Emerging Markets

Chinese-Style Capitalism - A Personal Perspective

Rainer Zitelmann 14 January 2020

Chinese-Style Capitalism - A Personal Perspective

Chinese women want to get rich too
During my Chinese tour, I was invited to speak in the cities of Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. One of the most striking features of my speaking engagements was the large proportion of women in the audience. Whenever I speak on financial and economic subjects in Germany, my audiences are overwhelmingly male. In China, it’s different. We know from surveys in Europe and the United States that western women are significantly less likely to aspire to get rich than their male counterparts. I haven’t seen any comparable surveys in China but, based on my firsthand experience, it would seem that at least as many women as men are interested in learning more about success and wealth.

It is frequently claimed that Asians have a collectivist mindset, while we in the west are commonly described as individualists. But such claims paint only part of the picture. In some respects, Chinese people today are actually more individualistic: Chinese women, for example, are not trying to improve their situation by demanding quotas and political reforms, but through individual striving for success, education and wealth. 

I also spoke with some journalists while I was in China and not a single one questioned whether wealth is even a legitimate objective to pursue, or insinuated that the wealthy are shallow and superficial. Everywhere I went, people just wanted to know how to get rich. No one turns their noses up at entrepreneurship and the pursuit of wealth. In fact, entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs and Jack Ma are revered; in the office of one private think tank, the walls were lined with oversized photos of [Steve] Jobs and [Jack] Ma.

English skills worse than expected
One of the things I was most surprised by was how badly most Chinese people speak English, despite the country’s increasing openness to the outside world. At the reception desk of a Hampton by Hilton hotel, not a single employee spoke English, nor did the taxi drivers. So a taxi ride can easily become its own little adventure because it is impossible to communicate with the driver. Even in international airports and upscale hotels, many Chinese employees speak little or no English. It was only in hotels such as the impressive Four Seasons in Guangzhou that employees could communicate more fluently in English. And yet, even at the Hilton in Shenzhen, most of the receptionists spoke little more than broken English. And lots of young Chinese entrepreneurs also speak little or no English because they are so strongly focused on their home market.

Still, the situation wasn’t all that different during my youth in Germany - if anything, general English skills have only really improved over the last decade or two. 

With numerous interlocutors, I was also able to engage in honest and critical discussions about the lack of political freedom and limits on freedom of opinion in modern China. One of the scientists I met had lived in the US for several years and admitted that there are very narrow limits to freedom of expression in China - especially when it comes to criticising the political system or the country’s leaders. On the other hand, he was equally disturbed by the widespread political correctness he had encountered at universities in the US, where a single “wrong” utterance could quickly be interpreted as sexist or racist and potentially lead to the immediate end of a person’s career.

Underestimating the importance of the private sector
On the subject of economic freedom, however, the Chinese are bristling with self-confidence. Several of the experts I spoke to told me that any comparison of state regulation in the EU and in the Guangdong area would probably come down in favour of Guangdong. Unfortunately, only a small handful of well-informed insiders know both systems well enough to appreciate this. Most students, as became clear in the discussions that followed my talks, overestimate the degree of economic freedom in the US and Europe, just as Americans and Europeans overestimate the influence of the state on the Chinese economy.

According to a paper published by the World Economic Forum: “China’s private sector - which has been revving up since the global financial crisis - is now serving as the main driver of China’s economic growth. The combination of numbers 60/70/80/90 are frequently used to describe the private sector’s contribution to the Chinese economy: they contribute 60 per cent of China’s GDP, and are responsible for 70 per cent of innovation, 80 per cent of urban employment and provide 90 per cent of new jobs. Private wealth is also responsible for 70 per cent of investment and 90 per cent of exports.” 

Thus, whenever western politicians cite the rise of China as an argument for greater reliance on the state in the US or Europe, their line of reasoning is nothing short of absurd. 

About the author:
Dr Rainer Zitelmann is an historian and sociologist. He is also a world-renowned author, successful businessman and real estate investor. His most recent books, The Power of Capitalism (http://the-power-of-capitalism.com/), and Dare to be Different and Grow Rich : Secrets of self-made people who became rich and successful (http://daretobedifferentandgrowrich.com/), were released in 2019.

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