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Witnessing China’s rapidly changing society

April 26, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This week’s post is from China, where I have been spending time with family and relatives on vacation in Hong Kong, combined with an excursion to a number of cities such as Beijing, Shenzhen, Shanghai, and the beautiful Hongzhou. While the trip has been too brief, it has been great to build relations here between the UK and China, and I have learned a huge amount.

Firstly, the pace of change continues relentlessly, and not just in matters relating to economic development. In fact, China recently published its 12th five year plan and emphasised a need to focus in coming decades on social issues, or “harmonious society”, and has sought to encourage more innovation and reform around services provided to and with the public. While there is still some way to go to develop the legal, technological, and policy frameworks for these reforms there is definitely a determination to make progress with the same vigour in the social sphere as there has been in the economic one. China which feels in many of the places I have visited like a developed European or North American country in terms of its physical and business infrastructure still has challenges around the widening gap between its rich and poor, in working out how and how quickly to provide greater freedom to its billions of citizens in a stable way, and in tackling rural underdevelopment, for example in the West of the country. And it will face in years to come the same challenges which the UK confronts today brought on by ageing population, albeit one that places strong emphasis still on the family and local neighbourhood action.

Secondly, though embryonic, citizen-led initiatives including social enterprise, social innovation thinktanks, and venture philanthropy are beginning to grow and feel like they are in the process of taking off. I visited a few, such as You Change, a do-tank based in Beijing that has many similarities with the Young Foundation in the UK which seems to have covered about fifteen years of social enterprise and innovation development in only four years. I also visited Nest, a social enterprise incubator, based in Shanghai but now being replicated elsewhere in China, which is modelled on the Hub in the UK. It has only been set up recently and is engaged in incubating local models with a particular focus on those that employ and harness the talents of disabled people. Philanthropy among the wider population and wealthy is also a burgeoning area, prompted by the response in China to the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, and recently by the efforts of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to get the new entrepreneurial elite in China to play a bigger part in society using their skills and philanthropy. I was heartened to hear from one major local philanthropist who believes that in the future the wealthy in China will seek, alongside pursuing luxury lifestyles and collecting art, to practice (venture) philanthropy as well which has ancient roots in China. This could be a real force for good not just domestically but across the world.

Thirdly, there are real opportunities for exchange and cooperation between countries like the UK and China as both seek to carry out historic and essential reforms. Three are of particular personal interest to me as a British citizen with a Chinese background: how Chinese companies as they globalise could build businesses and brands with partners in places like the UK that are more environmentally and socially conscious; how different Chinese cities could partner with, exchange experiences, and learn from their counterparts and from the social sector in the UK and the West to bring Big Society type innovations to China for mutual benefit; and how the Chinese diaspora globally, including in the UK (and Hong Kong), could be mobilised to play a more prominent bridging role as civic entrepreneurs to strengthen economic, cultural, and social ties between countries like the UK and China.

These are still early days, but I’m looking forward to returning again in the months and years to come and hope that in my own small way I can help foster a stronger society not just in the UK, but also in China, and between the two countries and the world. More to follow in future posts…

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