The Long Haul from Calculator Tourism to Services Exports

K Roy

"More chip? Very chip!" The girl runs after me in an old shopping
district in Shanghai, waving a CompactFlash card in one hand, a big calculator
in the other. I didn’t ask for either chip or cheap, but she knows that my
Nikon SLR uses CF cards. They’re smart, though they don’t speak no English.
Walking away means you want to bargain, and "No!" means "Want
better price?"

The ubiquitous calculator is familiar to visitors to China. Every shop has a
few. For it’s usually the only means of communicating with foreign shoppers.
China’s most cosmopolitan and fashion struck city, the Paris of the East,
speaks no English. Point to a teapot, and the shopkeeper keys in 180 for you. In
yuan. You clear that, enter 20. She laughs, types 150. And so on, till you hand
over 50 yuan.


China has a language problem: no one speaks English, and the People’s
Government wants them to. It wants to draw more tourism, business conferences,
super-events like the 2008 Olympics-and to make a mark in offshore services as
India is doing.

The "systemic" changes are rapid. Beijing and Shanghai already have
extensive bilingual (and very American) road signage. But Chinese and English
names of places are usually different. The Beijing cabbie won’t know ‘Traders
Hotel’, so you’ll have to carry its Chinese equivalent on a card. You can’t
explain "vegetarian" to any restaurant in China, as Indian software
pros quickly discover. In the shops, products carry no English descriptions at

So will China’s big services play work?

It won’t be easy. Language and culture are huge barriers.

But you have to experience the infrastructure, built mostly over the last
decade, to sense the speed with which the world’s largest country can move.
Elevated expressways stacked up to five levels criss-cross Shanghai and Beijing.
Buy anything, anywhere in the world, and chances are it could be Made in China.
Infrastructure rollout for the 2008 Olympics is so rapid (a year ahead of
schedule now) that the IOC has asked China to slow down, to avoid the costs of
maintaining idle facilities. The economy is so heated up that stabilizing brakes
are being put on, and FDI clearance is very selective.

So while it might look like it’s a very long haul until they ever make a
mark in services, let’s never underestimate China. India’s giant northern
neighbor moves fast; its culture engenders a great deal of discipline; and it’s
done the near impossible before: take away manufacturing from the West and from
much of the world. While India, at under 1% of the global outsourcing pie, can
ill afford to be complacent about its services edge.

Prasanto K Roy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *