called off due to the Corona virus. As can be only expected, Japan has been super ready for the event for a  few months now and will be a pity if all those efforts go down the Corona drain!

After the Lehman shock of 2008, Covid-19 is the next best example of a globalised world rising and perishing together in ironic harmony. There are very few countries which are immune to this today. The synchronised interest rate cuts by the Central banks a few days ago, I am not sure will help. Because what we are seeing is a supply side disruption and constraints arresting human movement. This is a not a demand problem or a capacity building issue where capital infusion could do the immediate trick. Of course any softening of interest rates is welcome! While the world struggles to get into terms with the aftershocks, I do believe that China from where it all started, may recover faster than expected. Already people have started going to offices after a long break since Chinese New Year and factories have started brimming with activity from last week. Again, at the risk of being repetitive, being a disciplined and a regimented society which China is, we should not be surprised if China gets back to normal by June while other affected countries still continue to struggle to get back to their feet!

Coming to India, along with Corona virus, we had another thing which has been going viral in the past many weeks – the “communal” virus” or Comvid-20! Ever since the Citizenship Amendment Bill got passed and became an Act followed by the government’s “chronological” intent to take up NRC (National Register for Citizens) all over India, the country has been on the edge.

The CAA protests also took almost the same route as a virus spread.  What started off as peaceful protests in different parts of the country essentially college campuses, soon spilled over to the streets. A hitherto unknown entity to those outside Delhi – Shaheen Bagh, entered the daily vocabulary and a subject of Prime time loud debates. And finally culminated with full blown communal riots in Delhi in the 1st week of March.

For Modi Sarkar which prided itself of not facing a communal riot in the country for 6 years since 2014, the Delhi riots have come as a huge blot on its image. That the riots happened in the first place, that too in Delhi which is the capital of India with its heavy security apparatus and when a big diplomatic event that of the US President Donald Trump’s visit was in progress, is an embarrassment. The coverage of the Trump visit therefore turned “split screen” globally with beaming faces of leaders and burning streets of Delhi, side by side!

That today, Social media has a huge role to play in spreading this communal virus is unmistakable!  Images and counter images, Videos and counter videos were just going viral in what I call as a battle of narratives! In sum, even today, we are yet to get a final answer as to who lit the spark first. And in spite of all the media and social media explosion, we may never get it, in our lives! Everything that went viral finally did their bit to mobilise mobs, fuel frenzy and finally celebrate madness.

Covid-19, with the world putting its might behind it may soon get a vaccine and a cure! However, Comvid-20 with its epicenter in India and to do with the majority community Vs minority community wrangle ingrained in our minds for decades, may not get a vaccine soon. Unless, we become a truly secular society where religion is personal and ceases to be a vote bank. Welcome to Utopia!

Waking up “Make In India”!!!

In a week from now, Mumbai will host the “Make in India Week” – an event planned to give fillip to one of Modi Sarkar’s flagship program – Make In India. This was aimed at reviving the interest of domestic and MNCs in setting up/expanding manufacturing footprint in India – a sure shot elixir to tackle the unemployment malady and create millions of jobs. When this Govt. kicked off this initiative, one would have expected more cheers than jeers. However the reality was different. Leaving aside the noises from the opposition which anyway criticizes what the ruling Govt. does in India (this is irrespective of who is in power and who is in opposition), the naysayers included reputed economists and thinkers. They were of the view that it was too late for India to board the “Manufacturing” bus. China is already in the driver’s seat being the “factory for the world” and global companies are already heavily invested in China. Also the general view that with increasing automation in the shop floor, you don’t need much of low cost labour for manufacturing. So betting on manufacturing to generate millions of jobs may not be a cool idea any more. The session during the recently concluded World Economic Forum in Davos about “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” powered by Connected devices, 3D printers, Super Smart Robots and the like,… probably put paid to this idea of the critics. So instead of playing the catch up, the cynics’ view was that India should play to its strengths namely “Services” and invest further in developing soft skills to scale up further.

