China Versus India Versus Vietnam At A Gut Level

China vs. India vs. Vietnam

Interesting post on This is China, entitled, “My Beer With Andre,” documenting a conversation with a Fortune 500 CEO who “had just made the rounds through” China, Vietnam and India “to gain impressions of the investment environments of the countries.” [link no longer exists. Per the post, the CEO’s “observations were gut-level, and not given to rigorous research methodologies; still, they have their uses.”

They most certainly do and it is quite possible this company will choose to locate its Asia business based on this CEO’s initial observations. And as anyone who has read Malcom Gladwell’s book, Blink, knows, there are worse basis on which to make decisions than initial, gut-level, reactions.

The CEO saw the following:

Not a big country. 85 million inhabitants. Inflation already a problem. Not many people speak English.

“Nearly everyone speaks English….People take care of shit out there. It’s not the same as China, where everything is driven into the ground with very little maintenance. In India, people maintain things that are expensive. There seems to be a greater sense of the value of things than in China.” He then went on to talk about how when he was flying into India there was a taxi strike in progress so the hotel “went out and bought a luxury sedan, and then picked us up at the airport. Now can you beat that for service?”

Where in Vietnam was he? In Saigon, just about everyone involved in foreign business speaks English and it is in Saigon where so much of the foreign business is done. Vietnam’s population is a sliver compared to China and so many times those who tout Vietnam as the next China ignore that.

I do not know enough about India to comment on what this CEO saw there, but I know it is unlikely a Chinese hotel would have acted with the same concern for its guests as the Indian one the CEO discussed. It is a very rare Chinese restaurant, store, or hotel that provides top level service and those that try seem to have frequent lapses.

I found it interesting this CEO saw India as putting a greater value on caring for things than China as I have always found China interesting in this regard. I lived in Turkey for a year and there is tremendous “pride in stuff” there. Old cars are impeccably maintained, as are the houses of just about everyone, from wealthy to poor, from city dweller to remote villager. I always notice how that is definitely less true in China. Just last week, I had a discussion with our summer associate, who grew up in a village near Wuhan. He was telling me how much he disliked the Chinese city in which his sister lived, in large part because there was garbage everywhere and nobody did anything about it. We talked about why this was the case in his sister’s city, yet not the case in Dalian or Qingdao, where he had just spent a month or so before coming to Seattle. Neither of us could come up with a terribly good explanation. We threw out things like wealth gaps and quality of the local government, but no real answers.

India does care more about maintaining its physical properties than China, why is this the case? Does government ownership in China discourage pride in place? Is it something else? Or does this CEO, in fact, have it all wrong?

What are your thoughts?

13 responses to “China Versus India Versus Vietnam At A Gut Level”

  1. It is unfair to compare Dalian and Qingdao and Harbin with other Chinese cities. Dalian, Qingdao and Harbin were under foreign rules before the war, and therefore have a slight cultural adjustment while the other cities were privileged to a more pure form of Chinese culture.

  2. No it has nothing to do with pride. The Chinese have loads of pride, no matter what kind of conditions their living quaters are in. I just came back from a car trip to NYC, showing my visiting dad from BJ the great American cities on the east coast. A couple of days ago in the morning hours I found him standing in the lobby of the Roosvelt Hotel on the prestigious 45th street and Madison avenue with a tooth pick in his mouth and his shirt rolled up to his armpits (it was a hot day, just like in BJ, and he just took a walk) and loudly complaining how that place sucked. Several times I had to yell at him to stop him walking backwards into the oncoming traffic (for some sort of health benefit). I am now trying hard to change his air tickets back so he can go home early without paying to much surchage to the airlines. You think we suck. My hutong old man think you stink.

  3. i ran my own personal factory in beijing for 7 years. at one point had 210 workers there. recently just closed it.
    one of the most frustrating parts during my time with the factory was trying to keep the factory workers focused in maintaining the buildings, machines and grounds. it was a losing battle. they just didn’t care and if i got too adamant about things they viewed me as an asshole and would start to plot against me. my original factory was in haidian district in 2001. i spent some money fixing up a run down location and it looked okay. but, by 2003 the place looked 20 years old. i started my “new factory” in changpin in 2004. by 2007 it was complete and it looked like a shiny new factory. by march of 2008 it was already starting to look run down.
    the workers just don’t care. they saw it as my money and as my factory. my workers were paid well and their stuff was very well taken care of. their clothes were clean and pressed, their cars were well maintained and their homes were in good shape. but when it came to the factory stuff they just didn’t care. it wasn’t theirs.
    the killer of it all was how they would do nothing to fix things up and then in the end quit or complain about how poorly managed the company was. they just don’t put themselves into the mix. i had several senior managers over the years who would sit around and say “this is bad” “that is bad”, but they never saw themselves as agents of change. even though they were in key positions to handle these things, they just saw it as being part of the company’s problem and nothing to do with them.
    but, i can’t help but get the feeling that this is a developmental problem more than a china problem. things are better than they were 10 years ago because china has developed in those 10 years. no doubt this might be less of a problem after 10 more years of development. i know this is not as serious of a problem in taiwan or singapore and those are chinese nationalities as well.

  4. I cant comment as to why some Chinese cities are clean and others are not, but I would say if an American city is not garbage free, start by looking at those who run the city. If it is not a priority with the city, the cities values will reflect that.

  5. Bill,
    Are you suggesting that it is in line with the Chinese culture to be dirty? Qingdao, Dalian etc. are not that dirty because they were ruled by foreigners at one time?
    Which Chinese city was he talking about?

