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Interview with Zak Dychtwald on Young China by Ken Dychtwald, PhD [MP3 & VIDEO]

January 18, 2018

 27 year old Zak Dychtwald and his dad, Ken Dychtwald, PhD, Founder & CEO of think tank AgeWave, sit down to talk before the release of Zak's book Young China: How The Restless Generation Will Change Their Country and the World, to be published next month by St. Martins Press February, 2018. This discussion will be a deep dive into a wide range of issues pertaining to young people in China – as a demographic, economic and political force to be reckoned with.

 

Watch below on Youtube.

Listen below on Soundcloud.

Read transcript below.

 

 

 

Ken Dychtwald

Good morning and welcome. I’m Ken Dychtwald and I’m going to get us started. I’m the Founder and CEO of Age Wave and today I’m a proud dad. It wasn’t too long ago that my wife Maddy and our daughter Casey and son Zak and I were all playing in the yard and now we’re sitting here talking about Zak’s first book. Time flies. If at any point you want to communicate with Zak now or going forward it’s Zak@youngchinagroup.com. His website is www.youngchinagroup.com. Let’s dig in. Son, why should we care about young China?

 

Zak Dychtwald

Before I get into this I’m going to say hi to everyone. I am so pleased that everyone is joining us on the call today. I’m thrilled to be here with my dad doing this very first interview. Now to the question, why should people care about young China? Impact. Whether you like to watch movies or make movies, whether you are in the tech space making apps, whether you are interested in international politics or economics or local manufacturing, if you’re selling soda, cell phones, or solar panels this young generation is going to impact you personally. On top of that, they are utterly different than any generation that we’ve seen before.

 

Ken Dychtwald

So you went off to China after graduating college in 2012 and spent four years there.  Now you’ve written this book. What are you hoping to accomplish with this book?

 

Zak Dychtwald

I’m hoping to help build a bridge of understanding. This young generation in China has spent a lot of their lives watching western movies, western TV shows, understanding our history, understanding our government, and coming from a genuine place of curiosity. My hope is that we want to learn from them as well. I think once you have that mutual understanding, that mutual interest, you’re going to have much better relationships. On the big scale, we’re talking world peace, but on the small scale - personal relationships. I hope to be a part of that bridge building process.

 

Ken Dychtwald

Why’d you decide to move to China in the first place?

 

Zak Dychtwald

Believe it or not it started with science fiction. I wanted to go to China to see the future. When I was a kid I was a voracious science-fiction reader, still am. I actually almost exclusively read Chinese science-fiction at this point. I’m reading 三题:黑暗森林 right now, The Three Body Problem: Volume Two. President Obama really liked it so it is worth checking out. When I was deciding where to study abroad I was a junior at Columbia. I figured I could go to France and study history or I could go to China and see where everyone was saying the future was happening. When you set it up like that it’s a pretty easy choice.

 

I went back and finished my senior year and I was convinced the more I thought about it that you could not understand China. It was difficult to understand China from far away. It was difficult to understand it on a week-long business trip. It was difficult to understand China and this young generation from a boardroom in Shanghai. You had to be in it tasting the tastes, smelling the smells, understanding people’s fears, hopes, aspirations, ambitions. I wanted to put myself in the heartbeat of the generation.

 

Ken Dychtwald

So you had the language to deal with and you were never really good with languages. I’m not an expert on Chinese language. How does it work?

 

Zak Dychtwald

There are two tough parts to the Chinese language. First, tens of thousands of characters and second it’s a tonal language. Characters first – in the English language we have 26 letters. Those letters don’t mean anything. They stand for a sound. So D doesn’t mean anything. It stands for da, stuck together with two other letters you can make dad. Our written language describes our spoken language. Chinese is different.

 

If you don’t understand a specific Chinese character, if you haven’t memorized that character specifically you cannot read it off the page and know what it means. So you have to memorize thousands of characters in order just to read a simple book or the newspaper. The next part is tones.

 

Ken Dychtwald

So you know thousands of symbols now?

 

Zak Dychtwald

Yes. I still study every day. It’s a lifelong process.

 

Ken Dychtwald

How many hours a day do you work at your Chinese?

 

Zak Dychtwald

I would say I work on it for two hours a day still, often more. A lot of the work I get to do now is in Chinese so everything I do is practice. I watch Chinese TV. I watch Chinese movies, which makes me a really crappy dinner date, but it’s something that I’ve committed myself to.

 

The second part is the tone part and that's pretty interesting. There are four tones in Mandarin Chinese. So if you pitch your voice one of four different ways a phoneme or a syllable can have an entirely different meaning. The classic example is mā, má, mǎ, mà. Ma means mother. Ma means hemp. Ma means horse. Ma means scold. You don’t want to mix up horse and mom. It’s a difficult language to master in particularly for westerners but once you acclimate your ear it’s definitely possible.