There is probably merit in this argument. However if one analyses the different states of India in terms of the economic condition it is clear that no state can hope to survive and grow by just focusing on services. For a diverse country like India with a huge disparity in income and social strata an even economic growth can be achieved only with a mix of manufacturing, services and agricultural activities. The top states in terms of GDP in India like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu,.. have a very healthy mix as I noted in one of my earlier posts on “Car manufacturing” in Chennai (Read here). A fourth Industrial Revolution may augur well for developed countries with shrinking population, ever rising wages and diminishing demographic dividend but in India we still need to reap the benefits of the 2nd and 3rd.

So I think that this Govt. is right in pursuing the Make In India initiative particularly at a time when China is facing economic headwinds. The labour in China can no longer be termed cheap with wages ever-increasing to keep pace with the aspirations of the people. Many of the global corporations do not want to put all eggs in one basket that too Made in China😁😁. I know for sure that the Japanese are expanding into Vietnam in a big way for production. So could be other countries like the US, Germany,…,.. soon. So the moot question is are we positioned well to make them Make In India??

logo 2

As the logo of India’s Make In India program demonstrates, there are many cogs in the wheel for a country to be successful in manufacturing that too for the world. Cheap and Skilled labour, Vendor base, Access to cheap raw material, Quality awareness, Access to ports and logistic hubs (particularly for exports), flexible labour laws, Ease of doing business (which applies not just for mfg.) and above all a very efficient infrastructure (Roads, airports, ports, broadband connectivity,..,…) in short a “pro manufacturing eco system”. And for India while all the other cogs could fall in place over time, the biggest challenge is in infrastructure. One would argue that the eco system will be in place when growth picks up and factories are set up. Necessity is the mother of everything you know. For example wasn’t Gurgaon just a “Gaon” before Maruti?? Today it is a recognized Auto mfg. hub. Similarly there are many examples of PSU Units which were set up first which then turned out to be manufacturing hubs in course of time. Goes the argument. No argument can be more specious than this. Maruti was set up at a time when India was a protectionist state where the promoters (in this case the Govt. of India) can patiently wait for more than 10 years for the 1st car to roll out! Same is the case with many PSU units where the overarching mission was upliftment of the society rather than shareholder value or profits! Not in these “QSQT” (Quarter Se Quarter Tak) days!!!😁😁 And in these days of strict WTO regime the Government cannot slap high duties on imported goods to protect the local manufacturers.

So for Make In India to succeed India needs to get the Eco system right first up. While India has a natural advantage in some aspects like availability of not just cheap labour but also skilled, large Engineering pool,.. the road is long for areas like “Ease of doing business” and Infrastructure as I mentioned before. And fortunately the Govt. has rightly recognized these challenges. Its’ for the 1st time that a Govt. website has spotlight on “Ease of Doing Business” like in the Make In India home page, I reckon. See here. It was a pleasant surprise to see the list of initiatives already taken and ones on the way when I clicked on “Ease of Business” tab. And it is also great to see every day in Newspaper one state or the other hosting Investor summits to lure potential investors with Make In India being an important aspect. So while pitching for investments is all right, I think the state Govts. must also focus on getting the infrastructure in place in their respective states which helps not just manufacturing but in general fosters economic activity. Today inspite of higher labour costs if many companies are still outsourcing mfg. to China it is because of their fantastic infrastructure overall which helps to keep indirect costs lower. India’s labour costs is lower but the indirect costs due to poor infrastructure weighs us down.

I think now the world is quite convinced on the intent of the Modi Sarkar to promote Make In India. Now the time has come to morph the intent to reality by focusing on Infrastructure for which the states have to work in tandem with the Centre. That’s what will wake up Make In India and not the raking up of intolerance debate every other morning😩

Make in IndiaToon courtesy: Satish Acharya

“Chinpressions” – Impressions from another of my China visit – Part 3!!!

It was about 3 years ago that I made my 1st visit to ChinaShanghai and wrote the 1st part of Chinpressions. Read here. In between that and my last visit this week, many more visits to China happened. Ergo, 3 years hence what are my impressions?

The visit this week coincided with Narendra Modi’s another foreign tour – this time to China. So obviously India was in the news. As is the wont these days in our PM’s abroad visits, he was in “Rock star” mode in China as well with local Chinese craving and crowding to take selfies with him. It’s obvious that in the last 1 year Modi has single handedly changed the perception of India for the better outside of India.

