Under Control

LETTER FROM BEIJING

I missed the peak of New Hampshire's fall foliage this year because I was traveling in China as the guest of Groupe Schneider, i.e. Modicon Asia, a PLC manufacturer. It took me 29 hours, door to door, to go from my house to the hotel in Beijing, without incident. That's a long time to be seated within an aluminum tube. As the airliner descended late one evening upon the capital of the ancient kingdom, the city of 12 million people below did not look much different than any midwestern plains city in the U>S> In other words, for such a huge population center, the amount of illumination seemed limited.

The reason the technical conference was held in Beijing was because it's difficult for some of the Beijing Schneider representatives to leave the country. It's not illegal, only bureaucratically challenging. When we first thought of meeting in China, the Chinese government told us that to do so, we'd have to write letters to President Clinton stating our support for China having certain kinds of most-favored status. We refused to do this and, in addition, threatened to move the conference to Singapore. They caved, wand we kept the conference in Beijing.

Once ensconced in our hotel rooms, we opted for the Melatonin and sunlight cure for jet lag, and took off to tour Tianmen Square. In the city, bicycles and cellular phones are everywhere. The Chinese, starting from an earlier era of industrial infrastructure, are leapfrogging past modernity into the postmodern industrial age via the microprocessor. No copper wire or telephone poles--it's satellites instead.

Still, the strain of double-digit development on the existing infrastructure is palpable. Several of us visited an American-Chinese joint-venture enterprise that is bent on bringing mass-market of U>S>-style chocolate candy to one of the world's last bastions of communism. The enterprise only gets and allotment of five day's worth of power per week. During the regularly scheduled blackouts, the enterprise would prefer to keep running. So it brought in motor-generator sets for self-generation of power. This sounds reasonable, but where do they get the diesel fuel to run the generators? there are no gas stations. So the fuel needs to be shipped in by tanker truck. But there are no tanker trucks, and for that matter, no roads that can handle tanker trucks.

The meetings continued endlessly. My talk went over like a lead balloon. I really bombed. It's a reaction I've noticed before, but American audiences at least are impolite enough to tell me they don't understand me, leaving me some hope of making amends. Next time I give a talk in China I'll be more politically astute and statesmanlike. I need to spend more time of the required pleasantries an not just leap into the technology and speculative thought stuff.

We went to see the Great Wall. They took us to a section where it was guaranteed that there would be no other tourists. It was two-hour drive, and once we got there it was clear why we were left alone. First, there was a chair-lift ride halfway up, and then an up-and-down, winding climb that was serious enough tot call for occasional searches for alternative pathways. My fear of heights also came into play.

Most of the Wall--which is one of a few man-made objects that can be seen from outer space--is built atop a line of cliffs. They say that no invading army has ever breached it, but that generals involved in civil wars have upon occasion let the invading hordes in so as to further their own selfish ends.

In general, I found China a rather grey place. And I can't help but attributer that to the leftover communist ideology, which places all decision-making in the hands of the state. Many people seemed to spend a lot of time leaning on their shovels. Lots of fields that looked tillable had nothing growing in them. Nobody seemed fixated with replacing broken windows panes, coming up with market plans, or making a quick buck.

Even though China is such a different place, our meetings revealed that the problems faced by the PLC vendors in China, Malaysia, Singapore , and Thailand are the same as those faced in Cleveland; these are: sales, distribution, costs inventory, service, quirky customers, and the like. The same lament. No difference at all.

As appeared in Manufacturing Systems Magazine December 1996 Page 172
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