We can learn that from China

The corona pandemic seems to have been overcome. There are still smaller outbreaks here and there. But they are contained quickly and consistently. The virus has no chance of creating real hotspots and life is returning to a watchful normalcy. You hardly need masks any more, and the restrictions of the past few months have largely been lifted for a while.

Because the pandemic there has long ceased to dominate daily life as it does in our country. A second wave is not in sight, and if it did come it would meet well-prepared societies. The virus has largely lost its horror there. Lockdowns or similar radical measures no longer seem to be necessary.

Only in this country is hardly anyone aware of this. Because we compare ourselves almost exclusively with our European neighbors or the USA and thus have the impression that Germany has come through the crisis well so far – despite more than 10,000 deaths and hundreds of billions of euros in economic damage.

But this impression is wrong. How much becomes clear when you see that a country like South Korea has just about twice as many corona deaths as Hamburg alone – but almost 30 times as many inhabitants.

A comparison with Asian countries, for example, would show that the conflict of goals between health and the economy, which we often discuss, does not exist. The data clearly shows that countries that are effectively protecting their populations from the virus are also protecting their economies from catastrophic damage.

Anyone who understands this has a clear goal: every infection should be avoided. But not in spite of high economic costs, on the contrary – in order to avoid them. But the western countries still struggle with this realization. The differences in competence and effectiveness in dealing with the pandemic, which became increasingly clear in the second wave, will change the world more sustainably than we are currently aware of.

Processes that would have taken ten years are now more likely to take place in ten months and reinforce the effects of developments that have already existed for some time. Recently, after eight years of negotiations, 14 Asian countries – including China, Japan, South Korea and also Australia – joined forces to form the world’s largest free trade area.

So-called travel bubbles could follow next between the countries that got the pandemic under control – freedom of travel for Asians, quarantine for us.

Björn Ognibeni

In his “Disruptive China Briefing”, the author focuses on digital innovations from Asia.

(Foto: Munich Marketing Week/M. Kroll/P. Jelen)

Gradually, completely new structures emerge that the West can only take note of but can no longer determine. The virus and our helpless handling of it are eroding our position in the world: If you are so much worse at overcoming the crisis, your products and services may not be as much better as you previously thought …

At the same time, we could learn from Asia how to do better. These do not necessarily have to be draconian measures, for which we would presumably not be accepted, but very practical things. For example, contact tracking optimized for superspreading events. Or the early and consistent wearing of masks.

But the example of the mask in particular shows how Western societies all too often react to ideas from Asia: first with ignorance, then with reflex-like rejection. Why is that?

In part, this results from the fact that we often mistakenly equate Asia with China and fundamentally reject much of what comes from China. But both this equation and the blanket rejection of China make little sense.

Differentiate between regime and population

The character of the system of government or the actions of the Chinese leadership in places like Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang – of course, from our point of view there are many arguments why one can be skeptical of China. But if you want to be fair, despite all legitimate criticism, you should differentiate between the regime on the one hand and the population on the other.

China is often viewed negatively because we in the West still associate the country with the image of a large copying machine that is rapidly transforming our know-how into plagiarism of inferior quality. A problem that still exists today.

But at the same time, China is now so far ahead of us in many future areas that we are more dependent on knowledge from Asia. The discussion about 5G technology shows how much this is the case. Just 20 years ago, the first cellular network in China was made by Siemens built up. Today we are hardly able to implement important parts of our digital infrastructure without Chinese components.

Similar to the issue of fighting a pandemic, we are often not even aware of how far behind we are, and that is for the same reason in both cases. We also compare ourselves for innovations in our country peer group and look primarily to the USA for new developments.

China is studying the West very carefully

Anyone who does this is missing out on a lot of exciting ideas that are already a reality in China today: for example, a fundamentally redesigned integration of online and offline retail, which at the same time ensures that small retailers earn money with the Internet and customers place their orders within minutes get delivered. Or AI systems that regulate insurance claims as a matter of course and create diagnoses for patients in mobile e-health stations.

While we don’t notice much of it, people in China study the West very carefully, at all levels of society: from the party, through local governments and companies to many individual citizens. They all have the same goal: to learn. The result is what could be called “asymmetrical ignorance” – in China they know everything about us, while we don’t even know what we don’t know about China.

And this increasingly creates competitive disadvantages that affect more and more companies and industries – including those that have not had any contact with China and will not have any in the foreseeable future, but could still learn a lot from there.

It is precisely this learning that we want to promote and that’s why we are starting the “Disruptive China Briefing” today. With a focus on digital innovations, the briefing will report on developments in China, and occasionally Asia as a whole, that are relevant to us. The next few weeks should be about topics like these:

  • Single’s Day 2020 – what new developments shaped the world’s most important shopping festival in times of Corona?
  • Ant Group – What can be learned from the most innovative fintech company in the world about the successful development of new business models and “sustainable innovation”?
  • Xunxi – what is special about Alibaba’s concept for a digital factory that consistently thinks Industry 4.0 through?

The aim is to understand what all of this means for us and how we can use the knowledge here in the West – not least to gradually solve the problem of “asymmetrical ignorance”. Not uncritical, but definitely impartial.

About the author:

Björn Ognibeni is a graduate economist and has been working as a management consultant for over 15 years in the field of digital transformation and the resulting opportunities for corporate management, product development, and marketing & sales. His clients include numerous well-known brands, consultancies and agencies. He is also a lecturer at the Münster Marketing Center of the Westphalian Wilhelms University. In 2019 he started the ChinaBriefs.io project, which helps western companies and executives to understand what they can learn from current innovations in China for the digital transformation here.

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