I had mentioned that in my last post that Shanghai was devoid of emerging market symptoms like touts at the airports,… I realized now that it’s not the case. There were the touts on arrival at the airport chasing you for taxi/hotels,… just that they were of the “suited and booted” types 😜 😜. Similarly I had the impression that Taxis were on meters always. Well, yes most of the times. But not always. This time much to our chagrin, we realized that beyond 10 p.m the cabbies were upto fleece passengers demanding 4 to 6 times the normal fare!!! While on cabbies, I couldn’t understand why the driver was always enclosed in a cubicle of sorts making it difficult to communicate with him/her even in sign language. (Trying to communicate in English is a horror left unsaid 😦 😦 )

For all the heavy duty infrastructure and the investment led growth strategy Chinese government has been adopting all these years with a fair degree of success, it is now clear that the growth is stuttering.  A 7% growth is being touted as the new normal. Print media is agog with articles questioning if the world’s 2nd largest economy is heading towards a protracted period of subdued growth.  China has now become the latest example to explain the Economics theory of the Middle Income Trap”

It’s clear that despite the pretensions of the Government taking China to being in the league of developed nations, it is still haunted by a few trappings of developing/underdeveloped countries. Which the people are yet to shrug off it appears.

  • Like the locals not caring about courtesy to others and smoking to glory in public washrooms.
  • Like the drivers continuing to smoke while driving in cars inspite of requesting them not to. (Blame the language)
  • Like invariably the noisy scenes you get to see in restaurants when Chinese get together to dine and drink. (Something like we Indians I must say).
  • Like the rounds of bargaining one has to do some times starting with 10% of the quoted price to purchase stuff mostly the imitations at the fake markets hawking branded stuff from I phones to watches to bags to clothes to everything. China’s tryst with IP regime may prove to be its Achilles heel sooner or later. Just couple of days ago while in China I read the news that top brands like Gucci were suing Alibaba the E-Com giant for sale of counterfeits through its marketplace.Like getting to see touts trying to sell I Phones at US$100 around to gullible passengers even inside the Shanghai’s Pudong airport terminal!!! I was surprised to see these guys inside the airports after the Check-in Area moving around looking for their customers!!! (This doesn’t happen in India even)
  • Like being amused to see empty chairs placed in sides of the road meant as parking lots. Something like placing the chair to reserve that lot. Reminded me of our Indian habit of placing towels/kerchiefs,.. in buses to block seats 🙂
  • Like for all the fascinating sights at “The Bund” at Shanghai (Clean, colourful, Hawker free,..,…) the urinals are still the old world style not seen even in towns in India these days.
  • Like finding grills in windows in residential apartments a la India type just that they were more uniform and still not spoiling the elevation of the building unlike in India where grills of all types and sizes spoil the frontage of most buildings.

Most of the above fall in line with the definition of “High Context Culture” as defined by Edward T. Hall in his seminal work – Beyond Culture, I feel. So not surprising.

But, these are just symptoms waiting to disappear soon I guess. Despite the current ills like ever rising labour costs, China continues to be the factory of the world. Global companies don’t have an option but to court the Chinese. Like Apple’s Tim Cook was attempting to do when he was in China last week logging on to “Weibo” – the Chinese microblogging site akin to Twitter. (Modi did the same on his run up to his China visit). The ever increasing aspiring class is a segment of the world’s largest population that just cannot be ignored.  But one thing which continues to amaze me in China even after being the world’s largest populous country is – Where are its people?? For example in Shanghai the world’s most populous city – you don’t get see crowds in the roads, in the malls, in super markets, in train stations,.. So where are they???

Let’s see if that mystery unravels in the next visits.

3 years hence, the impressions are still very good but may be the shine has worn a little bit.

