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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Disruption, Dissent and the Future

In yesterday’s post about Daniel Pink’s take on motivation, I took a quote from a YouTube video of his .The quote is from the founder of Skype, who said his prime goal has been “to be disruptive but in the cause of making the world a better place.” To be disruptive is of course to offer dissent. Dissent in turns requires us to say “no” at some level. It requires personal courage to challenge the system.

This reminds me of futurist Richard Slaughter’s imploring that futurists have a duty to offer dissent. I am in total agreement. It is not enough to predict the future, nor simply to praise those in power. The most noble end is to identify what is desirable, what is good and what is great. Those who wish to participate in the future (and not merely observe it) must decide what kind of future they prefer, and how that preferred future can be created. This is one reason why pop futurists who merely attempt to identify trends are not my favourite kind of futurists.

The perfect example is futurist John Naisbitt, author of the “Megatrends” books. Naisbitt now spends half of each year in China, and talks and writes much about The People’s Republic. In his recent book China’s Megatrends he describes a China that can do little wrong. A prosperous future for the Chinese Dragon is seemingly guaranteed.

A recent interview with the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong shows that Naisbitt’s stance has not shifted much. The interview reveals a Naisbitt who is mesmerizingly impressed by the changes taking place in the Chinese education system, and he effuses optimism about Chinese approaches to innovation. Naisbitt talks of department deans and professors who are ready to “forge ahead”, and curriculum is being reformed accordingly. There is, he finds, a new freedom to experiment. He talks of teachers at leading universities and high schools taking part in exchange programmes with rural areas. Knowledge is being disseminated, and are standards rising. Students show unbounded enthusiasm to learn, and they have a great “sense of purpose, and confidence in the future.

"The energy and enthusiasm is almost euphoric and makes us very excite. The generation coming up is very motivated and, for us, that makes China the most fascinating place in the world."

I confess I find Naisbitt’s comments at odds with my experience of life, work and education in China and Hong Kong. I do not question that a certain segment of the population is highly motivated, and that the vast majority are willing to sacrifice to get ahead. I do not deny that at many levels China's development is incredibly impressive. Just in terms of infrastructure and transport systems China is starting to outstrip many western nations.

Yet Naisbitt appears to be quite naïve as to what is going on at ground level in the country. At the risk of being a little too blunt, Naisbitt’s comments on China are often shallow, remaining locked at the litany or surface level. He consistently fails to offer any kind of deep analysis or critique of the political, social or cultural systems of the country. Nor does he identify or question the dominant paradigms, let alone get down to the depth of the consciousness/mentality which underpins much of China’s modern development. If we are to believe Naisbitt, everything in China is great, and China’s future is assured.

What concerns me most is that Naisbitt’s comments on China consistently mirror those of the Chinese government. This is something that no free- thinking westerner would do in their own country. So why is Naisbitt toeing the Party line in China?

Perhaps it is that he has decided that the best way to assist China and ensure a prosperous future for it is to focus upon the positives, and to work in league with the rich and powerful. After all, there are many who take the opposite stance and criticise everything about China and offer nothing positive about its development. Such negativity often emerges from jealousy, fear and just plain hatred.

Or perhaps he has just been wined and dined a few too many times. China is a place where foreigners can all too easily be blinded by power, money and comforts, and lose perspective of the big picture. The blinding lights of the big cities and luxurious 5 star hotels can easily lure one into a false perception of the fact that the majority of the country lives in very stressful and difficult circumstances. It is super comptetitive and super tough in the new China. There are 200 million migrant workers now living in the cities, and without rights to health care, social security, nor anything but basic education for their children.

My wife recently took a job in Beijing, and works up to 15 hours a day as an office manager. Her salary of RMB 8000 per month (US$1000) is quite high. But she rarely has time off for lunch, and often has to work on weekends. Her boss effectively gets two employees at US$500 a month, as she is doing the work of two people. But even on that wage she cannot afford to rent an apartment anywhere near her workplace. If she did, probably 75% of her income would go in rent. To top it off, there is no worker’s contract and she can be fired at any time, without notice.

There is an irony to John Naisbitt’s Pollyanna take on the New China. Naisbitt’s effusive praise of every almost every policy initiative put forward by Communist Party lies in stark contrast to that of Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s recent comments, stating in deeply concerned tones that China’s present path to the future is unsustainable. China is in dire need of deep social and political change. In an unusually candid expression for a Communist party leader, Wen has called for greater democracy and accountability, saying economic development is not in itself enough to solve the problems of China's development.
Wen cited corruption as a great problem:

"To eliminate the breeding ground for corruption, we should carry out reform on our institution and [political] system. If we are to address people's grievances and meet their wishes, we must create conditions for people to criticise and supervise the government…. Political reform offers a guarantee for economic reform. Without political reform, economic reform cannot succeed, and the achievements we have made may be lost…It is only with reform that the party and the country will enjoy continuous vigour and vitality."

Having spoken to many Chinese people about China’s future, and having just returned from sharing meals with self-described peasant relatives, I have to wonder what they would make of John Naisbett’s “glorious China” depictions. Their egos may be stoked by claims that their place in the sun is guaranteed, but I know from firsthand experience that many would be deeply suspicious of his lack of willingness to address the genuine issues which lie behind China’s current path to the future.

I suspect that Naisbitt’s willingness to trumpet the Party line (or something remarkably similar), is because the system rewards such behavior. The fruits of guanxi (Chinese for “making connections”, especially in business) are many in modern China. The problem with guanxi is that one has to keep filling the tea pot of the guy the next step up the ladder. Compromising truth and moral behavior is almost inevitable. Indeed it is guanxi which lies at the heart of corruption in China. A social and economic system which relies upon endless mutual back slapping is recipe for self-delusion, and doomed to eventual decay.

For futurists and those of us passionate about the future, it is not enough to merely describe trends and praise the system. We must care enough to talk of both good and bad, darkness and light. We must offer dissent, no matter how uncomfortable that may make us, or others, feel.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry not to have commented sooner on this important post: as usual you go straight to the heart of the matter, Marcus. Particularly in the world of electronic media and instant communication, a nation which delegitimizes constructive criticism and expressions of the need for change is on an unsustainable path - whether or not it finds a equable solution to the resources challenges which face it.