Dilek Altin, MBA student at Berlin’s European School of Management and Technology (ESMT), shares his first impressions of Beijing after 10 weeks at Peking University.
Having participated in a Germany-Japan exchange program previously, and with a wealth of international experience, Dilek jumped at the chance of studying in China: “If things are going to happen within the next few decades they'll happen in China, so I was obviously curious.”
My impressions on arriving
I've worked and lived in five continents, so I don’t tend to get culture shock easily. However, I did deliberately lower my expectations about people, infrastructure and the environment, but I was pleasantly surprised on arriving. The people are really nice in Beijing. Despite the language barrier, which is huge, people are keen to help you.
The one exception is pricing, as it can be stressful always having to bargain. After a while you get to know the value of things though, and it becomes second nature.
The spitting and dirt are obviously different to Germany and Japan. However, what is really killing me is the pollution. It's the one thing about Beijing that's really bad. People are warned not to go jogging outside, and my friend who is training for the Great Wall Marathon has to use public forecasts to ensure he trains on low-pollution days. Many people have bronchitis – some call it the “Beijing cough”.
The Wudaokou campus
The main universities are in the university area, among them the big prestigious universities Tsinghua and Beida [Peking University]. I wasn’t aware before coming here that these two schools were the most prestigious in China. The very top percent of students from the regions are skimmed off and given admission: the competition must be brutal.
The campuses here are different to campuses in Europe. It's not just a university campus; it's a closed area, kind of a city within the city. There are shops, restaurants, a gym, parks, lakes: it's more or less self-contained within the walls.
The differences between Japan and China
This is politically a difficult topic. Japan did some really nasty things in the last century, so there are bad memories regarding these events in China. My personal perspective is that in terms of development Japan and China are quite similar, though things are happening quicker in China nowadays.
After the Second World War, Japan advanced quickly over a 30-year period with the help of US investment. A similar development has happened in China since the 1980s, partly driven by foreign direct investment.
Japan started as a reliable source of cheap labor in Asia for the West, with high levels of technological production, copying other designs. They got very good very fast, and became better than their Western competitors over time. This is what’s also happening now in China.
The exchange program so far
On the first day there was a kick-off event. It was held in English and the program was explained to us in detail. There are between 70 and 80 exchange students at Guanghua (the management school of Beida), and far more foreign exchange students on the campus, a lot of them pursuing a Chinese language program.
Guanghua has undergraduate, Masters, MBA, EMBA, and IMBA (International MBA) programs, and the exchange program. We're mixed up together. Many of the courses are in Chinese, so only the English courses are mostly of interest to us. The modules are similar to any MBA course, though the subset of English courses is limited. I have the feeling that many of the really interesting courses are in Chinese as some of these courses filled up quickly.
The highlight of the trip
As a foreigner in China I was expecting that the Chinese would be closed when we talk about government or censorship and business regulations, which are also difficult to discuss in a Western environment.
But in most lectures these topics can be addressed openly, getting a deep insight into the Chinese perspective on things. Beida is a liberal university. They're mostly open-minded and it's interesting to get a perspective from these people about things happening in their country. They are positive, but also critical.
I was skeptical coming here about the role of the government in Chinese business and society, but I’ve seen that it has in fact had a lot of interesting positive effects, which you don’t often hear about in Europe because they aren't interesting to the Western press.
The perception here is that many things that have been introduced couldn’t have been introduced as quickly or easily in a democratic environment. Many people say that although it might not secure everyone’s rights, centralized power makes it easy for things to happen.
For example, there were and still are too many cars in Beijing. So within few months the government strictly limited the registration of new cars, which wouldn’t have been impossible in a Western country. And, crucially, people think it's good the government did it. It would've taken ages in Europe. You can debate whether it's right or wrong, but you have to admit they get things done fast.
Also, the government used the special economic zones in a trial-and-error approach to find out which policies and investments would work best. This discriminates against zones that did not get these advantages, so this wouldn't happen in a democratic environment. But this approach is ultimately the driver of the very successful opening of China’s markets and economy to the West.
There has been huge change from the opening of the Communist system in the 1980s until today. This change is perceived both negatively and positively, and it was eye-opening for me to hear Chinese people voice their opinions about the changes of these last decades. It is great that people here are open-minded about what has happened as for some it must have been a rollercoaster ride.
There are still people around who saw World War II, their civil war, Communist China, Mao Tse Tung, the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping, the opening to the West and today’s fast-paced times. I wonder how we would feel if we had lived through all this.