 

 

Ken Dychtwald

So you went there as a young guy, you couldn’t speak the language, you didn’t want to live like an expat, you had no money, and you didn’t know people. What was it like?

 

Zak Dychtwald

Hard. It was hard the first year especially but it was also sort of supposed to be. The old generation in China, 中国老一辈被称为 “吃苦的一代” (Zhōngguó lǎo yī bèi bèi chēng wèi “chī kǔ de yīdài”) were known as the eat bitter generation. 吃苦 (chī kǔ ) means to eat bitter. It means to be able to withstand hardship and tough times for an extended period of time without the prospect of gratification. That can mean delaying gratification for a year. It can mean 10 years. It can mean a generation. So even though young China has grown up in a better situation than this older generation, that ability to eat bitter is still in the genetics of what it means to be Chinese today. As a somewhat soft American kid, I wanted a bit of that grit.

 

Ken Dychtwald

What was your apartment like? Tell us what it was like where you were living, and what were you doing for a moment before we get into sort of the social, political, and marketplace things?

 

Zak Dychtwald

Right. The first year I was in Suzhou, China, and I, as part of this language journey in trying to create an entirely Chinese mental diet to help with language, I only had Chinese roommates, and we were all pretty broke. So, that first winter, Suzhou gets below freezing, but there’s no heat in southern cities in China. So when it was snowing outside, my roommates would leave the windows open because it wouldn't matter. There was no hot water in our apartment. I slept on a bed that was strips of bamboo woven together, kind of like an ultra-taut hammock. I learned that that retains no heat. I’d sleep in a parka. I could see my breath forming above my face in the morning, but again, that was part of it. It wasn’t exceptional. It was just what it means to be a young Chinese person trying to figure it out in the big city.

 

Ken Dychtwald

And over these years, did you stay in Suzhou primarily, or did you wander?

 

Zak Dychtwald

I’ve traveled all around. I’ve actually been to all of the different provinces in China at this point. That first year alone, I traveled thousands of miles on Chinese trains all over the country. I would say, also, that when you go to these city centers, you go to a metropolis, like Shanghai or Suzhou. But when you start to move outside of the cities, it feels like time travel. China has developed so fast, that if you go 50 miles out of the city, you are looking at what China looked like in the 1990s. It’s a different experience than anything we have in the west.

 

Ken Dychtwald

Were you comfortable?

 

Zak Dychtwald

No, but again, that wasn’t the point.

 

Ken Dychtwald

All right, so your book is titled Young China, and you know, we’re the Age Wave family, so young China, Millennials. How is young China, in your view, Zak, different from old china?

 

Zak Dychtwald

There are four main points, four main key differences. The first is open-minded. The old generation in China grew up behind a wall. In Guizhou Province, one of the inland poor provinces in China, I went there for my first Chinese New Year. My friend’s parents used to be the most popular house in the village because they had a calendar hanging on the wall. On it were 12 pictures, showing the fields of Europe. That was the only view of the outside world.

 

This young generation has grown up with the internet. They’ve grown up being able to travel internationally. They’ve grown up with a view of the world that so far surpasses their parents, it’s almost incomparable, and it’s an incomparable worldview.

 

Second, capitalism. Isn’t it ironic that the world’s largest Communist Party created the largest capitalist miracle of the modern age? The old generation grew up in poverty. As recently as 1990, the GDP per capita was under 200 bucks.

 

Ken Dychtwald

What is it now?

 

Zak Dychtwald

It’s around 10 thousand.

 

Ken Dychtwald

Wow.

 

Zak Dychtwald

The way that this young generation has watched their country rise from rags to riches, it’s incredible.

 

Ken Dychtwald
All right, so when mom and I, our generation, we were going off to Woodstock, what was happening in China?

 

Zak Dychtwald

Yeah, so around the same time you guys were going off to Woodstock, I know people and I’ve spoken with people in China who were eating tree bark to fight off starvation. That was the reality in China.

 

Ken Dychtwald

So these young people...you were born in 1990...let’s say born in your era, have experienced this era of capitalistic success?

 

Zak Dychtwald

They've watched it with their own eyes.

 

The third point is 4-2-1. In China right now, there are a lot of old people for a relatively small number of young people. About 50 years ago, it used to be the opposite. There was a lot of young people, and people died young, so there weren’t a lot of old people.

 

Ken Dychtwald
What was the life expectancy in China in, let’s say, 1950?