 Postscript: Heard that the PM’s baggage on foreign tours will now have a “Selfie stick” 😜 😜

Now running successfully worldwide – “India Sorry”

In the corporate board rooms of many multinational corporations the “India Story” which was weaving itself has now given way to “India Sorry” with accompanying pathos.  The overwhelming feeling is of a wholesale deprivation of the aspirations of the talented Indians by their political masters. “Incredible India” is desperately ‘in’ need of a ‘credible’ script, actors, technicians and the works. Flash back to the 2003-06 time frame, thanks to the easy money flowing in from the developed markets to emerging markets that included India, the markets were on fire. Pundits and others claimed that a GDP growth of 7-8 % is the base line rate of growth, come what may and if Govt. and administration did its bit (and If China gets to host events like Olympics 🙂 ), we could head towards 9 – 10 % growth.  The party was briefly interrupted by “the Lehman shock” the tremors of which shook the world – developed, developing and others. I say briefly because within a year or so markets like India and China not only recovered but were again breathing fire. This time the stimuli announced by developed countries like the US, Germany,… injected funds into the monetary system and once again easy money found its way here.  This was when the “India Story” was running full houses worldwide.

I recall seeing and hearing of many multinational companies having their Board meetings in India that time. Expansion plans for global companies seldom excluded India. Forex reserves were booming whether it was thro FDI or FII money. If you look at it now, that kind of over the top India focus and fuss became detrimental to India’s future. For, the rulers(UPA-I) started imagining and talking of India which is “decoupled” from the world without realizing that if structural reforms are not put in place, the “India Story” will turn apocryphal when the flow of easy money stops. And that’s exactly what happened. This is explained beautifully in Ruchir Sharma’s book –“Breakout Nations – In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles”. While he analyses many emerging markets and gives his verdict, as far as India is concerned his verdict is a 50:50 chance for India to breakout. I suspect that his own patriotic “Indian at heart” feeling came in the way of saying that the chances are pretty dim for India to become a breakout nation. Ruchir also says that we will have to get used to the “New Normal” of Pre 2003 GDP Growth which is 5.5-6%.

My own sense is that if India had focused on Governance, the situation would not have been as bad as it is now inspite of the global liquidity party getting over long while ago.  However in India the politics of economics is a deadly game. So instead of focusing on Governance, the Govt. headed by a Cambridge educated Economist was economic in Key decision-making and thereby introduced “policy paralysis” in the lexicon of the opposition/Industry and corporate reviews. Many observers are in unison when they point out that the Union budget presented by the present President of India in the year in the year 2012 as finance minister was the tipping point that led to world relegating India as a foot note in their strategy documents. Pranab Mukherjee amended the Income Tax Act, 1961, to impose a retrospective provision for tax on some types of global mergers, including Vodafone’s 2007 acquisition of Hutchinson’s assets in India. Even for a lay man it is difficult to fathom how somebody in the Govt. can think of passing an amendment with retrospective effect when companies have taken decisions to invest based on prevailing laws of the land.  That this controversial provision passed through the FM, the bureaucracy and even the PM is till today a shocker for me.  From then on it’s been a downward climb with downgrading of ratings, pulling out of money, slowdown in investments, falling off the Rupee,..,..  India got demoted while Pranabda got promoted 😦 😦 To compound to the situation, delay in environmental clearances for new projects, banning of mining, Telecom imbroglio, corruption charges all this made Indian investors to look for avenues outside of the country to invest.

As a rearguard action, Chidambaram was brought in as the Finance Minister to succeed Pranabda and frankly speaking he has been trying his best. The decision-making wheels in the Govt. have started moving. The “Rajan effect” has been just short of magic. From the time Raghuram Rajan was made the Governor of RBI, there has been some great things happening in the economy the most important being the strengthening of Rupee.  But the “Sir Newton effect” has been overpowering. Newton said “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. So the reaction from the world now is of a wait and watch.  With the Government in the December of its term, it makes little sense to investors and others alike to jump into the fray. For them it makes more sense to wait and see if India presents a credible and durable “Change” come 2014.

And it is not just the world which is looking for a change in India but even within India the mood is the same. Though it is still not clear what the opposition’s clear economic agenda is, Narendra Modi the PM candidate for BJP is attracting attention all over.  This can only be due to an overwhelming yearning for change. If that change happens, it will be interesting to see how they tackle the economy differently. Yashwant Sinha an Ex and potential finance minister in his book calls himself a “Swadeshi Reformer”. As oxymoronic as it sounds, except for opposing what the Govt. is doing, even he has not yet spelt out clearly BJP’s stand on key economic reforms.

