Vulcan’s entry into the China market, achievement though it was, did not receive the follow up that one might expect. Towards the end of 1983, there was a flurry of parts sales. In early 1984, Angelica Ferguson, who had ably facilitated both of Vulcan’s hammer contracts, left Amtech, as her husband had a new posting in Hong Kong. Beijing was something of a hardship posting in the early 1980’s, and with a second child on the way, Hong Kong’s Western amenities beckoned.
In 1988 Vulcan sold a substantial order of spare parts for the 560’s. Beyond all this, however, Vulcan had little further interaction with Chinese organisations, offshore or otherwise. There are several reasons for this.
To start with, the collapse of crude oil prices—and the subsequent collapse of the oilfield service, supply and construction business—affected the Chinese is a similar way as it did everyone else. The 1980’s were a very lean decade for Vulcan, a decade many other oilfield suppliers did not survive. The break in relations with the Chinese was replicated with other Vulcan customers of longer standing, and it wasn’t until the end of the decade when things began to really come back to life.
Second, the Chinese recognised that it was impractical to develop their offshore oil production entirely on their own. Just as they formed joint ventures with foreign oil companies for exploration and production, they also contracted with foreign companies to do the platform construction, especially in the South China Sea. In that respect they were following the lead of other countries such as Brazil and the United Arab Emirates, who, while having a state owned company as the lead organisation in the oil patch, included foreign entities when it was in their best interests to do so.
Third, a long term Vulcan presence in China would require major inroads into the onshore pile driving market. But Vulcan’s air/steam product line was hard to export with the diesel hammers being dominant. In the 1990’s China began to export pile driving equipment to the US, mostly through American companies. Taken in that context, Vulcan’s sale of any equipment to China is singular.
One of the lessons we at Vulcan took from China is that “experts” seem to gravitate towards the country. We found these experts in the U.S., too. They’d appear at international trade events, going on at length about how to deal with this exotic Chinese culture and how different it was from ours, and how with their advice we would do business.
The problem with many of these people is that they’ve never “done the deal.” Many of them have never sold or leased anything to the Chinese or anyone else for that matter. We found that such advice not to be as helpful as it looked. However, the one thing that those of us who have done the deal must avoid is to represent our specific experience as the only way to do business in China, then or now. But there are some useful lessons that can be learned.
I’d be the first to admit that Vulcan’s experience in China was atypical. In a country where developing relationships is so important (it used to be here,) coming “out of the blue” (and the red and white too) and selling the Chinese nearly US$1,000,000 (1981 dollars) in equipment in two weeks is highly unusual. To get there, Vulcan had things going for it that benefit any company: excellent and well-positioned representation (experts who really had done the deal!) a good product with a long reputation for reliability and efficacy, and an overconfident competitor (the Japanese) with whom the Chinese did business more out of necessity than desire.
Once we got there, however, we had to complete the transaction. If any part of our method made this possible, it was our willingness to meet with the customer in a way that was meaningful to them. The Chinese wanted a great deal of technical information, we provided it to them. We brought over technical experts and spent much time discussing these kinds of issues. They wanted attention to detail, and we took the time to do that. They wanted us to see their country and be impressed by it, and we saw it and were duly impressed. We were prepared to bargain with them. And our sense of humour didn’t hurt either.
Underpinning all of that was patience. Many years later, I was talking with one of Vulcan’s Hawaiian customers of Chinese ancestry. He explained that the Chinese concept of time is entirely different than ours. A civilisation thousands of years old tends not to be in a hurry. Americans may find this hard to accept, but that partly explains our trade balance.
Spiritual and Ministry Lessons
The interest that surfaces about spiritual matters in a business account may strike some as odd, but in the nineteenth century it was commonplace for the businessman and the missionary to arrive at the same time. The unfortunate connection between the two and colonialism bore hard on the missionary, few places harder than China.
1981, however, was also the year for “Project Pearl,” when one million Bibles were imported through boats sailed to the South China Sea coast. I always mused that the 560, with its nearly metre diameter bore, would be the perfect place to stash a large quantity of Bibles. Given the difficulties that we had getting our equipment to Tanggu, perhaps we would have been better off letting “Project Pearl” be our freight forwarder to China!
The triumph of the Communists in 1949 led to cutting off the Christian church (official and unofficial) from the outside world, organisationally and otherwise. But in the long term that led to the Chinese church doing the work Jesus sent it to do on its own. Today we are seeing the greatest Christian revival in human history in China, and the effort is almost entirely indigenous.
The government has generally reacted by attempted to suppress this movement. Part of the reason, of course, is that China is still in theory a Marxist-Leninist state, with the atheism to go with it. But there are historical reasons as well. The fall of virtually every dynasty was preceded by the formation of secret religious societies which would coalesce into a rebel force. In the nineteenth century, the most spectacular example of this was the Taiping Rebellion, where Hong Xiuquan claimed to be Jesus Christ’s younger brother and started a revolt that claimed 20,000,000 lives. Chinese regimes are routinely skittish about underground religious movements such as Christianity and Falun Gong, and the followers of Jesus’ greatest challenge in the long run is to show that secular revolt is not the objective of the religion.
But there are some tantalising benefits for China as well. Today Christianity is shifting from a Western religion to a Third World one. The US has taken the lead for many years but, as the Anglican Communion will attest, that is changing. Could the church in China become the vanguard (a good Communist term) for Christianity everywhere? Instead of sending missionaries to China, could they send some to us, as they are planning to do in the “Back to Jerusalem” movement? Could Beijing become a centre of Christian activity, drawing people from all over the world, as the oilfield did with us? It’s something that the Chinese government needs to think about.
In the meanwhile, for those who do minister to Chinese people both inside and out of the People’s Republic, some of our business lessons apply. To be successful in this requires patience, a willingness to connect with the people where they are and to build relationships, and a real love for the Chinese people, which isn’t difficult, even in a business environment. Jesus Christ came to have a loving relationship with us; we need that as an objective in our dealings with others, even in rejection, to reflect the priceless work he did for us.
For me personally, it’s hard to overestimate the impact that the three trips to China, along with what I saw and experienced, have made. From our subsequent dealings with foreign customers to the way I look at the world in general to my fiction, the “afterglow” of these voyages has stayed lit for a very long time.
As my generation has taken command of the country, it is increasingly hard to stomach the pseudosophistication that permeates Boomer business and politics. Studies have shown that Chinese are better than Americans at looking a problems from a perspective other than their own. The result of this from a foreign policy standpoint has been the deadly “cave or conquer” mentality that has plagued our relationships with other countries and cultures, and although most of the cost of that thinking has taken place in the Middle East, it also applies to our situation in East Asia.
More than a quarter century has come and gone since those days when the tea came out of nowhere and Ian Stones suggested that I ask the Chinese what they would like to discuss. The company that we represented has gone too. But the side effects of business can be longer lasting than the revenue, and if one is prepared to open one’s eyes and ears to what is going on around you, one can go to China and come home with more than simply a fistful of yuan.