 

Zak Dychtwald

1950, the life expectancy was 36 years old, and the average family was having about 5 to 6 kids. Now, with the one-child policy and an amazing longevity revolution in China, the life expectancy has doubled, and the amount of kids has dwindled like 2 to 1 per family. So you have four grandparents for two parents for one child. It's called the 4-2-1 problem.

 

And the last point, and I think it’s a really important point, is clout. If you’re to ask a member of the older generation in China, when they were younger, “can China lead? is China powerful?” The answer would be no. This young generation, the answer would be yes. They expect their country to lead. They expect their country to be powerful. Clout.

 

Ken Dychtwald

I think I heard the Chinese president say something about rejuvenation, or how does this clout manifest?

 

Zak Dychtwald

Sure. This is an interesting...you know, right now, there’s what some of us call the construction of the Chinese soul, what it means to be Chinese in the modern era. Xi Jinping, the president of China, the word he uses is 复兴 (fùxīng) is a really interesting word because it means rejuvenation. It refers to a return to a place of prominence. It can also be translated as renaissance. This young generation is growing up in a country, in an environment, that is pushing the modern renaissance in China. This young generation is witness to that. They’re a part of it. They’re driving it. They’re living it, and they’re aspiring to be a major contributor to that.

 

Ken Dychtwald

All right, so clout, capitalistic success, 4-2-1, and...

 

Zak Dychtwald

Open-mindedness.

 

Ken Dychtwald

Open-mindedness. Are there any events that’ve occurred in the last 10, 20 years that have kind of sparked the excitement and the enthusiasm of the young generation that you could tell us about?

 

Zak Dychtwald

The first is 2008, the Beijing Olympics. It’s known as China’s coming out party. It was a moment where the world watched China do their opening ceremony which is now known as the greatest performance in the history of mankind, the scale, the size, the coordination. To the rest of the world it looked like an amazing performance, a show of China’s might and coordination. To China it looked the same way and it was a surprise. This young generation watching their country perform at that level unlike anything they’d ever seen.

 

Second, in 2014, Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba came to New York and his company had the largest IPO in the history at that time of the New York Stock Exchange. What was so interesting about that was that Jack Ma and Alibaba they don’t sell bricks. It’s not a shirt conglomeration. It’s an innovation company at a time when the world was saying China is just a copycat nation. China’s largest innovation company came and had the biggest historic IPO in the US on the territory of the innovators.

 

Third, last year, Xi Jinping, the president of China, got up at the World Economic Forum and said China is going to lead the world in trade. For the people watching in China that’s a type of leadership they weren’t used to coming from their country.

 

The last is the Belt and Road Initiative. For those who don’t know, the Belt and Road Initiative is a massive infrastructure plan centered around China but includes 68 different countries currently in the Asia extended region. Asia extended means they’re building a railway all the way to London. There are ports in Kenya, it’s a massive swath of earth that they are covering. What it does is put China at the center of a sort of hub and spoke wheel of economic dependencies. So if any of these spokes break, if one of these trade deals with one of these countries falters the wheel continues to turn. But if you take out the hub, if you take out China the entire wheel collapses.

 

What it says to the international community and to the Chinese people and to young China is that at a time when the US, every four years, looks like it’s fluctuating, and looks like they could tear up a trade deal, China is building its relationships in concrete and steel to last not every four years but to last generations.

 

Ken Dychtwald

There’s a lot of talk about Millennials in America. Are Chinese Millennials the same? I mean are we talking about the same kind of energy?

 

Zak Dychtwald

It’s a really good question because everyone in the US wants to talk to me about Millennials. There’s a lot to do about us, how to sell to us, how to market to us, what are our politics. Just for scale here, there are 80 million Millennials in the United States. However, there are 400 million Millennials in China. That’s five times as many, and its more than the entire population of the United States and Canada combined.

 

Differentiators between Chinese and American Millennials? Young China is competitive and hardworking. In China, the project of childhood is different. In the US when a kid is going to football practice or cheerleading practice, when they’re playing videogames with their friends, when they’re doing sleepovers on the weekend, their peer in China is studying. They’re working. The competition for a position in a high school, a position in college or the job market is so fierce in China that these families and these kids feel like they have no choice but to be working.

 

Ken Dychtwald

One of the times we came to visit you in Suzhou we met you at the library and you had a gal that you were friends with. I think her western name was Bella. How many hours a day would Bella study at the library?

 

Zak Dychtwald

Ten to 12.

 

Ken Dychtwald

How many days a week?

 

Zak Dychtwald

Seven. She once asked me, what’s a weekend? She knew but it didn’t exist in her vocabulary.