Shankkar Aiyar a reputed columnist in his book “Accidental India” says and I quote “It would seem that everything the country has achieved has arrived by accident, catalyzed by calamity”. Turning points in the country like the liberalization of 1991,.. as per him “were not the result of foresight or careful planning but were rather the accidental consequences of major crises that had to be resolved at any cost”. For quite some time now I was of the same opinion but dismissed it as a streak of a cynical Indian. But reading this fantastic book has confirmed my worst fears around policy making which is by nature reactive rather than proactive.  As the country is in the throes of another economic crisis if not collapse, we await another “accident” which will bring the “India story” back to the global theatres. Till then it looks like there is no escape (velocity) 🙂 🙂

MANJUL_010712pol_economy_pranab_manmohan

Also pls. read my earlier post on reforms “The Politics of Reforms” written in Sep 2012 –  http://wp.me/p1dZc2-bQ

“Chinpressions” – Impressions from my China visit – Part : 2

The last time I visited China which was incidentally my 1st visit to that country was a trip to Shanghai and Shanghai is what Mumbai is to India – a commercial and financial capital.  This trip from the 9-12th Oct, 2012, however was to Beijing – the capital of the People’s Republic of China – again a very short business trip to the “Delhi” of China.

On top of my mind was to see how the “Olympicsization” of Beijing was holding up 4 years hence.  This week was the 1st week after the “Golden Week” holidays and there was a good chance that I wouldn’t have made this trip at all.  Just managed to get my visa few hours prior to my departure thanks to some intervention of my college mate.

The airport which makes the 1st impression of a city was bit of a disappointment.   On alighting out of the plane after a 6 hour flight had to scramble to find a rest room!!!  The Beijing airport though good, didn’t seem great.  The airport wore a deserted look on my return in the night that too just at 9.00 pm! The Duty free shops had pulled their shutters and finding a food court or a restaurant in that not too late hour of the night turned out to be a nightmare.  Beijing had failed my 1st test.

Beijing has all the trappings of a large global metro city – super highways, bumper to bumper traffic, big cars, ..,.. Surprisingly I could hardly sight small cars!! Unlike Shanghai, which has a lot of skyscrapers, Beijing has more of medium tall, uniform buildings constructed with aesthetics as seemingly last priority.   The whole city resembles a town ship with uniform buildings.  Police presence that too quite aggressively armed is omnipresent.  Time and again we were alerted of the bad traffic scene in Beijing. But I must say that the traffic though very high was quite organised and was moving quite smoothly even during the morning rush hours. I was told that we were lucky on that count. Well we seemed to be lucky all the while we stayed in Beijing.

The Beijing Traffic

I was not so lucky on the food scene though. Being a vegetarian, my gastronomic needs have become frugal over the years while travelling abroad. I’m happy if I get something vegetarian to eat – pandering to the taste buds was really secondary. Beggars can’t be choosers you see!  When I had my local colleagues around during meal times, I had no problems with the food. However couple of times when we had to fend for ourselves, putting it across to the hotel staff on the “Vegetarian” needs turned me to a “Sridevi”.  In fact a short course on “Mandarin-Vandarin” before the trip would have been a great idea.  I was told that for the Olympics, China really went on an “English” overdrive to take care of the visiting guests. Well, one trace of that was not visible during my short stay. Even in a 5 star hotel, the staff struggled to comprehend our “English-Vinglish”!  There are hopes though. I was told that in the schools now, English is a mandatory language for the children. Maybe a trip to China after 10 years would throw up a different experience on the English front.

