The Beijing Opening Ceremonies — A Metaphor for Where China Sourcing is Headed?

This post was co-authored by Jason Busch and William Busch, Spend Matters VP of Sales

Last weekend, we were glued to our television screens -- something that rarely happens for OCD bloggers -- watching the opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics. For all those who had a chance to watch it, I'm sure you'll agree that it was an amazing spectacle. But for us, it was much more than that. It was suggestive not only of where China sourcing has been and where it must go -- it also drove home the vast cultural underpinnings and variances with Western society that lies at the core of the many problems that plague doing business with China and with Chinese/US relations.

While the opening ceremonies were without question dazzling, there were subtle portrayals of substitution and juxtaposition at play through out -- of labor and machine (i.e., automation). Consider the over 15,000 actors who performed as part of the ceremonies in contrast to the massive LCD display anchored firmly underfoot in the center of the giant arena. The actors performed, in near perfect unison, a dance that spelled out different Chinese characters as they rose and knelled with silver human-sized boxes over their heads. But clearly, this could have been done by machine.

China chose to use labor instead to emphasize the human element -- the power of over 1 billion laborers -- in a country that is in the midst of its own industrial revolution. This reminded me of a Chinese factory visit I (Jason) made a couple of years back, how an otherwise state of the art facility still relied on manual lifting of finished products onto trucks rather than palletizing and using a forklift to accomplish the same task (the cost of mechanizing was deemed prohibitive compared to the cost of labor)

Following the opening ceremonies, it began to leak out that aspects were not only staged -- they were faked. Just like counterfeit Louis Vuitton handbags of the sort you can buy in just about any unofficial market in Shanghai, misleading scenes such as the fireworks around Beijing and the little nine year old girl who did not really sing began to emerge. In the case of the fireworks, it turns out that many were pre-recorded and pasted into the actual live tracks on the broadcast signal (the Chinese Director of the Olympics has weakly justified this as a hedge against the smog). What about the beautiful girl who sang a Chinese song? She was lip-synching to another seven-year old child who sang the music but had buckteeth (and so was deemed unacceptable by China's Politburo as a representative to the world).

If China grows up to become more than just a global sourcing superpower, it will have to realize that it can't fool the world even if thinking that doing so is in everyone's best interest. Those who are tricked will inevitably assume that something is askance in the future. In the West, we are accustomed to leveling with our peers and contemporaries -- especially in what I'd term 'good supplier relationships'. We put almost everything out on the table, then manage and measure through scorecards and other means. Sure, there's posturing, but intentional disingenuousness is scorned. In good Western-style relationships, there's no room for hiding truth, even if one party believes it will lead to a better end game for both. Ask yourself: how would you feel if a Chinese supplier cut corners or substituted materials without telling you? If you’re sourcing from China and you’re not on the ground with your suppliers everyday, I can almost guarantee this has happened.

On a deeper level, it’s important to realize that these events were not just the result of poor judgment. Despite the animosity and hatred that exists between Asian societies (and contributing to it), stoicism, disingenuous behavior, concealing emotion (and intention), harboring resentment, and superficial politeness are all revered throughout many Asian cultures. US Olympic athletes were counseled in mandatory orientation sessions to refrain from hugging in public so as to not offend.

While a discussion of US/Chinese relations is slightly beyond the scope of Spend Matters, basic history -- contrary to Henry Ford's favorite platitude that ‘history is bunk’ -- is relevant when conducting multinational business. So here goes: It's not in the least coincidental that Mao seized upon the Lenin-Trotsky misinterpretation of Karl Marx’s philosophy that “the ends justify the means” in the same little red book that espoused eating frogs for birth control that all Chinese citizens, under 45 today, were required to memorize.

Today’s Peoples Republic of China has taken many great leaps forward since the time of Mao. But we will be wise, and responsible, to keep in mind that the fundamental cultural variances between East and West will continue to give rise to serious communication and ethical problems for a very long time to come. The fireworks we saw last weekend were just the beginning (as were the lead paint, tainted blood thinner, child labor and other supplier related China scandals of recent years).

As a final aside, if you're curious to learn more about some of the real technology that China used in the ceremonies, check out this post over on New Florence.

- Jason Busch

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