How is it that a country so heavily controlled by its government
can be leaping ahead this fast? My hypothesis is that China is at
the intersection of a few trends, economic and cultural, that
create a perfect storm for progress.
China seeks simplicity and universality: Having 1.3 billion
people living in areas of extreme economic contrast has made the
country hungry for new and scalable solutions. Take mobile
payments. In China, credit cards are reserved for a lucky few, and
even having a bank account is not easy. Mobile payments are not
just more convenient, they're democratic and easier to scale: You
just need a mobile number and you're ready to make and receive
payments from friends and businesses.
And Chinese platforms have embraced low-tech QR codes. If
Western platforms like Facebook had included them as a native
technology, we'd all realize their potential. QR codes enable
two-way payments so easy even panhandlers can use their own codes
to ask for money in the streets. Corner stores don't need a machine
from their banks; they simply need to print their personal QR code
and put it on the counter for everyone to scan.
China does not build for the best and latest specs, it builds
for the most widespread audience possible, thinking not only about
the Beijing elite but also about farmers in Yunnan province. And it
deals well with imperfection: There's a saying there: "Chabuduo."
It means that things are "good enough" or "close enough." I still
remember a handyman mounting frames in our apartment who left a
hole in the wall. When confronted, he picked up our jar of
potpourri and took a white petal to patch the hole. "Chabuduo."
Trust me, as a foreigner there were many times when this mindset
was infuriating. But it has a positive corollary when it comes to
innovation: Chinese consumers are more resilient in the face of
imperfection. That allows companies to try more things and to fail
with less fear of reprisal, and it fosters a genuine
open-mindedness to try things out. As long as it doesn't mess with
the government, that is.
Additionally, China looks forward. You won't hear many people
chanting that we need to make China great again, and it's not
because they don't believe China has had greatness in its past, but
because there's conviction that its future can and will be better.
There's an open-mindedness that sees technological change as a
catalyst, not a threat. And yes, sometimes this means that the
powers in charge use progress to strengthen their grip.
It was challenging to keep up with the speed at which things
change there, and with how ephemeral knowledge and capabilities can
be. Market leaders can be crowned and dethroned in just under 12
months, while consumer research requires constant updating, to the
point where any data point older than a year is considered
Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of things the West does
well, and China can be a bulldozer on the road to progress. But
while it might not always build the best products and processes, it
often creates the fastest and most practical ones. And were it not
for a government obsessed with constant oversight and control,
China might well be a perfect embodiment of evolutionary success:
not the strongest, but the most adaptable to change.
Shann Biglione is executive VP and head of strategy at