Who wants to be a millionaire?

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When I attended the CKGSB CEO Program in China last year (seems like a decade ago now!), one of the highlights for me was the lecture in Beijing from the Founding Dean of the CKGSB Business School, Professor Xiang Bing, who covered a lot of ground over 3 hours and explained many of China’s challenges and opportunities in ways I hadn’t heard before.

One anecdote he mentioned was the advice he had given to young and impressionable chinese MBA students in the 1980s which went along the lines of “if you want to be a millionaire, go to America, study something that they do really well and then come back and do the same thing in China”. One of the first to follow his advice was Jack Ma of Alibaba and the rest is history!

In those days, nobody cared about young Chinese entrepreneurs travelling to the US to study and observe the success and popularity of American tech companies (eg Amazon, ebay, Google, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, Facebook, Apple) and applying these ideas behind the Great Firewall of China. China was a small consumer market, the real action was taking place in the US and Europe and, in any case, American companies refused to comply with China’s strict censorship regime.

The large Chinese tech brands that we know today (Huawei, Tencent, Wechat, Baidu, Weibo, Tiktok, Alibaba) were therefore left to enjoy unimaginable success in a country of over 1 billion people, enjoying double-digit annual economic growth and, more recently, expanding across Asia and around the world. This poses a major threat to the American giants from which these young Chinese entrepreneurs derived their original idea.

It’s going to be hard for the US Government to turn the clock back to 1980 and try and right all the wrongs of the past 40 years. But it looks like they’re going to try.

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