The Chinese government has done much to encourage the development of China’s west, particularly Sichuan province, which is the home to some 100 million people, making it larger in population than any single western European country, including Britain, France and even Germany.
From a business and consumers’ point of view, the region holds tremendous promise. Many large western companies, including Intel, Wal-Mart, MacDonald’s and KFC have all moved into the region in the hope of capturing some of the yuan which locals have to spend. From a consumer marketing point of view, and also from the manufacturing point of view, the region holds great promise.
However, this is still not enough. Compared to the east coast region’s of China, it is still far behind.
So what is holding the region behind in development?
In two words, it’s human talent. “Interesting places attract interesting people” is one of my favorite mantras. When I go to a place, I like to find interesting people, regardless of their profession, and listen to what they have to say. I look for different angles and insights from individuals which I cannot easily find elsewhere. Most of the time, I think of these people as very smart generalists.
My experience is that Shanghai and Beijing is full of interesting intelligent and very talented people, which is why I’m attracted to these two cities in China. They are evolving rapidly, which means that these cities have not yet congealed around certain professions in the way American or European cities, or even Hong Kong, have. They are full of surprises, and most of the time, these are pleasant surprises.
My theory is that these two cities draw the best Chinese talent away from the rest of China, leaving the other cities to struggle with the people they can convince to stay there, who usually are not as smart and talented. So, when Chinese or expats talk about Tier 1 cities (Beijing and Shanghai), they could just as easily be talking about quality human talent.
This creates a problem for western China: they have the consumers, and they can have good manufacturing up to the middle of the value-added chain, but they cannot catch up with Beijing and Shanghai at the top of the value chain.
Unless cities like Chongqing can figure out a way to keep the best human talent in Chongqing, the wealth and knowledge gap between the western part of China and the Tier 1 cities will continue to widen. Instead of climbing to the top, they will peak out around the middle and won’t make it into the ranks of world-class cities.
What the Chinese government, and most other governments, fail to understand is that it is not buildings, boulevards and museums which make cities world-class, it is very literally human talent. In spite of China’s huge population, I have only seen two cities, Beijing and Shanghai, which have the potential to make them world-class.
While some Chinese may take this as a slight, it’s worth remembering that the US, which has only 1/4 the population of China, but has a longer history as an economic superpower, has only three cities which can be classified as “Tier One”: New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
There must be some undiscovered rule which makes this the case.