Shanghai seems very quiet. Restaurants are less crowded, taxis are easier to find and the vast acreage of shiny new high-end shopping malls that have sprung up all over the city have an eerie, tumbleweed feel to them. Could it be that the long awaited slowdown in the Chinese economy is starting to bite?
No. If people are staying home, it is less to do with them feeling the economic pinch and all to do with – how can I put this delicately? – an urgent need to procreate.
We are two months into the Chinese Year of the Dragon and it is regarded as extremely auspicious to have a child born in this particular lunar year. So if you want to give birth before the dragon gives way to the much less auspicious snake, you only have a few short weeks to conceive. No wonder the place seems deserted.
What will become of this batch of young dragons? It will be 2024 by the time the next Year of the Dragon comes around and, if you believe The Economist magazine, China will by then be the world’s largest economy. Even if the Economist is out by a decade or three, this generation seems destined to grow up as the heirs apparent not just to an economic superpower but to a nation which is about to take what many people here regard as its rightful place at the apex of world affairs.
But everybody I have spoken to this week in Shanghai is fretful about the new generation. For some, they think this lot have lost their edge. Brought up with no siblings they have been over indulged and, for the better off, they have been softened by their fancy foreign education and lack the drive as well as the collective fear of repeating the mistakes of the past that still haunts their grandparents. The inner steel that transformed the country after the disaster of the Cultural Revolution has been weakened by consumerism and greater social freedom.
Others draw different conclusions from the same demographic data. The burden of having to be solely responsible for ageing parents and extended networks of relatives means they are too preoccupied meeting their family obligations to be entrepreneurial risk takers. Everyone agrees they are different.
Western managers among our clients bemoan how difficult it is to retain good people and find the leaders who can replace them as expatriate management is phased out. One Chinese client explained to me why traditionally people rarely ask questions in meetings at work. They have been brought up in a prescriptive education system where you concentrate on what you are being told and assume that what you are taught is what you need to know. To ask a question is therefore to suggest that the teacher has not explained things very well.
This continues into the workplace. In an office meeting, rather than it be an indication of interest and enthusiasm in the well-being of the company or at least a way of projecting yourself into the consciousness of your boss, asking a question would be disrespectful to the manager giving the briefing. It would imply they were not on top of the subject matter.
If anybody asks a question, our client explained, they are almost certainly under 25, and female. Given the gender imbalance (there are 120 boys for every 100 girls, according to some research), young women definitely feel in the driving seat.
The following morning I had the opportunity to test out his theory at a team meeting at the AnnaPurna Consulting office in Shanghai. “Any questions?” I asked as I finished my presentation. A young, female, Chinese arm went up.
“What do you do all day?” she asked.
Having given briefings at AnnaPurna Consulting for nearly 20 years, I can generally think of something to say to most questions however tricky or demanding. But on this occasion, I was lost for words. A rapid mental recap of the previous few weeks was not much help: spent hours in meetings that went on far too long, woke up in the middle of the night for pointless conference calls, was very bored at numerous airports, got driven nuts trying to find an internet connection in another soulless hotel. None of it sounded very convincing.
So based on my non-scientific survey of one member of Generation C, I have some advice for the new leadership group that will take power later this year: despite the enormous challenges China faces in rebalancing its economy, embarking on some kind of political reform and meeting its new foreign policy responsibilities – you can take some comfort that the leaders of tomorrow – at least the female variety – have the confidence to stand up and be counted.