Google-CN Biffo / Small Business Perspective (Part 1 of X)

Note: I sat on this post for a while. It then went hurtling out of control towards 3000 words. Risking the post remaining in ‘draft’ mode for eternity, here’s part 1 of X of an X-part rant…

Oooeeee 1.3 billion people!

Profits await the occasional foreign entrepreneur in China, but not without sacrifice and some turns of a blind eye.

In the first few weeks of doing business in China, I confirmed that I’d need to put up, shut up, or leave. Of course, I was well briefed on this prior to first visiting the country, but youthfully believed it worthy of a boundary test anyway.

A close friend organised a meeting with members of the Communist Party Youth League at a leading Shanghai university. We discussed Australia-China relations, debunked each others’ cultural myths, and skirted – but nevertheless acknowledged – some of the more sensitive topics of the day. While most of those present were happy and willing to engage in the discussion, there was one member present who, with smiles masking his intent, reminded me on a few occasions where I was, thank you very much, and the acceptable limits of public discussion for an individual who wanted to live in China.

Though I ran small businesses in China, the general corporate rules applied across the board. There are a raft of regulations to be complied with, some of which go against the grain of ‘Western’ norms. Google, nor any business really, was exempt from these. I am not going to dissect Google’s exit from China at all, as it’s been adequately covered to a level I couldn’t achieve gracefully. Google it instead 🙂

For a primer, check out these great perspectives and narratives on the situation and its major stakeholders. No, I am not going to look at whether Google should have stayed in China. I applaud the fact that they will not be, and relate to some of their sentiment.

Whatever, man.

The pragmatist in me has no problem with the Chinese government’s policy of censoring information. I’m not a Chinese citizen. Those who are will change the system when it becomes necessary to do so.

China’s extended crackdown on mainly foreign-based social Internet sites in 2009 annoyed and frustrated many expats including myself, but also riled some of the country’s intellectual progressives. Whether that action and future moves likes it will, over time, create some catalyst for change, we’ll just have to wait and see. Don’t expect it anytime soon.

Chinese netizens have been said to be the greatest losers in Google’s decision to quit China, but the Chinese Internet community is savvy enough to quietly organise ways and means to get the information they want. They’ve done it for years and will continue to do so. Separately, there is also a concern about Baidu monopolising China’s search market. This also seems a flawed argument. On the contrary, it provides a huge market opportunity for a raft of competitors (Tencent, Sina, Microsoft, anyone?), not to mention the upstarts and copycats that may well now spawn. Google will take a commercial hit, sure, but the Chinese Government lost this battle. Not only was there a significant loss of face, with one of the world’s most well-recognised brands extending their proverbial middle finger, it also seemed to show an ultimate lack of confidence in the country’s business practices and environment. This is something a foreign business just does not do.  Not publicly, anyway.

Small business and the threshold of tolerance

In the course of doing business in China, I and other small business owners tolerated all sorts of random information-control-related rubbish, several of which I will list in a follow-up post. There is not much room to whinge, granted, as every foreign business owner operates in China by choice. We would bitch and moan amongst ourselves nevertheless, and this co-counselling helped many in the small business community maintain some perspective and control of their emotions in a tough operating atmosphere.

Over the years, I came to know many foreign peers running businesses in China. For those of us who went through the hassle of incorporating Chinese corporate entities and maintaining a local payroll, there was a common bond. We would often meet – sometimes officially through chambers of commerce and other business groups, but mostly casually over a beer or three – to discuss the wide range of problems and annoyances we all continually faced. Many of those problems, naturally, had to do with THE DARN SYSTEM. Uncertainty about antiquated labour laws, accounting rules that evolved faster than accountants could handle, and regular surprise regulations that had to be complied with last week, all contributed to an unpredictable environment for a small business. For those who hung around for at least a few years, this environment became an accepted and expected cost of doing business in China. Dealing with randomness became standard operating procedure.

The 2009 crackdown, however, did have a marked impact on how we conducted business (the unreliability of Google Docs being just one of many problems), and on how we communicated with the outside world. Despite the many business storms weathered over prior years, this was the point when my passionate entrepreneurial zeal in China started to wane. Together with frequent perspective-polarising trips to Hong Kong throughout 2009, I started to question why I was in China, and what level of regulation I would be willing to tolerate to keep leading a business there.

<To be continued>

Fifty 2008 US election tweets

As an Australian, people wonder why I care so much about US elections. Well, they matter (to paraphrase a failed past presidential candidate), and this election has mattered more than any I have been around to follow. The reasons are well covered, and Barack Obama noted most of them in his superb acceptance speech today. 

Political correctness aside, a non-white guy leading the most powerful nation (and still justified lead country of the free world) on earth is huge, and a symbolic victory for minorities everywhere. He speaks in common sense terms, has a sense of humour, and can relate to people on a level I haven’t seen before on the world stage. He’s either a really, really nice guy, or a brilliant con man. Having been vetted for the past two years, it would be surprising if the latter were true.

His victory is a defining moment in history. It has made many of us hopeful of a calmer world order, and an America we can look up to again. To see crowds in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East celebrating his victory speaks volumes about what this means for America.

Truth be told, at the start of the Democratic primaries, I wanted Hillary Clinton to succeed over Obama. I didn’t think he was ready. Well, he proved in the primaries that not only was he ready, but able to outshine an increasingly suspect Clinton as the more measured, articulate and decent candidate to take on the Republicans. It took me a while to be sold on Obama, but I am now certainly lining up for more.

