Innovation: can China follow suit?

Jean-François Pierrey has been an ‘expat’ in Shanghai for a year now. In China he has the title of ‘Director of sales and engineering’ for Federal Mogul, installed there to develop the capacities for manufacturing brake liners for the local market-place. He shares with Interaction readers his vision of innovation as he sees it in the Middle Kingdom.

Innovation: can China follow suit?

China is still a developing nation, with all the disparities that this qualification implies, notably in terms of innovation and technologies between the two major cities Shanghai and Beijing and the rest of China”, says J-F. Pierrey by way of an introduction. And what is the most striking feature?
Their relationship in regard to the mobile phone which is used here for everything, all the time. “In this immense city, where many citizens in fact come from other places in China, especially the younger generations who come here for their studies for their first job and who let themselves be guided by their smartphones to see where they are, to find a shop, and address. They possess a limited knowledge of their environment, do not create any relationships with their neighbourhood, the shop-owners. This highly impersonal rapport suffices to explain – at least partly – the success of mobile phones for the least well-off fraction of the population”, explains Jean-François Pierrey.
Owning a smartphone a social marker. The phenomenon is to be compared with the architectural or technological achievements such as the 650m high tower* in Shanghai’s downtown area which will be inaugurated soon, or the ‘mag-lev’** train that connects airport and city centre at 450 km/hr.

Taking initiatives or being contradictory: almost inexistent factors

Achievements like these embody China’s supremacy. They carry a strong symbolic strength that is important in the rivalry opposing economic systems: the Shanghai Tower, for example, is erected in a position between two other towers, financed respectively by the USA and Japan. China today wants to prove that it is capable to doing as well if not better than other world powers – even if it is only possible due to the country’s immense economic power and not to Chinese know-how or creativity”, explains Pierre-François Pierrey.
His analysis, over the year he has spent in Shanghai have allowed him to identify two profiles: the majority, those who take no initiatives and do not contradict others and strictly obey their hierarchy – even if the orders given lead to a dead-end! and a minority who literally swim in decision-making circles and who want to succeed whatever the cost.
This can be quite destabilizing for Westerners, inasmuch as we are used to seeing teams who forward their operational concerns or queries as they progress and will not wait for new or counter-orders from the boss to change the options. It is a feature that is not related to the intrinsic educational level of the Chinese but is rooted in their culture – in no way decreasing their lust to learn, or their job-motivation. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to work with this minority who - without going as far as becoming deceitful or dishonest are nonetheless capable of adopting any ploy, if it help them to succeed”.

A “Top Ten” of Chinese manufacturing concerns

In China, Federal Mogul want to produce brake liners for the local market. Beyond the world-scale manufacturers already installed locally, there are some 40 Chinese manufacturers. “We established a Top Ten rating in terms of innovation criteria, financial solidity, export strategies …. Some of these manufacturers, including BYD (Build Your Dream) have a real innovation policy. BYD makes all-electric vehicles in response to China’s large-scale environmental problems. However, they are some 25 years behind Western equivalents in terms of industrial strategy. For example, they continue to make some of the parts needed internally; the same parts have been outsourced for a long time now in Western competing companies,” adds Pierre-François Pierrey by way of an illustration.
However, they may catch up rapidly, via the obligation now for foreign companies to sign partnerships with a Chinese company if they want to set up a business in the Middle Kingdom. “The Chinese excel in their desire to attain existing high-level know-how. But the question subsists: will the countyry be able to follow suit, in terms of innovation? I am not personally convinced, given the strong cultural blockage that inhibits creativity.