Why All CEOs Should Visit China

December 8, 2017, 2:32 PM UTC

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As my colleagues and I prepare to leave Guangzhou and return home, we’re taking time to reflect on the magnitude of our experience in China this week. The scale of China can’t properly be described; it needs to be experienced. In fact, Cisco (CSCO) CEO Chuck Robbins spoke Thursday about a conversation he had recently with a fellow Silicon Valley CEO who doesn’t see the need to visit China because he doesn’t have any business there. Robbins’ conclusion: This CEO will be sorry.

Robbins has been traveling frequently to China and is working closely with various government entities to deploy Cisco technologies in brand-new “smart cities,” municipalities built with sensors, cameras, and other potentially spooky possibilities. The interconnected world, particularly in China, is a massive business opportunity. Ericsson (ERIC) CEO Borje Ekholm told a morning session on Friday about how the coming 5G wireless standard will change the very nature of manufacturing in China and the world.

An overarching theme of the week has been how China has ceased to be a copycat and instead has become an innovation leader. Jerry Yang, the Yahoo co-founder, presented an interesting thesis as to what changed. Yang has a unique perspective. A pioneer of the U.S. web industry, Yang also led Yahoo’s investment in Alibaba, securing his fame as a crossover U.S.-China business personality. He notes that Chinese Internet companies certainly were imitating their U.S. counterparts until the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which hit the Internet advertising market hard. Chinese leaders like Alibaba (BABA) and Tencent pivoted their business and never looked back.

That said, it’s possible to get overly giddy and forget that China remains a developing country. (President Xi Jinping made this point recently at the Communist Party’s congress, a speech nearly every Chinese government official and business executive references each time they speak publicly.) Ning Tang, CEO of Chinese peer-to-peer lender CreditEase, noted that while China has been a pioneer of mobile payment and lending, the market for services like “robo” advisory, mass-affluent asset management, and event “insurance tech” is completely underdeveloped.

There are plenty of risks on the horizon, of course. Common sense suggests the Chinese sharing economy is headed for a painful consolidation, for example. The leading candidate for pain is the bike-sharing business, where multiple players have raised a combined many billions of dollars and simply can’t all flourish. Moreover, the Chinese economy itself faces massive challenges. Michael Pettis, a finance professor at Peking University, presented a compelling and frightening scenario whereby China’s gargantuan public and corporate debt levels eventually will crater the economy as sure as night follows day. The only reason the economy stays afloat, he believes, is that the government maintains a closed system that doesn’t require bad debts to be written down. That can last a long time, but not forever.

It was a stimulating week in a fascinating country. I’ll come back to you with some final thoughts on Monday. Have a great weekend.

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