Apple, China and the Curse of Living in Interesting Times

[Note: Not that this blog has a topic, but if it did, this post is way off it. I apologize to those who have figured out this blog’s topic and I promise I’ll get back to it right after I post this foray into the topic of international trade, manufacturing and globalism — a topic that I was  surprised to discover that I can only write about while watching six hours straight of NFL conference championship games.]

According to Chinese lore (or something sounding like Chinese lore), there are three phrases that seem like well-wishing toasts, but are actually a three-part “Chinese Curse.” The three are, in increasing severity:

  • “May you live in interesting times.”
  • “May you come to the attention of important people.”
  • “May you find what you are looking for.”

You can find several versions of the wording of these toasts/curses, but you get the idea and the irony: Things that seem positive and enticing tend to have some inevitable, hidden costs or unintended consequence.

Today, the New York Times had a front page story that examined the way in which Apple Inc. works with Chinese companies (the primary focus was Foxconn) that have (1) Revolutionized the supply chain and manufacturing process and  (2) Have lots of skilled employees who are willing to work and live in a relationship with their employer that is much like serving in the military, including living in barracks and sleeping in bunks.

If you read the article pre-disposed to a flat world globalized point-of-view, you’ll marvel at how the Chinese government has put into place a system that has trained a vast army of engineers who can work at private companies (owned or financed by the government, but “private”) with an incredibly flexible work flow and the  management finesse super chops necessary to solve any manufacturing challenge within 24 hours.

Read it with the point-of-view that the adjective “Red” should come right after the adjective “Communist” before anytime you say the word “China” and you’d think the China-way is lipstick on a pig that looks like a West Virginia coal-mine company-town in the 1930s. And you’ll wonder where the part is about how bureaucratic and bloated the Chinese government is.

The reactions to the story (and there are lots) that follow the “flexible China is going to bury us” narrative, seem written by pundits who are convinced that China is on an inevitable course to world economic domination (like where Japan was heading in the early 1990s when Michael Creighton wrote the book, Rising Sun that ends, if I recall correctly, with a rogue Japanese airline pilot flying a 747 into the U.S. Capitol during a State of the Union Address — oh, wait, no, I’m sorry; that was Tom Clancy’s “the Japanese are going to dominate the world’s economy” novel, Debt of Honor. )

I feel bad for those who have to write with the “China is winning” point of view, as it is challenging for writers like Sarah Lacy and others who are in the “wow, China!” camp. She is burdened with the requirement of having to bury, somewhere in her Times-reaction essay titled, “Why China Wins,” this caveat: “…take away the emotion of workers rights and patriotism for a moment….”

Huh? Take away the emotion of workers rights? How can you take away the foundation on which the entire system is built? Such a quote reminds me of the old line, “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

But there you have the essence of the Chinese Curse — actually applied to China: They are “living in interesting times, finding the attention of important people (Steve Jobs) and are getting what they want.”

So what is the curse? The reality of China is not just the anecdotes of today’s NYT story. It is also the type of reality that bogs down American companies in red-tape and ownership restrictions when they don’t have the clout of Apple. It’s the reality of internet censorship (and every other type of censorship) far beyond anything an American can comprehend. China’s treatment of workers is probably progressive compared to its treatment of the environment or its treatment of entire races of people — Should I mention Tibet?

But we’re all grownups here, so I’ll admit it. Just like the ambiguity I have to face in all facets of living, I’ll accept that we live in a large inter-dependent world that, despite the beliefs of a lot of folks in America, we don’t control.

Frankly, even when I am opposed philosophically to the way China is, or the way it treats its people, I realize and accept the fact that I benefit in all sorts of ways from how China works. So do you. So does the New York Times and anyone who is spending today slamming the system.

And I do know this. China is an amazing place. It’s people are amazing. Its resources are vast. I don’t believe they are evil. I don’t believe they are my enemy. I may not like their lack of a first-world point-of-view or policies. But I’d rather be partnering with them on how to make better and cheaper gizmos, than competing with them on who can make the bigger and more accurate intercontinental missiles like we did with the USSR during the Cold War.

We may not agree on how people should be treated, but I’m convinced that it’s a good thing to have the type of trading relationship we have with China. Making iPhones with China is a good thing.

I hope, however, that one day soon we arrive at that point where our relationship with China is uninteresting (as in, the opposite of the “Chinese Curse”).