Triple Helix and China

It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.
Deng Xiaoping

I had the opportunity of joining the 2014 Triple Helix Executive Leadership for Global Competitiveness Trip to Guangzhou and Hong Kong,  in May 2014. It was semester of learning with a trip at the end.

The following comes mostly from the reflection I had to turn in as part of the course evaluation.

There were fourteen intense days on a personal, professional and academic level. China, as a place and as a culture is far away from our country. The cultural roots and philosophical traditions are different and the fact of our time zone separation makes us to live in worlds apart.

To contrast this separation, the last 50 years are unprecedented in terms of trade, financial relationships, university exchanges and cultural awareness. If not politically, in many other aspects we are near. What happens there have a lasting impact here.

What I saw

Numbers do not normally lie, but they tell an incomplete picture. 8% GDP growth for a number of years, the second economy of the world, huge container ships sailing daily from there, 1.3 billion people. To read about them is one thing and to see Guangzhou is to be witness to a proud city and vibrant people.

Did you notice that there were few traffic lights?

In Guangzhou, there are beautiful buildings, express highways, cleanness, public transportation, and a sense of security without an overwhelming police presence. To me, they are signs of a city with a strong civic fabric.

I also saw the prodigal sons, represented by both the younger entrepreneurs and the older university executives. Some of them, people with the opportunity to live here, there or everywhere. However, they elect and embrace returning to their cultural birthplace. Undoubtedly for personal gain, but also to build and sustain for others.

Both the factories that we toured in Shunde and HKUST are excellent operations, worth praising. There, I saw first hand the ongoing transformation of China. No longer the forgotten sweatshop at the end of the world, this is a country fast becoming a leader, not only because of their sheer numbers but also because their quality and I hope, capacity for innovation.

The last remarkable thing that I saw is not something, but someone. Dr. Solome Hernandez is by herself a monument, a testimony. I hope that her underlying message -that yes, you can! – will resonate with every one, and specially with my female colleagues. Gender inequality has many components but one of them is when a woman says to herself that she cannot do this or that. It is worse still, when she passes that message to her sisters, daughters or mothers. Dr. Hernandez is proof positive about willpower and determination. Her experiences and current endeavors, illustrative.

What I have learned.

HKUST is a prime example of Triple Helix. While an international institution because of the multiple origins of its students and teachers, their results are primarily local and for the community. Patents that are a proxy for applied research and the Entrepreneurship center an ongoing effort to transform the relationship between an academic institution and the business community.

I also learned that our conventional wisdom about China is wrong. It is no longer an undeveloped country that needs to learn. I read the other day a description of China as a conglomerate of some 60 countries, defined by geography and economic zones, and I find this a better description. Guangzhou and the surrounding areas are not, from my vantage point, an undeveloped country. Of course that they face a myriad of problems (fast urbanization, growing inequality, environmental problems among them) but the aspects of a developed and innovative society are there.

My last learning experience is about cultural distance. On the surface, we look the same (shopping malls! BMWs!, Mc Donald’s!) but we are not. While one consequence of globalization is a degree of westernization -where most people consume and identify with certain aspects of western’s culture-, Chinese people hold a set of cultural values that are different from ours. It’s our mistake to negate that reality and assume that we can conduct business there only in our terms.

What does it mean?

I realize that a trip like this is only a snapshot of a more complex reality. However, this trip, combined with further reading and study, will help me form a better picture will.

Every reality has at least two faces, and China is not the exception.One face is well known to us: a country under heavy censorship, limited human rights, huge environmental and social problems, an economy heading inevitably to a recession phase, a society with unsettled scores with western countries that go back more than a century.

A better face is the one I had the opportunity to glimpse at: hard working people, with a sense of pride for the country and a desire to do better, amazing businesses and institutions, and a great use of infrastructure to support development.

Meaning for me comes in the form of an urgent message: We cannot close our eyes to their reality, neither ignore nor pretend that whatever happens there, will not have a huge effect here. At a personal and professional level, I have been more interested in “near” issues, like the economy of Texas, our relationship with Mexico, migration, US relations with Latin America as a whole, and entrepreneurship in San Antonio. Now I recognize that to ignore the “far” China is a mistake.

Big Questions

A number of questions arise from this personal experience. I plan to build answers for them in the future.

How can I became an ambassador here in our country to the idea of a better China that I had the opportunity to experience while there?

What are the forces in play in China?

What could be their future direction and what is the impact to us?

Since in my opinion the historical reason for manufacturing in China is not what we are repeatedly told (cheap labor), how can I learn more on the issue?How can I build an informed opinion on this?

What are the hidden issues behind the fact that they pick “an American (western) name” but we do not pick a Chinese one?

Can we afford in the future to ignore their culture?

So far, Triple Helix seems an academic response to Education’s quest for relevance in front of the business community and government. What is the view from the business side? Does the business community seek academic research, especially in Social sciences, actively?

How, when and where does our region (South Texas) connects with China?

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