 

Ken Dychtwald

She spent 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and was she working on a graduate degree?

 

Zak Dychtwald

No. She was preparing for a test to allow her to enter into a masters program. There were 700 people taking the same test, there were three positions.

 

Ken Dychtwald

So young China is pretty hardworking and competitive. Have you ever seen anything else like that? You’ve been to five continents. You’ve studied and traveled all over the world. Have you seen that kind of hardworking energy anywhere else?

 

Zak Dychtwald

The only time I saw it was at my college and it was from the Chinese exchange students. It doesn’t exist anywhere else, at least on that scale. You could argue that Singapore and South Korea have similar study cultures but the scale of China is unbelievable.

 

The last point on what makes this young generation different is pride. It’s sort of a touchy subject. I’m very proud to be an American but we’re at a moment in American history where people are voting on the idea of making America great again. This young generation feels like their country is becoming great now. They have, from where they sit, the best rags to riches story in the history of the world.

 

Our American dream is sort of a rags to riches story. Through hard work and our meritocracy and our system of government and economics we can work hard and move forward. We could advance our stake in life, our lot in life. In China, they feel like their rags to riches story is their entire country. They remember poverty, they remember rags, and they’re watching their country ascend to relative riches at a pace and scale unmatched in history. They have a lot to be proud of.

 

Ken Dychtwald

So when you went over there, were there any American heroes or religious figures that were icons in China?

 

Zak Dychtwald

I thought maybe JFK or Oprah or somebody would get through the cultural wall. You never really know what’s going to get through that wall. The most heard English western song in China is “Yesterday Once More” by the Carpenters. So you really have no idea what’s going to make it through. I remember that first year in China I would be walking around the supermarket and I would go into the stationary section and one person’s face was on eraser heads, it was on backpacks, it was on notebooks and looking out at us from these eraser heads were the signature glasses and turtle neck of none other than Steve Jobs.

 

Steve Jobs in China and Apple in China stands for aspiration and innovation at a moment where China recognizes that if they don’t innovate their country will not be able to continue to ascend. Where every child knows that if they’re not able to create, if they’re not able to aspire to be innovative in the way that Steve Jobs was, they might not be able to advance their lot in life. He represents innovation and aspiration to this young generation. By the way, he’s been replaced by Jack Ma. Erasers, backpacks, notebooks. The cult of Ma.

 

Ken Dychtwald

So we’ve heard a lot about these young people, your generation in China referred to as little emperors. They’re spoiled. They’ve got all these parents doting on them. They’re getting luxuries like young people in China never had. What does it look like to you?

 

Zak Dychtwald

It looks like the opposite honestly.

 

Ken Dychtwald

Why?

 

Zak Dychtwald

For China’s little emperors, heavy hangs the head that wears the crown. I talked about the four to one demography. Four grandparents, two parents, one child. Imagine that as a funnel. When you’re young, that looks like attention. That looks like affection. That looks like extra food. This young generation, this single child generation is known for obesity because that’s the way that Chinese grandparents express love. It’s also a funnel for expectation, for attention, for scrutiny. Because of the fierce competition to get a job, to get into a good school in China you have the expectation of the entire family weighing down on that one child.

 

Ken Dychtwald

Give me an example.

 

Zak Dychtwald

My first year in Suzhou I had a particularly humiliating job. It was fun but I remember the year after I graduated Columbia I was wearing an all purple jumpsuit and had a green turtle hand puppet on my right hand. I was teaching an English class to three to six year olds. It was a mixture of a coding class and a science class with English combined. There were about five kids in the class. They were adorable, they were great kids. Three to six year olds are kind of the same anywhere. At the back of the class there’s a glass wall and behind that glass wall there was 12 parents, and 24 grandparents bearing down on these kids watching their every pound of the keyboard, watching them fiddle with a microscope. Every single movement. At the end of the class, one of the kids, I heard him wailing from the side of the room. He started to cry. I look over and his mom is drilling him in flashcards, words that we learned during the class. Amoeba, microscope, dolphin. He’s six years old.

 

I asked her what’s going on. I didn’t assign any homework. She said “in 10 to 11 years my child is going to have to take the 高考 (gāo kǎo); he’s going to have to take the college entrance exam. I’m giving him a leg up.” Pressure. Pressure is the word most often on the lips of young China.

 

Ken Dychtwald

Now let’s talk about the challenges China faces as seen from young ChinaFrom the point of view of young people in China, through your interpretation, what are the big challenges China faces moving forward?

 

Zak Dychtwald

Three major ones. First aging, the aging of the population. China’s original modern development story could be told as a lot of hands doing a lot of work for cheap. The people who built China’s manufacturing economy are China’s baby boomers. I know you’re the baby boomer expert. There’s 76 million baby boomers in the United States. There were 440 million in China. We didn’t hear about them because they lived in poverty. This generation is now getting older.