  6. I can’t speak for India, but I’m in Vietnam at the moment and came from China, English is *by far* better spoken and by more people than in China, in large parts of china, the chance of meeting someone who spoke any english other than “hello” would be maybe one every few days if that, in vietnam most people in the large cities, in shops/bars/restaurants (admittedly in touristy areas) speak good enough english. Travelling here is much much easier than in China. I think alot of that comes down to Vietnam having a written language using the Roman Alphabet, presumably makes things alot easier.

  7. This is a horrible post. I don’t care if this is a CEO, its basically a foreign clown going from luxury hotel to luxury hotel, spouting platitudes about the places within his peripheral vision. This isn’t gut-feel…it’s moronic sensory. This genius may want to expand his horizons a bit from the air-port to city-center itinerary gig and think about some of the empirical data before making big money decisions.

  8. Just returned from taking 42 MBA students to both China and India for an experiential business study tour. For details see
    My takeaways re: India:
    1. India is much higher up the value chain than China.
    2. For the average citizen it will be much easier to become middle class in China than India.
    3. The infrastructure in India is a mess. My God — the traffic in Bombay, for example, was as bad as I have ever seen. The roads in Delhi are sometimes non-existent. That said, after visiting with high end business execs in India, I have concluded that roads and nice trains do not make a country. People do.
    For example, our last night in India, we went to a night club to celebrate. The club played and moved from English, Punjabi and Hindi music, seamlessly. Nobody made a big deal about it; they just did it and had a great time. I have yet to have a similar experience in China. For me, this memory will always highlight one comparative advantage of India over other countries — bright, adaptive people, all with diverse backgrounds, many well educated, speaking perfect English, and they just get it done and party like rock stars along the way.
    Another example — we visited a number of firms that had their own power for at least 7 days if the India grid went down. So yes, the infrastructure is a mess, but the Indians are quite self sufficient (I know the same can be said for China in this regard), and somehow the “mess” you see on the surface in India works, just in a different way than the West.
    4. A business takeaway I always see and am reminded of in China that the West can learn from is attention to the guest/client. In India, I concluded that they take it to an even higher and better level. In India, when they say, “the guest is your house is a god”, they seem to really mean it.
    5. The Indians know not only themselves, but the West and our business and industries quite well. This was humbling to see. The Indian familiarity with what is happening in the West is at a much higher level than what I have experienced in China.
    6. Comparing India and China is truly comparing apples and oranges. Both have their pros and cons. Just gotta accept both for what they are, and leave it at that.
    In summary, both China and India are incredible, and are a must stop for anybody, young or old, that claims to be “globally” oriented.

  9. Simply put the issues brought forward are non issues. Maybe he’s just not seeing what he should have?
    In China no hotel will be in the position of having to purchase a luxury sedan in light of a taxi strike. When was the last taxi strike in China if ever?
    That rant about English? Note there is no unified Indian language. If Indians couldn’t speak English, they would literally not be able to communicate with each other. Which is really the case in much of the rural area. Try expanding the labor market and you’d see the English advantage quickly fade.
    Another interesting note: China don’t have to force millions of American students to learn Chinese. In less than a decade, the language barriers will only be an embarrassment for a old timer like himself.

  10. As a side note, I very strongly recommend the book “Waste and Want”, which concerns the history of rubbish, maintenance of consumer and industrial goods, and how societies deal with both. Utterly fascinating!
    I read it years ago, before my two year stint in Shanghai. I have to say that in China, it’s obvious that the idea of maintaining something that is “yours” (the interior of a house) is still quite different from maintaining something that you simply use – city streets, public works, etc.
    First comes the consumption, then come the ideas about what to do with worn goods. Remember, most Chinese would probably not have much interest in taking care of large scale industrial estates or civic areas because they haven’t had generations to learn how to do it. The automobile industry is a huge part of westerners having an innate sense of machine maintenance; oil changes, check ups, thinking about resale value, etc. I guarantee that the arrival of millions and millions of personal cars will drastically change China in myriad unforseen social ways.
    Chinese do have a sense of pride and ownership, but its not communal, at least not yet. When ws the last time you went into a home in China where you didn’t remove your shoes? Whatever the heck happens outside the house, the inside gets cleaned and swept.
    Anyway, interesting post! I’ll have to investigate India someday.

  11. I’m Software Project Manager. I’ve managed several outsourced projects in China, India, Russia, etc.
    I had worst experience handling Chinese projects as even the highly educated Chinese with master degree can’t speak English. They don’t learn English even as second language. It’s difficult to get your work done. Doing business with China is becoming difficult day by day. Chinese might be good in manufacturing wal-mart quality stuff but not good delivering quality work which need intellect. I agree that they pride themselves and don’t put their customer first.
    In general I’m not big fan of outsourcing projects but I’ll never work for a company who outsource their job to China. I had worst nightmare with my career when it was outsourced to China.

  12. @James
    Too bad it didn’t work out for you. I don’t know if you are exaggerating or outright biased since every Chinese are required to learn English as a second language upon their undergrad experience.
    Now their English skill may not be perfect but adequate for most situation.
    BTW what The solution to your problem is firing your human resource department. The whole lot of them since they certainly show their incompetence in finding qualified employees. The Japanese firms I have been with certainly found no trouble finding new talent who spoke both English and Japanese neither should you.

  13. Well the simple explanation is that under communism of the days gone by, i.e. before 1978 reform. People had ‘collective ownership’ over stuff meaning nobody was responsible. Owning your own thing and taking care of it is new to a lot of people in China.

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