Sunday, January 08, 2006

China is: brassiere ads in taxicabs, cigarettes on the menu and Wrigley's doublemint gum on a plate after dinner, cars honking at you for using the crosswalk, nosepicking and shops virtually sold out of $1,500 Italian cashmere sweatsuits. It's a place where women's restroom attendants lift the toilet seat after you, in order to prepare for the next customer (it's easier to squat over the rim). It's a place where PR agents customarily pay Chinese journalists $39 to $63 to attend press conferences.

And everywhere, a cover-your-ass mentality. Having to fill out customs declarations forms on exit, when published airport regulations for outgoing passengers who have nothing to declare say otherwise. Being refused free bottled water for passengers of a flight that was delayed six hours, because we had boarding passes for the delayed flight but not the proper vouchers for a free meal. Officials may be worried about instability and unrest in the countryside, but in the city, there are plenty of examples of people slavishly following the rules.

The mining company consultant who sat next to me in business class, however, said there was reason to hope. He was on his way to Ulan Bator in inner Mongolia on this trip, but has worked with the Chinese on various mining projects. Many Chinese are trained to build mines the way they have always been built, and often try to complete a task or produce a piece of equipment cheaply and quickly, he said. But he was beginning to work with young Chinese who relished the challenge of coming up with innovative fixes when forced to by clients who insist on fewer widgets of better quality. Made a mental note to look for more out-of-the-box thinking.