 

Ken Dychtwald

What are they like as old people?

 

Zak Dychtwald

Tough as nails. They survived the Cultural Revolution. They survived the great leap forward. They’re tough. They’re not complainers. They’re active but they’re getting old and there’s not a lot of young people to be able to support them. Who will care for the old? It’s a political question, economic question, it’s also a spiritual question.

 

Ken Dychtwald

What do you mean?

 

Zak Dychtwald

In China there’s no religion, but there’s family and this ability to be 孝顺 (xiào shùn) that translates to 孝 (xiào) filial piety. That’s a bad translation because we never use that word. To be good to your parents is akin to being a good person. This young generation is crippled by this terrible conflict - the desire to take care of their parents coupled with a complete inability to do so.

 

The second challenge is how to lead. It’s easy to be a supporting character on the world stage. China is now being thrust onto center stage to be a main character. It’s not easy to take on a leadership role. It changes how everyone interacts with you. How will China lead?

 

The third challenge is quite important because it’s very personal to a lot of young people. China needs to transition from an imitative to an innovative economy. The old system worked. Their old economic system worked when they had a surplus of people. Now that there’s relatively few young people, if they aren’t able to innovate, to create, to create service jobs, if they’re not able to create new apps, if they’re not able to make scientific innovations they will not be able to support their aging economy.

 

Ken Dychtwald

So asking this young generation to shift an ancient culture from imitative to innovative is a tough assignment.

 

Zak Dychtwald

A really tough assignment.

 

Ken Dychtwald

You mentioned aging, obviously something I’ve thought about a little bit. What does China’s retirement system look like? What are they going to do with all these old people?

 

Zak Dychtwald

China’s traditional retirement system is their kids. It’s called 反哺模式 (fǎnbǔ móshì). It’s the return and feed model. So mama and papa bird look after the baby bird until it’s ready to leave the nest and create its own home, which is often a little bit later than we have in western cultures. Then when the baby bird has grown up and the mama and papa bird get a little older, the baby bird comes back to the nest and looks after his parents. That was really easy when there were five to six kids per family and you had a life expectancy of 36. People didn’t age. They died. They didn’t retire. They passed away.

 

Now there’s only one child to take care of their parents. When the one child policy began, there were protests all over the country. The protests were not about reproductive rights. The protests were about who will care for the old.

 

Ken Dychtwald

So China does not have a pension system or retirement infrastructure?

 

Zak Dychtwald

They’re working one out. I’ve been in business meetings. I’ve been in government meetings in China with high level government officials and then people from the private sector where this challenge looms. This issue of aging touches on so many aspects of the culture, economics and politics, so everyone is paying attention to it. I would expect that the greatest innovations probably in your field, in the field of longevity will have to come from China because if they don’t innovate in this space they will have major problems down the line.

 

Ken Dychtwald

Let’s totally switch our direction here. I guess we imagine here in the States that our young people and our young technology people and our whiz kids are leaders in innovation. Can you give me an example of Chinese innovative that many of us may not know about?

 

Zak Dychtwald

There’s one that you all should know about. It’s called WeChat. It’s from Tencent. It was a company started in 2011. It’s sort of like Facebook, Instagram, but then Venmo, ApplePay, Uber, StubHub, Groupon, Yelp plus 15 of your favorite apps and then some you’ve never heard about rolled up into one mega app and then a little bit better. There are 900 million users.

 

Ken Dychtwald

Give me an example of how it works.

 

Zak Dychtwald

So two weeks ago I was in Chengdu in Central China, the Gateway to the West. I was going to treat some friends to dinner, WeiWei and a few friends. I owed them a meal. So I created a group chat on WeChat, sent them all messages. Then I ended up calling WeiWei specifically because I wanted to get in touch. I still haven’t left the app. I’m calling through the app. Then I ended up video calling her because I wanted to say hi to her parents. They used to invite me to dinner. I know them well. We all said hello. It was great. I still haven’t left the app because I was choosing the place to eat. I looked on the Yelp equivalent section of WeChat, found a place, sent it all over to them. I still haven’t left the app. I called an Uber through the app, got in to the car and went to the restaurant.

 

Ken Dychtwald

They have Uber there?

