Sunday, April 20, 2014

New Chinese Wisdom, Part 4: On Chinese Generosity

Beijing International MBA students celebrating a winning basketball game.

One of my MBA classes in Peking University.

[This is the last article in a four-part series on Chinese culture, business, and education from a visiting Westerner’s perspective.]

While in China, I have had the great pleasure of dining with many Chinese business professionals and students. Over my strongest objections, they always want to pick up the tab. I have watched them work hard on their classroom assignments and play hard too, as evidenced in the photo of a class basketball team after winning a key game. The standing player pointing at me while I was taking the picture is imploring me to join the photo because he considered me part of the team, another sign of Chinese generosity.

But those acts of benevolence did not prepare me for what I saw at an event celebrating twentieth anniversary of the National School of Development (NSD) at Peking University. In between Las Vegas-like song-and-dance numbers, popular local personalities came onstage to auction professors' items of little commercial value: handwritten lecture notes, a scroll of Chinese calligraphy, or a future lecture. Buyers included former students who are now successful business people and NSD supporters. The winning prices reached as high as 2 million RMB (US$320,000).

I shook my head in disbelief when hearing those numbers. While some might argue that this show of largess was an example of pure ostentation, I would disagree. The audience was too small and the event too local to capture wide recognition. Rather, I would suggest that spending so much money on items with little apparent return on investment indicates the Chinese willingness to endow entities with potential to advance their country, beliefs, and lifestyle.