While those of us who travel overseas for our jobs sometimes complain about the time away from home and the extra-long days, there is no better way to keep up with trade and transportation than to visit the opposite end of our transactions. I just returned from such a trip to Shanghai and Beijing with a group of Oregon businesspeople.
China has been part of my annual schedule for more than 20 years, and I’ve come to expect to see certain things each time I go. This year, however, I witnessed things I’d never seen before: dozens of abandoned — or at least inactive — construction projects, including industrial sites, commercial buildings and residential projects; and shuttered and empty buildings of all sorts.
There was traffic, of course, lots of it, but not the kind we usually see in Shanghai and Beijing. It was more like the traffic in the U.S. during summer vacation.
On our trip to the Port of Yangshan outside Shanghai, we passed barely a half dozen container trucks as we crossed the 22-mile-long bridge connecting the port to the mainland — and even fewer trucks hauling containers on the way back.
At the port, we got a preview of the Great Wall of China — not a wall of stone and mortar, but a wall of more than 100,000 empty containers (as reported to us), neatly arranged by carrier brand (who would normally have the time or be willing to spend the money for this?), stacked in the far back reaches of the terminal. Three ships were in, against the 70 or so gantry cranes, but very few trucks moved between the stacks and the ships.
We also visited an export consolidation warehouse. I’ve seen many of these buildings across Asia and can’t remember seeing so little cargo being unloaded from so few factory lorries. Inside, no forklifts were buzzing about, no cadre of bar-code scanners or tallymen made the rounds of cartons and pallets, no din of noise over which we or our hosts had to scream to be heard. The place was almost empty.
All of this paints a picture of Big Trouble in Big China. But the people we met, Americans and Chinese, were much more upbeat than I would have imagined. Now, they may all have been drinking from the same Kool-Aid pitcher or had become delusional from breathing the foggy air (the description of the Shanghai air we were given by a banker), I suspect something else is going on — something of which we Americans should take close and careful note.
We Americans are an optimistic people; so are the Chinese. We are an entrepreneurial people; so are the Chinese. We believe the future is ours for the taking; so do the Chinese.
During a luncheon meeting with city officials from a small city near Shanghai, an economic development director told Bill Wyatt, the Port of Portland’s executive director, with total sincerity that one thing the Chinese admire most about the U.S. is that we’ve been able to accomplish so much in such a short period of time. The time referred to here was from the American Revolution until the present day!
This kind of admiration for the United States has pointed the way for China to develop the Pudong side of Shanghai from farmers’ fields to “Jetsons” City in less than 20 years, to build the Yangshan port and the causeway in about five years, and come to hold more than $1 trillion in U.S. Treasury bills in what seems to have been overnight.
The Chinese are not thrilled their growth rate has fallen to 4 to 6 percent from 10 to 12 percent, or that total international trade fell 24.9 percent in the first quarter. They are worried about 20 million unemployed (or is it 40 million?). They know about the other serious issues (225 million migrant workers, air and water pollution, etc.) that confront them, and are working toward solutions.
What comes through most clearly is their confidence in their country, their confidence in their system, and, most of all, their confidence in themselves. They know things will get better, that their lives will improve and China will move forward. They admire us for the same things.
Do we still feel that way? Do you still feel that way?
Let’s not disappoint them. If we do, we won’t just be letting the Chinese down, but ourselves as well.
Barry Horowitz is general manager of container marketing at the Port of Portland, Ore. He can be contacted at 503-944-7426, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.