 

Zak Dychtwald

It’s called Didi. Uber got beat out. When we got to the restaurant, we ordered entirely through the app. I’m looking at recommendations and also special deals. So they have Groupon-like features and every restaurant has one. So I chose one through the app. While we were at dinner we were all taking selfies. WeChat has a very social function. We’re sending pictures to our friend circle, still haven’t left the app. I ended up paying with the app and then because WeiWei who had driven there had drank a little bit too much I ordered what’s called a DaiJia. It’s a man who comes in on a scooter and drives your car and you back to your apartment so that you don’t have to drink and drive.

 

Think about that. Myself, I ended up scanning a bicycle on the side of the road, one of these MoBikes. and I pedaled tipsily back to my apartment where I was staying. Then I have a video call with my parents who are in California just waking up.

 

Ken Dychtwald

That would be me. We had about a 20 minute call that night. How much did that cost?

 

Zak Dychtwald

Totally free. At no point in any moment of the entire night did I have to leave the app. It’s a level of innovation and completeness in the app world that we just don’t have here. My Chinese friends come to the United States and feel like they’re in a backwards society. In China, you can order a pen and a computer and a motorbike at 11 in the morning and at 3 p.m. that day it’s going to arrive at your door.

 

Ken Dychtwald

Do the Chinese young people have an appetite for American products?

 

Zak Dychtwald

Big time, but with a caveat. A lot of western marketers treat Chinese Millennials as if they’re like American Millennials but just “over there.” This young generation in China has a tremendous interest in our movies, TV shows, culture, music, fashion, food, cars, top to bottom really, but they want to be respected, and a big part of that respect means acknowledging their differences, understanding their tastes, coming from a place of understanding to give them a version of American products that will appeal specifically to them.

 

Ken Dychtwald

I’m going to interrupt you for a second. You’ve been mostly in China but you’ve been back and forth. Now you’re living in Brooklyn and going back and forth to China. When you meet American business leaders or tech people, do you get the feeling they’ve got a pretty deep understanding of China?

 

Zak Dychtwald

No.

 

Ken Dychtwald

What do they know? What is it about China they know?

 

Zak Dychtwald

Gosh, they know an "exceptional" version of China, as in issues and cases in China that are the exception rather than the norm. I literally talked to a CEO of a tech company in Silicon Valley. He had had a few drinks. I asked him what he knows about China and he yells “chow mein” and then walks away. That was it. 

But most people see these sort of sensational stories, Maserati driving, dog-eating, ghost towns and overpopulated subways. These things that don’t really add up. They’re extraordinary, exceptions. I focus on in my book and with the work that I do on the ordinary in China, what it means to be young Chinese to the majority of people.

 

Ken Dychtwald

Is it frustrating to you? When you look at how much young people in China know about Americans and then you look at how much Americans know about China, what goes on in your head?

 

Zak Dychtwald

You asked if it’s frustrating. It’s so frustrating that I wrote an entire book trying to remedy the situation. It is frustrating and I hope if it’s our competitive nature, it’s in the spirit of understanding that we aim to understand this young generation of China better because they are going to be influencing every corner of our world for the next 50 to 100 years.

 

Ken Dychtwald

I mean is it just if you’re in the tech business or in soda?

 

Zak Dychtwald

Honestly, it’s important from the top to the bottom. We’ve already seen how they’re influencing the film world. If you don’t have a second opening in China you won’t get funded in Hollywood now. Chinese are buying up movie theaters all throughout the United States. Then you have things like the NBA. Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors, the guy walks on water in China.

 

Ken Dychtwald

Do you see his image over there?

 

Zak Dychtwald

He’s everywhere. You see his jersey everywhere. What’s unique about Steph versus someone like LeBron is that Steph has a style of game that appeals to people in China. LeBron is a physical specimen. He’s bigger, stronger, faster than everyone. If you’re a young Chinese person that doesn’t really jive with you. You’re not going to become LeBron. But critics said Steph was too small. They said he wasn’t fast enough, he wasn’t skilled enough. Again, through hard work, discipline, rigor, through eating bitter, Steph became an NBA star. It sort of is the Chinese story.

 

Ken Dychtwald

It’s hard not to look at China without filtering through what we hold so dear in our country, our democracy, our freedom of speech, our freedom of the press, our voting. How do they see their government?

 

Zak Dychtwald

Effective. Not perfect but effective. Many members of this young generation have spent time abroad. They’ve traveled internationally. Two-thirds of all passport holders in China are under the age of 35. They’ve been around. They know what democracy looks like. One-third of all people studying abroad in the United States right now are from China. So it’s not like they don’t understand the other options. They look at some of our inefficiencies. They look at the way that it’s hard for us to get things done. They look back at their government. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. Do they have complaints? Most definitely. But is it effective? Has it brought their family out of poverty? I mean this is quite real. China brought 500 million people out of poverty in the last several decades, so it’s effective.