We were told that we would need more than half a day to cover the “Great Wall of China” which I was quite keen on. Since we didn’t have that kind of time, we had to settle with other tourist spots close by. A drive to Tiananmen Square was made possible.  For the local Chinese Tiananmen Square is a place of great cultural connect.  It houses a war memorial like monument, a mausoleum and one can see 2 gigantic visual displays today.  For the ‘Golden week’ the previous week, the entire square which can house I guess thousands of people, was well decked up and could see the sense of tourist importance.  However for visitors like us Tiananmen Square only brings memories of the 1989 killing of the students by the Chinese military.  There is obviously not one shred of evidence of that event around.  When I asked my local colleague what was the exact number of people killed in that massacre, the answer I got was “Secret”.  Having read that the number could be in thousands, while spending time in that square I couldn’t help spare a thought for the young lives which were taken away by their own protectors.  I also couldn’t resist thanking our stars and our founding fathers for guiding our nation in the path of democracy where we have freedom of expression as a fundamental right.

Tiananmen Square,1

At Tiananmen Square

The Chinese economy is in the news these days.  Well it has been in the news for more than a decade now. But just that this time the news is not good.  The GDP growth rate expected at 7.5 % this year will be lowest in the decade.  The transformation of China since the 90’s has been unbelievable. The government over the years has invested heavily for the growth and has helped lift people from poverty and raise income levels across the board.  About 25 mn. I-Phones are  expected to be sold in 2012!!! And I-phone is not a cheap product. With all this, what about the “General Happiness Index”?  Are people in general happier than before with the overall growth and all that jazz? Well, surprisingly or may be not so surprisingly the answer I got was on the negative.  With the growth tapering, there is a feeling that China must have gone for an overkill in terms of investment which is now not sustainable.  China also is on the cusp of a leadership change sometime in November.  Though it is not expected to bring any paradigm shift, uncertainties do exist I thought.  All these and the raising costs have brought their own insecurities in the minds of people.

The Giant Screens at Tiananmen Square

While in the taxi driving back to the Beijing Airport at the end of the short trip, comparison between India and China was obviously on my mind.  And I concluded that comparisons were odious.  In my formative years I was always of the opinion that in a country with very high population like India, it is almost impossible to solve its basic problems. China proved me wrong. It showed that it is possible to have world-class infrastructure, alleviate poverty in short times even in a populous country if a country shows political will to do so. Having said that, if I’ve to choose between a pot hole free express highway and freedom of expression, my choice will be for the latter.

P.S : A forceful break from social media thanks to the block of Facebook, Twitter, WordPress,… in China eventually proved that I was a confirmed “Likeaholic”!!!

You may like to read my earlier post on China : Chinpressions – Part 1.

“Chinpressions” – Impressions from my 1st China visit

It was a country which I was eagerly looking forward to visit for quite some time simply for 3 reasons. One, Seeing is Believing.  Around 1990, the GDP of India and China were almost similar. Today 20 years hence, China’s GDP is 2.5 times bigger than ours!   Was keen to see this miraculous change. Two, my trip to China twice in the past got scuttled and hence that added to the eagerness this time around.  Three, was keen to know how a communist country has successfully “manufactured” Capitalism?

It was a short trip that too on business to Shanghai with little free time to discover the city fully.  Nevertheless that time was enough to feel spell-bound some times, amazed most of the times! The view of the city while landing reminded of Singapore with pretty views of symmetrical roads, tall buildings, and manicured golf courses –in short features of a planned city.  Once out of the airport I could see a sudden rush of the local people to smoke and poor me I was engulfed in a chamber of Carbon Monoxide!  With 350 mn. smokers, China is the smoking capital of the world. Later on I would read that smoking related diseases cost China up to US$47.6 bn. every year! (The Ministry of health was intending to include Anti-smoking drugs and related treatments in the nation’s public insurance system for this reason!) For a city which is supposed to be most populous city in China, what amazed me most was I never felt the city crowded and buzzing with people !!

The weather was absolutely pleasant at 18°C and coming from Mumbai which had already started to scorch with the advent of summer, it was indeed a welcome change !

In Shanghai I could see majority of cars on the road being Volkswagen (including the taxis).  I was told that depending upon where the factory was, companies get tax benefits and so the prices of a particular brand is lower in a region and that brand dominates that region. So Shanghai was VW city. While on the subject of cars, it was interesting to note that China became the world’s biggest market for BMW in April this year overtaking Uncle Sam!  By the way, China is already the largest market for BMW’s premium segment rival Audi.  While on cars, must add that 15th April the day I landed at Shanghai was the day of the “Shanghai Grand Prix”. Nico Rosberg won the race – but I was told that the race itself was boring as he led the race from start to finish !