Let’s hope he can keep special interest groups under control, retain his nobility (and humility) in power, and most importantly: deliver real change. 

The following fifty posts were made to Twitter over the past couple of months, in descending date order. What a campaign. What an emphatic victory. GOBAMA!!

  1. Gee. Wow. So… I guess life can resume now. Good work, America
  2. CBS calls it for Obama! F*CK! 
  3. Stuck at a slow moving British Airways office while Obama takes over the world. Grr 
  4. VOTE, y’all 
  5. Melbourne Cup and US Election on the same day. If only they were in the same timezones, we’d have a two-for-one get-jiggy day
  6. The Economist 4 Obama: “..the exceptionally assured way in which he has run his campaign is a considerable comfort”
  7. Palin is nailin’ it in Pennsylvania at the moment. Doing her 2012 election candidacy chances no harm whatsoever… 
  8. Sadly for McCainPalin, support for Obama from real people on Twitter will probably outnumber the McCainPalin propaganda-bots 
  9. Looks like McCainPalin have hired a spam company to flood Twitter with “Vote McCain” scripts. See Twitter election tracker and hot topics 
  10. I was (expectedly) impressed by Obama on the Daily Show last night. Tho, thought he lost some composure when talking about “tree huggers” 
  11. Barack Obama on the Daily Show: candid, relaxed, with a dash of humour. Dammit America, do not screw this up. 
  12. From June, here’s “Why white supremacists support Barack Obama”. They also hope Obama will energise their base 
  13. Alaska’s major newspaper endorses “steady hand” Obama over “erratic” McCain, calls Palin “too risky” a VP prospect. 
  14. Palin annoyed & off the leash, insider indicating she would “like to go more rogue”. Yeh, bring on raw maverickism! 
  15. Monday’s Daily Show was brilliant. Jon Stewart at his best, some of the US at its worst. Check it out. 
  16. Powell does a Lieberman (tho more tolerable), and endorses the opposition; Says Obama would “talk to people we haven’t talked to.” Exactly 
  17. Sarah Palin was a good sport on SNL: 
  18. The money’s on Obama, and the money is rarely wrong: Please, America, do not prove the money wrong 
  19. McCain is sounding dodgy. Obama in prime form with a nice defence of himself. Go you good thing 
  20. McCain, nothing to lose, talks crap, reckons he’ll be stoked if he can be “half as good” as Sarah Palin was in her recent debate. Crikey! 
  21. McCain “in danger not only of losing the election but of tarnishing his reputation for honour.” 
  22. Lame duck removes N.Korea from terror list, ball-breaking Kim JI lights a cigar, & insipid McCain gets in a tizzy: 
  23. I don’t get it. In a time of crisis, the conservative US mouthpiece endorses McCain because he’s more daring. Que? 
  24. So, Palin abused her power in Alaska. … Imagine what she could do with all the toys in Washington 
  25. And his thoughts on Barack Obama: “Clever, healthy, handsome.” Yep, that sounds like the kind of US President the world needs 😎 
  26. One of my local guys learns about Obama and McCain from The Daily Show. Brilliant 🙂 “I’m worried about McCain’s health,” he says. 
  27. “McCain has moved remorselessly rightward” … The New Yorker endorses Barack Obama.
  28. Taking my Australian self to a Canadian Buddy’s place to watch the US VP debate. In China. Ahh, if only we had a vote… 
  29. Wheels slowly misaligning on the Republican campaign just like they did for the ‘conservative’ side in Australia’s 2007 election. Good. 
  30. Now that the US presidential debate is over, we can get on with the main event of the day: The Australian Rules Football Grand Final 😀 
  31. McCain doesn’t talk like a leader who would preside over a peaceful world
  32. For a debate supposedly on US foreign policy, where was the China focus? Disappointing. 
  33. League of democracies? A good boys club? C’mon John. Kudos to Obama for reserving to right to engage at the highest level, with anyone 
  34. Yes, that’s what we need at a time of global instability: Mavericks! 
  35. This “Main Street” sounds pretty rough. Remind me not to live there 
  36. McCain can be a fluffy little puppy can’t he? 
  37. WTF, McCain does a backflip and triple somersault… bring it on? 
  38. Divide & conquer? Democrats moving to fasttrack bailout to force a Republican rebellion? Or does McCain have a silver bullet? Hard to read
  39. Ahhh McCain, you’ve done it again… 
  40. “Bush Doctrine” coiner takes on those who took on Palin for looking like a dunce re the Bush Doctrine. Hmm. 
  41. On, you can create a “MyBO” account. Guys, seriously, what were you thinking? 
  42. Sarah Palin “… an absurdity… a joke.” 
  43. Joe Lieberman, you’re a twat. Go away. 
  44. “As a pro-life super-achiever, puts feminists in a tizzy.” The Kooky Standard outlines Palin’s pros: 
  45. Sarah Palin irks the crap out of me. Smart choice, though. Peh! 
  46. The Australian endorses Biden… 
  47. “Realpolitik never died”: 
  48. Sullivan lays into McCain.. 
  49. Good old Aussie conservative Ms. Albrechtsen takes on Obama: 
  50. Can someone please smack Obama and Clinton supporters into line? United we stand, divided we all get smacked with Republicans again! ARGH