 

Ken Dychtwald

How do they view our government?

 

Zak Dychtwald

It’s a sensitive question. We have a candidate who ran on a platform that said our opposition and the establishment are corrupt officials with a fixed media. If you think about what we say about China, corrupt officials with a fixed media. A lot of people in China are saying “isn’t that what you guys say about us?” A lot of people in China are thinking that maybe all governments are bad in certain ways, but our government certainly gets a lot of things done.

 

Ken Dychtwald

Are there any members of the Trump family particularly appealing in China?

 

Zak Dychtwald

Ivanka. The nuance of a lot of what she says can be lost on China, but they see what they think to be an extremely attractive, extremely successful person, who didn’t rest on the laurels of her extremely successful father. Take from that what you will. Her kids speak Chinese so her daughter who sings in Chinese became a viral star in China because she sang a song in Chinese and it blew up all over China. Ivanka’s savvy like that. The Trump family is savvy like that.

 

Ken Dychtwald

A couple more questions for you. How is this Chinese government aiming at the future? Let’s assume that they’re very calculating and they want the young generation to go from imitative to innovative. Not an easy thing. How are they doing that?

 

Zak Dychtwald

I think you’re right to say they’re calculating. What I think is interesting is that the Chinese government sort of has a Chinese medicine approach to governance. Preventative care is better than reactive. Because of their one party system, they’re able to be proactive. So they are letting people like me into the country. They are allowing foreign businesses to mingle. They’re sending a tremendous amount of students abroad to study and then they’re incentivizing them to come back.

 

Ken Dychtwald

What’s the status of Chinese students in America?

 

Zak Dychtwald

One-third of all people studying abroad in the United States right now are from China. The next best representative country is India but they’re still only at one-tenth. It’s a deliberate push. When China was becoming a manufacturing power they didn’t have an industrial revolution. They didn’t know how to manufacture. They invited the world’s best manufacturers into their country and they copied the technology, they did it themselves. Now China needs to stimulate an innovation boom. They are encouraging their students to study abroad, to learn innovation from the “best” innovators. They recognize that Chinese education does not necessarily create an innovator. It creates a memorizer. So they’re looking for inspiration from everywhere and encouraging it.

 

Ken Dychtwald

So Mom and I were very anxious that you were spending years roaming the countryside on camels and mules in Mongolia and Tibet and the backwoods of China. What was it like to be in a communist country?

 

Zak Dychtwald

There’s this expectation that there’s a "Big Brother" presence there. Not at all. There’s not a sense that you’re being watched by the government. It’s often described as an anaconda in the chandelier. The snake isn’t coming down and pouncing on anyone. You’re aware of its presence. In terms of what you write, if you’re going to publish something that’s going to get an enormous amount of attention, that anaconda might come down. But for day to day life, the experience is that young people feel relatively free, increasingly so.

 

Ken Dychtwald

We think of freedom as freedom from an oppressive government so I think I wouldn’t want to live there because the government is oppressive, is that the way young people think of freedom?

 

Zak Dychtwald

No, and this is a really important point. Freedom is on the minds and mouths of all of my friends in China. I’ve seen 自由 (ziyou) tattooed on people’s wrists, on people’s backpacks, on people’s clothing. It’s everywhere. It’s in advertisements but the freedom people crave is not freedom from the oppressive, restrictive government but rather freedom from an oppressive, restrictive set of traditions. For women, the idea that if you’re not married by 27 or 30 that you are socially ineligible, that you’re considered 剩女 (shèngnǚ), a leftover woman.

 

Ken Dychtwald

So women are considered leftover if what?

 

Zak Dychtwald

If they are not married by the age of 30. It used to be 27 now it’s 30. But they’re also being encouraged to get a master’s degree, to get a professional degree. So you’re in school until you’re 25 and then you have about two months to date and then you have to find a mate and settle down for life. The contradictions of traditions, what it traditionally means to be Chinese and the presses of modernity. They’re like two tectonic plates. They grind against one another. This young generation is at the fault line deciding where those plates are going to fit together and what it means to be Chinese in the modern world.

 

Ken Dychtwald

And freedom has a lot to do with being free of the pressures of Chinese culture and traditions.

 

Zak Dychtwald

Yes. They want to feel like they can live their life and do what they want, marry who they want, buy property or not without having this tremendous family and culturally-driven pressure. The freedom to vote. They’re not thinking that that would give them a voice. They look at America and half the people don’t go to the polls. The freedom they want is the freedom to live the life that they see for themselves.

 

Ken Dychtwald

Let me ask you a couple of questions that are coming in from our callers. So we think of marketing, selling, Black Friday, Christmas holidays. What’s the biggest sales activity in China?

