Chinese Craftsmanship

Opinion Piece a bit late this month, having just spent time with family in Shanghai.

It was our fourth visit to China, straddling twenty years. Despite these visits and my regular reading about the PRC, I know and understand very little. Each time China has overwhelmed me with its power, purpose, strategic horizon, dynamism, and pace of change. As a humble learner, I try to absorb what I can, to put the observations into context, and to distill some conclusions that help me.

My biggest lesson this trip was the impressive and enduring quality of Chinese craftsmanship – a skill going back to Neolithic times. The astonishing Shanghai Museum makes the point in stone, jade, bronze, iron, earthenware, fabric and paper. Tradition is expressed in sculpture, painting, gardening, architecture, apparel and calligraphy – in striving for perfection in each craft.

Today, craftsmanship is evidenced in the beautiful and functional Beijing Olympic Stadium, China Art Palace, Shanghai Metro, the meticulous rebuild of Xintiandi commercial area, bullet trains, bridges spanning vast bays and rivers, and so much more. Ambition and craft combine in the Chinese Space Programme, the catamaran aircraft carriers, and the COMAC –Bombardier – GE commercial aircraft consortium which targets the Boeing / Airbus duopoly.

I grapple with two questions – Quality Assurance and Innovation.

Quality issues have plagued New Zealand importers since trade ballooned 20 years ago, but for the persistent, the remedies are now known. The answer seems to be a diligence-meticulous specificationclose inspection-carrot –stick combination, with incentives for attainment of standards and sanctions for quality failures. In the above examples, the Chinese Government was the purchaser, the contractor was generally an SOE, so the ultimate sanction was available.

As to Innovation, I note that technology transfer from military to consumer applications, such as laser from Weapon Aiming to Compact Discs, is still a Western phenomenon. Further, the Chinese capital markets may not provide adequate risk capital to fund innovation startups. Could Facebook have been invented in China?

Based in Beijing for 30 years, David Mahon of Mahon China provides, in his quarterly China Watch and in The Listener, a reasoned, balanced and immensely knowledgeable commentary on China. See