Thoughts from Beijing
By Brad Googins
Like so many of you, I was transfixed by this summer’s Olympic Games from so many angles. Not the least of these was China’s coming out party. Having been there several times over the past year, I was truly dazzled by the amazing transformation of Beijing and Shangri since I was last there in 1990.
But as an observer of the games themselves I was struck by the overhyped rivalry drummed up by the media between China and the United States for gold medals. It took me immediately back a few decades to the Cold War when the Olympic jousting was between the U.S.S.R. and U.S.
But look at the profound difference in the 21st century rivalry. Where the ’60s rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States was focused on military might, today’s could be better described as economic competition in the global economy. How quickly we have seen the dissolution of the Iron Curtain and its ambitions of military might (despite recent rumblings in Georgia) and the rapid rise of economic competition.
This also has me thinking of the tradeoffs in our two systems. In China, capitalism is carefully steered by a strong central government that from some perspectives has too strong a hand as evidenced by the absence of strong environmental policies, continuing issues with human rights, working conditions and especially with freedom of speech as we know it.
On the other hand, we live in a country best characterized as bottom-up inclusive participation and a process by which a variety of stakeholders work toward solutions. However, in this system, decision making is a messy process that some commentators have likened to making sausage. Gaining consensus is becoming more time consuming, complex and frustrating, to the point where many are driven half mad.
Nowhere was this more evident than at the opening of the Beijing Airport when I was there a few months before the Olympics. The largest facility in the world, it is truly something to behold. It took the Chinese four years from start to finish to open it. Contrast that with a similar opening in London of the new Heathrow Terminal 5, which took almost 20 years from start to finish, including four years just to get community input.
So the tradeoffs in the two prevailing systems of our global capitalism are indeed markedly different. They bring into sharper focus the contours of the social contract that all centuries are now beginning to examine in light of 21st century global capitalism. And the tradeoffs are on quite fundamental levels. It is not that one system is right and the other wrong, or one better than the other. Rather, they force us to confront what kind of society are we willing to live in or desire to live in. I am more and more frustrated with some of the downsides of our processes that too often lead to stalemate, stagnation and a race to the bottom for political expediency.
So as I reflect on the development of alternative systems such as we view in China (or in Brazil, Norway, Canada, etc.) I also reflect on what kind of companies we want within our societies so we can compete effectively while insuring a sustainable society. Our challenge is not to get so dogmatic that our form of democracy and capitalism is an endpoint. We don’t have to look too far to see a widespread unease about many issues – from health care and education to income inequality and the slow move toward creating a sustainable environment – to know that we have to be humble, open and constantly searching to improve our balance between the virtues of a bottom-up society with the benefits of a top-down control.
In fact, if we look at the state of our corporate sphere one could argue that it is one of the remaining institutions (along with the military and the Catholic Church) that is fundamentally a top-down model and much of its success derives from this. As it struggles with bottom-up participation, it actually may have more in common with what we saw during the Olympics of China as a country, carefully blending the top-down efficiency while slowly and carefully opening up the door of bottom-up participation.
We have much to learn from each other as we create our companies and communities of the 21st century, so let’s keep our eyes wide open and insure that all of this is evolving.