To most people in the home business, China is either too close or too far with very little in between.
Too close to the people who go to China so often on sourcing trips that they become oblivious to the fact that they are in a very different country, one totally apart from the one they live in. They might as well be visiting the Carolinas or Houston.
And too far to those who have never been to China and only have anecdotal stories from others or the media on which to base their impressions. China might as well be on Pluto.
So, my visit to China this past week after being away for five years provides a perspective somewhere in between the two extremes, one that splits the difference.
A couple of immediate impressions are obvious.
China continues to explode. The amount of development in Shanghai over the past five years is astronomical. The skyline in the new Pudong area is twice as big —maybe three times—as it was five years ago. Even boom cities like Houston or Las Vegas never approached that kind of growth in their heydays.
China continues to get more sophisticated. You see it in the quality level of the presentations at trade shows here. Years ago, companies were still tacking up fabric on walls and maybe laying out a few samples on tables. Today those booths are polished, professional and progressive.
And you see it in the consumer products here. There are more cars, sure, but they are bigger and fancier than they had been. There are more branded goods too, some familiar to westerners, some as foreign as foreign can be. The people dress better too, less in bad western imitations and more in fashionable goods that would look right at home in New York, Tokyo or Berlin.
But you also see the change in more subtle ways. Take the three skyscrapers that cap the Pudong skyline. The oldest is the Oriental Pearl TV tower, a structure that is a garish as anything ever built. Someone described it as the Chinese version of the Statue of Liberty … if it had been built by aliens from outer space. When it opened, it said to the world that Shanghai needed to be noticed.
Newer is the Jin Mao tower, a massive office tower that combines an Asian esthetic with western high-rise design. It is more subtle but still very much a statement, merging the old and the new. It said Shanghai has joined the world.
The newest building is the Shanghai World Financial Center, which only opened within the past year or two, and it is as sophisticated and elegant as anything anywhere in the world. It is subtle but dramatic. It says Shanghai has not only arrived, it is ready to lead.
And it is.