Destined for China


BORN in the U.S. in 1956, when I turn 60 in April 2016, I will have spent almost 30 of my 60 years in China!


When asked why I chose China, I should thank Uncle Sam, who sent me to serve in the U.S. Air Force in Taiwan from 1976 to 1978. I never dreamed that three years later, in California, I’d marry Susan Marie, a blonde, blue-eyed American born in Taiwan (Made in Taiwan!), and that in 1988 we’d become the first foreign permanent residents of Fujian Province – right across the Strait from Taiwan. But I’d only planned to live here for a year or two at most.


I love traveling. Though only 32 when we moved to Xiamen (formerly Amoy) in 1988, I had already lived in 30 places. But we fell in love with Xiamen – the island and the people, and I was intrigued by their vision. I agreed to help Xiamen University’s (XMU) new MBA program -though only for a year or two.


We had few students, little money, and poor facilities. I brought in much of our equipment on a boat from Hong Kong. But within two decades, we were China’s only MBA and EMBA programs outside of Shanghai and Beijing listed in both Forbes’ and Business Week’s Top 10! The changes have been astonishing, especially considering the conditions when we arrived.


When we disembarked from our 18-hour boat trip from Hong Hong to Xiamen, it seemed like half of China’s 1.3 billion people were packed into Heping Port. It was hot, humid, crowded and noisy. We were taken to XMU on the back of a WWII pickup truck that kicked up dust as it swerved to avoid potholes and hawkers on the road selling eggs, vegetables and livestock.


Living conditions were poor and regulations confusing. Foreigners had to use FEC, a special currency printed in English, and we were told to eat in the school cafeteria, but they accepted only ration coupons – which foreigners were not given.


The water supply was cut off daily, sometimes for three or four days at a time. I felt like a rural worker as I lugged buckets of water slung over my shoulders up the 105 steps to our apartment. There were also daily brown-outs, sometimes for days, so we carried candles everywhere. I often browsed the library or Xinhua Bookstore by candlelight.


There were few buses, so I bought a pedicab, though it took a month to get permission to drive it. “No commercial vehicles for foreigners!” I was told. “It’s for my family!” I argued. XMU finally provided a document promising I’d not get rich riding my pedicab. I’d pedaled only 100 meters from the store when a young man with his girlfriend yelled, “How much to Zhongshan Park?”


Yet within one decade, Xiamen had completely transformed, becoming a national leader in both economic development and environmental protection. In 2002, I was honored to help Xiamen win the gold medal at the International Awards for Livable Communities (LIVCOM) in Stuttgart. In 2004, Xiamen was awarded the UNESCO Habitat Award.


But when I began writing about China’s changes, some foreigners complained, “Only the coast is changing. Inland cities are no better off,” they said. So I decided to see for myself.



 Bill’s boys have their photo taken with a Tibetan family.

In 1994, my wife, two young sons and I drove 40,000 km around China. We traveled up the coast through Hangzhou, Suzhou, Nanjing, and Qingdao to Tianjin, Beijing and Inner Mongolia. From there we plowed through the Gobi Desert to Xi’an and Qinghai, and over the 17,300 foot Tanggula Pass into Tibet, returning to Xiamen through South China. It was grueling – 12 to 14 hours a day, averaging 25 km per hour – but it was also eye-opening and heart-warming.


Someone said, “Give a fish, feed for a day; teach to fish, feed for a lifetime.” Most developing countries I’ve visited rely on aid, which amounts to “feeding for a day.” But China has built the infrastructure to feed itself for a lifetime. Even remote villages in Ningxia and Gansu, although poor, at least have concrete roads to open markets and other opportunities. They also have electricity, water, new schools, and hospitals. And the strategy works. Farmers I know who were impoverished 20 years ago now earn more than I do as a professor – and live in larger houses than mine!


Are China’s breathtaking changes sustainable? With the planet’s largest population, and widespread poverty, China needed decades of rapid growth to jumpstart the economy. Today, growth is not so much slowing as “normalizing.” And this “new normal” growth should be sustainable because today, as throughout history, the Chinese maintain a long-term perspective – and build a foundation on economics, not politics or military.


After I had explored New China, I explored Old China by collecting hundreds of rare old books, magazines and journals, and thousands of old photos and maps. I even tracked down and interviewed people in the U.S. who had lived in China in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.


The more I learned, the more I realized that much of the business strategy and leadership I teach today has been practiced for centuries by Chinese both at home and abroad-men like Tan Kah Kee, the “Henry Ford of Asia” who built Xiamen University. With no government or military behind them, Chinese entrepreneurs competed head-on with colonial countries’ global monopolies. When colonial governments toppled, their monopolies also fell. But Chinese businesses endured because their foundation was purely commercial. They found, and met, legitimate market needs – using legitimate business strategies.


The more one understands Chinese’ centuries of successful commerce, the less surprising is modern China’s success.


In 2002, one of the six international Livcom (International Awards for Livable Communities) judges in Stuttgart told me, “I had no idea China had cities like this. Xiamen is not only No.1, but No.2 is way behind.” But then a well-educated European mayor in the audience told me, “I did not know China had tall buildings!”


Since 2002, I’ve helped about a dozen Chinese cities and districts win gold at Livcom. They include Quanzhou, Nanjing, Beijing’s Dongcheng District, and Shanghai’s Songjiang District. Chinese cities have learned much from the rest of the world, but the world has much to learn from them as well. Next month, we’ll start with Xiamen!