Friday, May 19, 2006

Enter the Dragon

I spent the last two weeks on holiday in China. Apart from the awesome sense of history (the Great Wall is 3,000 miles long and was completed n 220 BC) it was intriguing to get a sense of one of the world's two great emerging economies. Shanghai was striking in this regard. In just 20 years since Deng Xiaoping's reforms Shanghai has been transformed into the most dynamic of ultra-modern cities. There is a striking symbolism in standing on the Bund (one side of the city's Huangpu river) amongst the fine 1920s and 1930s building built mainly by the British, and looking out across the river at the future. On the opposite bank is Pudong, a sort of Canary Wharf on steroids, a city of gleaming steel and glass. The sheer scale of Pudong is best appreciated from the Grand Hyatt hotel, the tallest hotel in the world at 1,380 feet. From either the 54th floor lobby or the 88th floor (8 is a lucky number in Chinese culture) bar you look out across at the old Shanghai, but also at the forest of skyscrapers that is Pudong. A quarter of the world's cranes are at work here, to give some sense of scale. The desire to create an image of progress is epitomized by the Maglev train, which whisks you from the town to the international airport at a top speed of 266 mph (431 km/h). It can go at 311 mph (501 km/h), but at its slower cruising speed still does the 30 km journey in well under eight minutes. Symbols are important, and the Maglev stands in striking contrast to the shambolic infrastructure of India's airports and trains. India does have the key advantage of widely spoken English, but China's modern infrastructure wins hands down. One danger to Western companies is also apparent in the Maglev. Built on German technology, China now intends to build a far longer Maglev track to Hangzhou, but will build it on Chinese technology: quick learners, or intellectual property theft? Conversations I had when in China suggested that intellectual property rights are an alien notion in China, at least for now; our guide in Beijing ran a web site selling fake Rolex watch mechanisms which can be made up into expensive replica watches. He was simply bewildered at the notion that there could be anything wrong with this.

However, despite this, China is now the world's largest exporter of hi-tech products. When you are there you can sense the sheer dynamism of the place in the air. As an example, just today Teradata announced that their new R&D centre was to be based in Beijing.

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