It’s not uncommon to come into China with one’s own prejudices like – “everything would be cheap”. Well, it was not to be. I was in for surprise when I saw in a Hypermarket like Carrefour things were either more expensive or at similar price points as in India.  Also generally branded things in the malls/stores were expensive than India. Another myth which got busted during my conversations was that labour in China is very cheap. It seems that it is no longer the case. The minimum salary/month for a factory worker is fixed by the Govt. at US$ 200. And this is irrespective of the location within China it seems. What differ from company to company are the benefits like Overtime multipliers, housing,.. I’m sure there are cities in India/Indonesia/Vietnam where the labour costs are around US$80-US$100 /month.  However it is the manufacturing ecosystem which is prevailing in China which makes it the factory for the world.

While on this “low cost ” issue I would like to share this article from “The Economist” which I just stumbled upon which almost reinforces my above finding on ” Low Cost China myth”.

http://www.economist.com/node/21549956?fsrc=nlw|pub|4-25-2012|1503018|73958874|AP

Similarly as I prepared for the trip, I also was mentally preparing myself for the gastronomic ordeal I will have to go through being a Vegetarian. Well, it was not so bad.

Throughout my stay I never encountered the familiar trappings of an emerging economy like fleecing taxi drivers, beggars in the streets, touts in the markets,.. which reminded me of the fact that China is no more an emerging economy but an economy which has arrived. But some old habits die-hard. So you could see drivers honking loudly, cigarette butts all around, aggressive lane cutting while driving,… And interestingly in some of the buildings one could see rods protruding out of the windows and were used for hanging clothes. It is my usual habit on foreign trips to engage in friendly conversations with the cabbies to understand the country behind the headlines/breaking news.  However I couldn’t do this here due to the language barrier Great wall!

Since I couldn’t believe my eyes that things are so very expensive, I enquired at the hotel specifically for the market for cheap goods.  Then they told me the existence of “Official” fake markets where the “Louis Vuittons” and the “Burberrys” of the world get hawked by enterprising Chinese salesmen/girls to hapless ‘Gora’ tourists at sky rocketing prices. These are the epicenters for “IP” violations! The general rule here is to offer 10 % of the quoted price and settle down somewhere between 25 – 30 % of the original quoted price!!!  Shopping here could be a very unique and adventurous experience for many though I suspect not so much for us Indians!

FDI down for 5th month” screamed Shanghai Daily, “Fifth FDI fall amid EU woes” said China daily on the 18th April both leading English newspapers. This showed the importance the Chinese were attaching to FDI as a means for propelling their economy.  So here we are at China the capital of Communism expressing serious concerns of falling FDI while back home our communists and their ilk block FDI of any kind and treat it as a four letter word!

Maglev TrainTime to pack up – I was told not to miss on the Maglev train trip” experience to the airport. The Maglev (originating from Magnetic Levitation) trains have been operational in Shanghai from 2004 and connect the city to the Pudong International airport. A distance of about 29 kms. was covered in 7 mins. and 20 seconds flat!  At 301kmph the loudest noise was not of the ticking clock! Not surprisingly it is a tourist attraction in Shanghai today!

Few years ago the CM of Maharashtra said that they would transform Mumbai into Shanghai in 5 years.  Either he was blind or we the people who keep voting for their party are dumb, I don’t know. But the politicians who are running our country oblivious of the strides the world is making and failing our nation are certainly blind, deaf and dumb.

Pudong Intl AirportAs I was waiting for the boarding call near the gate at the swank Pudong International airport at the end of my visit, I couldn’t resist a key question.  If China has made such giant rapid strides which are visible and the Govt. has been an enabler in this transformation, why should it fear public opinion?  Why should there be such tight controls on freedom of expression? Why should Facebook/Twitter or for that matter WordPress be muzzled???  A three-day trip that too on business was too short to find answers to such intriguing questions.  Do you have any views on this? I would be keen to hear.