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Where are the Men in Black Suits? Maybe They are In Our Heads.

“What do you think of China?”

That’s a hard question to answer, especially when the person asking it is the executive vice-president of a $4 billion retail chain, and when that person is clearly Chinese. But, Wilson Zhu, executive vice president of Michaels, wanted my impressions.

I muttered something — certainly not the truth, because I didn’t want to insult him.

He pushed again. “No, what do you really think of China?”

“Well,” I began nervously, “China scares the hell out of me. I think of the Chinese as a bunch of men in black suits who have bought up our treasury bonds, are getting control over foreign oil that we need, and have destroyed the competitiveness of American industry by putting children on assembly lines. Then there are the environmental issues and…” I was not subtle, and he was not surprised. He’d heard it all before.

“Have you been to China?” he asked. So began a connection that would take me with a team of Michaels executives on a speaking tour of Asia. While there, I was able to interview business leaders, entrepreneurs and the next generation of talent. I was also given tours of some of the factories that do business with Michaels.
I knew that I would see what was presented to me, and that I’d never see the first child on an assembly line (most retailers have huge compliance teams that do spot checks). Still, I had my fears:

1. They would try to feed me dog.
2. Someone would be following me.
3. My communication would be monitored.
4. The bathrooms would be terrible.

I do not know if there are secret crews of men in black suits who are coming to take over America. I didn’t see any. I don’t have answers for the many points of judgment that start in America and stand as a wall between us. And I certainly have no comprehension of the power of the Chinese government and no explanation of its intentions.

What I have are encounters with people who share the same kinds of hopes and dreams that I have. I’m working hard for a living, they are working hard for a living. I love my family, they love their family. I am a product of my culture, they are a product of theirs.

Nobody fed me dog, nobody was following me, I had no signs that my communication was monitored and I only found one bathroom that was horrid, which is a better track record than I get over here in the U.S. Also, the Chinese government did not break into my hotel room and implant a microchip in my brain to reprogram my thoughts and make me spout off propaganda on popular U.S. blogsites. I don’t think.

But, when you come back from China and say good things about the Chinese people, there are a lot of people who think you’ve been suckered. After giving a positive travel report to Tracie Cone, a friend who was a reporter alongside me at The Miami Herald years ago, she blurted, “You’ve been tricked!” Then laughed.

I wrote a simple column this week about a remark made by a young businessman I met who talked of how the Chinese people don’t like to boast of their successes because a constant fear of failure pushes them to excellence. I noted how different that is from how we approach self-talk here in the U.S. We relish in our successes and know that if we expect big things, we’ll achieve them. All I did in that column was ponder the contrasting approach.

When that piece ran on the front of the business page of The Huffington Post, I posted it on Facebook. One of my Facebook “friends,” shot back a really ugly diatribe about how “this Chinese culture” is responsible for low quality products, child labor, pollution and human rights atrocities. “Let’s not be so quick to hold the Chinese ‘humble’ culture in such high esteem. Fawn, I respect your opinions, but it sickens me to see all of your ‘clones’ immediately fall into lock step with your every utterance.”

I don’t get it. I went to China and I met a nice guy who had an interesting perspective, but I’m not supposed to write about it because of everything else we think about China? What is it about China that is so damning that every single Chinese person is contaminated by every single negative?  All I did was write about a person and his opinion on success and motivation.

My Facebook critic has never been there, yet apparently he knows everything there is to know about China. I know China’s got some very ugly stains, and so do we. But I also know that there is a real human element there that we have not even tried to understand.

Where are the men in black suits? Maybe they are in our heads, symbols of our own fear. We can fear them, or work with them. This world has globalized, and opportunity exists for those who realize it.

I’m sure my critic thinks I’m naive, and I’m sure there are millions of others who would agree. I don’t know why such simple thoughts about people are so threatening, but apparently they are.

China is neither all good nor all bad. It’s I see China as a country with four times our population and ten times our problems. They’re working on their issues.

I asked Wilson about it and he said, “People think they look at the world objectively as it is. In reality, they look at it as they are.”

So true.

  1. Hey Fawn,
    What WZ told you about the concept of praise is true to an extent – I can say this after working here for 7 years at Chinese State-owned newspapers and my experiences listening to the complaints and hopes and dreams and just daily water cooler talk from junior Chinese coworkers.
    Management is pretty much “all stick, no carrot” and the criticism thing is ingrained, I feel. Though I can’t say I’m an expert at all even after all this time.
    I do know that when I praise reporters honestly and/or give them constructive criticism some really light up and do better if they need to. It’s amazing what a little praise and individual attention can do, especially if the person is motivated. (that’s your field, I know)
    It’s also complicated to figure out what is coming from a 60 year old Chinese Communist Party playbook or a several thousand year old Confucian playbook. Sometimes it’s both.
    What you wrote here is true: China is neither all good nor all bad. It’s I see China as a country with four times our population and ten times our problems. They’re working on their issues.
    Indeed they are, but not in a way that we as outsiders can really understand without – myself included, daily – sometimes getting into the men in black suits, microchipped surveillance fantasies that you described so well as a newbie here.
    But that’s another subject for another time. Keep blogging and hope to hear from you soon.
    PS: I don’t blog nearly as often or as well as I used to, but to get a rough idea about how say, ‘giving for giving’s sake’ (a brand new concept here met with much skepticism)is met here, check out my last blog entry: The Gift That Keeps on Biting.

  2. PS Your bathroom fear is so true for most of us “foreigners.” You must have been in some rarified company to only encounter one (on the mainland, I’m sure, not HK) in your time here. For starters, in a country that claims to have invented paper, TP, even in many white collar offices is a dream yet to be realized.
    I won’t even get into the squat vs sit down thing. Aiyah!

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