 

Zak Dychtwald

There’s one holiday that we don’t have here. It’s called Singles Days 双十一, (Shuāng shí yī), and that means double 11.

 

Ken Dychtwald

Double 11 meaning?

 

Zak Dychtwald

It’s on November 11 of every year. Jack Ma of Alibaba fame basically created this holiday “Singles Day” to help single people try to get what they want versus celebrate what they actually have. Where Valentines Day encourages shoppers to celebrate what they have - a significant other - Singles Day motivates people to get what they want - also a significant other - through strategic buying that might boost their self "worth." So people buy from Alibaba and JingDong, which is sort of like Amazon in mass. Their last year of sales was three times as much as Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.

 

Ken Dychtwald

In one day?

 

Zak Dychtwald

In one day. It’s the largest single day expenditure holiday in the world by an enormous margin.

 

Ken Dychtwald

A couple of questions before we wrap up. With a crackdown on western companies in China, how do American businesses do a better job of relating within the Chinese marketplace?

 

Zak Dychtwald

That’s a great question. China acts in self-interest dependably, be it politics or economics. So if you’re thinking you’re going to walk in with your company and take the money and run without having a Chinese partner, without putting that money back into the Chinese economy, you’re wrong. China is not interested in that sort of growth. These days we talk about America first. China was the first “my country first” nation. If you’re not helping China become a more innovative country, if you’re not helping in their transition, they’re not interested in doing business with you. There are an enormous amount of opportunities for partnerships and there are enormous opportunities for cooperation. Going in and trying to gut it out on your own is real tough.

 

Ken Dychtwald

To what extent are young people in China driven by doing good versus getting ahead or making money or even caring for their parents?

 

Zak Dychtwald

That’s a really good question. If you were to ask people five years ago what’s the religion in China. We think of religion as being a moral compass often. Not always that way but often. People would sarcastically say money. What do you believe in? Money.

 

This young generation, they’re still success driven. They’re still get ahead driven. Again, it’s sort of this rags to riches mentality. Everyone in China is new money but this young generation is starting to realize that money isn’t enough. There is a spirituality and a want for more than just 买房买车生孩子就死 (Mǎifáng mǎi chē shēng háizi jiù sǐ). It means buy an apartment, buy a car, have kids, then die. Those are seen as the markers of success for men in China. The first three happen before you’re 30 and then you just kind of sit on your thumbs for the next 40 years of your life. Doing good and creating a sense of purpose outside of money is becoming an increasingly large priority for this young generation, which is different than their parents.

 

Ken Dychtwald

Zak, your website is Youngchinagroup.com. The book is Young China: How the Restless Generation Will Change Their Country and The World. I’m going to ask you one last questions before we close out. Four hundred plus million young people in a country that’s experienced unprecedented capitalistic success, growth, modernization, what’s your hope that’s going to come from your work with this book and your company? Does China have everything figured out? Do they know where they’re heading into the future?

 

Zak Dychtwald

Those are good questions. I’ll take them one at a time. My hope, like I said earlier, is to build understanding. I truly feel that there’s a gulf of understanding between our two countries and not just a gulf of understanding but gulf in intention to understand. It’s my opinion that China is going to be the largest trend in the 21st century, period, and this young generation is deciding what it means to be Chinese in the modern world. It’s the first generation to get to do that in the history of China. To understand that, to come from a place of understanding for business, economics, policy, and then personal relationships I’m committed to that bridge work. I really am.

 

Ken Dychtwald

Have Chinese leaders got it all figured out?

 

Zak Dychtwald

So I said earlier that they’re able to be preventive, they’re able to be sort of predictive. They create five year plans every year and they do their best to navigate the shoals of the future, the difficult path ahead. The line that used to be described, that Deng Xiaoping used to describe the modernization process of China is 摸着石头过河 (mōzhe shítou guò hé). It means crossing the river by feeling the stones, which is a beautiful way of saying that we don’t know where the heck we’re going. We are standing with our eyes closed in the rushing river of time and history, groping with one foot trying to find a solid piece of land to put your feet on, to shift your weight. It also, by the way, is an acknowledgement that to the left there is one way of governance, western democracy. To the right there’s another way of governance, Soviet style communism. They look at both of those options and they chose the third way - a new way. They went through the middle. They are crossing the river by feeling the stones in unchartered territory doing something that no government or group of people have ever tried to do.

 

Ken Dychtwald

We love you, son. Great to have this interview. All the best with the book.

 

Zak Dychtwald

Thank you for listening in. I really appreciate it.  

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TEDx: 3 Things the West Gets Wrong About Young China

October 8, 2019

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