A Rural Chinese Plant Tour

I had the chance to tour a number of manufacturing facilities yesterday in Shandong Province. Shandong is less than an hour's flight away from Beijing, but it might as well be a different world. In contrast to the Beijing area, Shandong has a much lower population density, and the views from the highway and small towns are pastoral and charming (although it is a developing area, and if you're not used to traveling in the second or third world, some things might surprise you). We arrived in Shandong to tour a metals factory which is supplying to an Aptium Global client and also ended up touring a textiles facility as well. Like all Chinese plant tours -- as is true of plant tours anywhere in the world -- we were sure that the managers had cleaned up the facility before we arrived. But still, we found a factory with a surprisingly efficient production system, despite the rural nature of the area. Still, I would not expect the "quality inspectors" in clean blue uniforms to be there on a daily basis after we left.

I'll write more about my experiences in a series of longer essays after I return to the US, but in the meantime, I thought that I'd share with Spend Matters readers a few sage words of advice in these virtual pages if you ever take a rural Chinese plant tour (especially if the company is already your supplier). To wit, prepare yourself for the following things on these types of outings:

- A banquet to be thrown on your behalf before or after the tour (often with local delicacies such as sparrow and silk worms, both of which I found go down quite well with local beer)

- To speak or hear very little English (English is not widely spoken and few words of Mandarin can go a very long way)

- To be escorted around by local government officials as well as company executives and the production manager (the line is not always distinct in China!)

- To be shown other manufacturing facilities in the area, in hopes that you can make business introductions even in unrelated industries (and to have more free samples thrust into your hand than you could ever carry back to the local airport or rail station, let alone back on the international flight home)

- To be given a gift of sorts from the local region (it's also proper to bring gifts to your suppliers as well); in my case, the gifting continued as we left for the airport, as the local government official thrust an additional cooked sparrow into a plastic bag for my return trip home (this was in addition to the standard gift exchange that preceded the tasty smoked, avian morsel)

- For all of the workers in the plant to clap as you walk into your supply facility (the proper etiquette is to clap back)

What advice do I have for those taking similar tours in rural areas? First, given that local food will be an integral part of the experience, I'd plan to pack a culinary survival kit including acidophilus as a preventive measure (take a few pills before each meal) and Cipro just in case you actually get sick (which is far less likely in rural China than India, but it's worth preparing just in case). Next, bring a strong pack of cigarettes with you even if you don't smoke. Plan to light up just before you go to the bathrooms (rural Chinese toilet facilities are like nothing else on the planet). Even if you hate smoking, your nose will thank you for lighting up -- it will cover up the other smells wafting through the facility. I read this advice in Lonely Planet a while back, and it is spot on. Trust me! Above all, go with the flow when touring rural manufacturing areas. It's an experience, and if you're not accustomed to developing regions, some things might surprise you.

Jason Busch

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