Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Japan vs China, take one

I've been in Shanghai and Tokyo this week giving speeches and presentations, and moving between these two cosmopolitan but very different cities has left me with plenty of food for thought. To start: while Japan has in many ways become an easier place for foreigners to navigate than it was a decade ago, it still has a long way to go. For example: unless you have a business here that can keep a mobile phone contract rolling over every month in someone else's name, you have to rent a phone on arrival at the airport. To get a local mobile number as a foreigner in Japan, you have to have a foreigner registration card. (By contrast, in China, like most of the world, you just show up, buy a local SIM card, and pop it in your phone - in China, SIM cards are sold at newspaper kiosks on street corners.) I'm going to go out on a limb on this one and blame Japanese bureaucrats for this situation. Another problem: Japanese banks, not so friendly to foreign cards. American friends visiting Tokyo this summer could not believe how difficult it was to find an ATM machine that would accept their cash cards. Because I used to live here, I know where the Citibanks are, so I don't normally spend much time thinking about this problem, but it's silly. It's much easier to find a place to withdraw money in Shanghai than Tokyo. Finally, getting paid for services rendered in Japan without a Japanese bank account is not easy. Like a street performer, I am paid in cash for my speeches and TV appearances. Wiring overseas is too complicated at Japanese banks, or so my clients tell me. Banking and telecoms, two service industries that should, in theory, be more international in the country with a longer experience with capitalism and global commerce, illustrate perfectly how Japan has been happy to keep itself at arm's length from the rest of the world. Granted, accessibility to foreigners is not a perfect index for measuring a country's prospects - but how could being more open to skilled foreigners be a bad idea for Japan?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Changing of the guard?

I met up with a friend yesterday who teaches business to graduate students here in Hong Kong. These kind of programs have grown in popularity while I've been living in Hong Kong, presumably because they are extremely profitable for the universities. They draw students from around the world - India, the US, the UK, and the mainland. Because I'll be giving a talk to a class of these students again this year, I asked the professor whether there was anything different about this class. Yes, he said. This year, the mainland students have arrived much more confident and even nationalistic. The financial crisis has emboldened them to feel that China's system is superior, and they could be very vocal in response to what you say about their country. Putting aside for the moment the question of system superiority, we all know that the environment you graduate into (whether from high school, college or grad school) affects how you see the world: graduating into Japan's big bang permanently altered the expectations of a generation of Japanese my age, for instance. And for Brits who graduated around the time my husband did, their troubles finding work dimmed their views of their country. What I hadn't considered is how the humbling of America, Inc over the past year will affect the way young Chinese see themselves - not just university students, but also middle class people like Lu Yuan, the woman in this photo. It's been a matter of hot debate among academics and business people here over the last few weeks: the shifting of the world order. While I haven't seen a definite rise in swagger among the Chinese students I know, this financial crisis has no doubt affected their views of the world and how they fit into it. I'm interested to see what, if anything, that means for China's policy and economy five, 10, 20 years down the line.