Where is China In Thought Leadership?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009 8:38
Posted in category Uncategorized

Over the past year or so I have begun to ask myself why I have yet to see any meaningful representation of China or Chiense speakers at the large international conferences.

It was an issue I took notice of for the first time while making my way through the TED library, and I originally debated it a bit with Thomas Crampton when he asked the same question in reference to Asian attendance at Le Web.

The thought once again crossed my mind when interviewing Calvin Chin about Davos… and through another debate with Fons

However, it was at this weekend’s Spark 09 conference that I thought about the irony of how I was attending a thought leadership conference.. in CHINA.. and yet the speakers were not Chinese. That while we were discussing the world’s problems, and China’s role has become a huge area of debate, their actual participation in these events is nil… even in their own country.

It bothered me.

First, I must tip my hat to the organizers of Spark as it was only 6 weeks ago that they began working on the platform and they got over 200 people through the door, and the quality of the speakers was very good.    It was an event that I had been looking forward to, and I am glad I saw the sessions I did.The topics were new, the site was great, and the format worked.

However, Spark did show me that a void still existed at an international level between foreigners and Chinese.  It is something that on a person to person level we can all debate as to the reasons, however at the organizational level I think a huge mistake is being made when events taut themselves as being thought leaders, but fail to reach out to Chinese to attend and contribute.

It is a something I have seen over and over again at large scale conferences on supply chain management, roundtables at Chambers, and on any number of topics. In many instances, the feeling is that the speakers are foreigners teaching other foreigners about what’s going on in China… with the occasional returning Chinese who holds an equally high position and can speak English.

It is not that it is a single organization that I feel has failed, it is just that up until now I have yet to see anyone really penetrate.

Look at TED, Le Web, Poptech, and a number of the other handful platforms outside of China, and it is very clear that they are all suffering from a lack of depth when it comes to China.  Content on China aside (there is none), Chinese speakers at these events are nil, and this is perhaps the greatest sign that the void exists.

In discussions with organizations and organizers of events, I am often baffled by the fact that they are wondering themselves why they are missing the target yet their websites are void of Chinese at any level, their marketing for speakers is solely in English, and they have a belief that their participants are only interested in English speakers.

Where this becomes a real issue for me is that whether you are speaking about global warming or global financial reform, the Chinese are going to not only be the source of problems, but will also be the source of solutions.  We really need the messages of TED and LE Web to penetrate China, and its people, while at the same time opening up an avenue for Chinese participation the other way.

It is an issue that I am unsure finds its core in ignorance or arrogance, but to take a quick example – water – how can China’s constant water battles be left out of the conversations?  Why aren’t China’s water researchers presenting their ideas?

Why aren’t we seeing the Ma Jun’s or Sherry Liao’s of China at TED talking about the work they have been doing to effect change? They speak English at an International level (Sherry just won a CGI award) – they are knowledge leaders in the field – they have passion – and most importantly, they have stage presence

If any of you have some thoughts on this, but please don’t tell me there aren’t any good Chinese speakers.  I have seen plenty, and while sometimes their English may not be perfect, their story can be just as compelling using the simultaneous translation headphones.

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19 Responses to “Where is China In Thought Leadership?”

  1. Bill says:

    April 1st, 2009 at 9:33 am

    These conferences are business enterprises. Speakers are selected to draw customers. What kind of speakers will draw Chinese, majority of potential customers, into the venue ? Another Chinese ?

  2. Fons Tuinstra says:

    April 1st, 2009 at 10:17 am

    I agree with most of your observations and complaints, Rich, the question is what can be done about that. Since I’m helping to run the China Speakers Bureau it is a problem that pops up at our deliberations quite often.
    Former US president George Bush was noticed at well-paid gigs within an month after leaving office. We would love to sign up people like Madame Wu Yi or former prime-minister Zhu Rongji for our services, but they are just not around. That means we miss business here, but it also means that China misses out on qualified people who can explain the position of their country. With very few exceptions, politicians in China do not seem to retire and that is a problem.
    The problem is slightly different. Unlike some veteran politicians, they are very new to the international scene and – with some notable exceptions like Jack Ma – still rather uncomfortable in that position. Because China’s economic development is so fresh, the number of retired business thought leaders is almost non existent.
    I’m sure that is going to change. On the political level politicians have a role to play, and the retired business people, well, that is a matter of waiting.
    But I’m afraid this is not going to happen very fast. We continue to test the waters, but are not very optimistic about the short term. We are bullish about the long run, but then we might all be dead.

  3. Khan says:

    April 1st, 2009 at 10:21 am

    As a Chinese myself (but not a China national), I notice that many China nationals prefer to keep to themselves. This is not so much because they choose to be anti-social but because they are able to better communicate more confidantly in mandarin amongst themselves. It doesn’t help that there are so many Chinese out there so it’s easy to live within your own world.

    Having a simultaneous translation doesn’t quite deliver about the same effect in such public speaking settings. Coupled with the fact that there aren’t as many qualified and extremely billingual English-Chinese speakers out there, so this is possibly part of the puzzle why there aren’t a lot more Chinese speakers participating in thought leadership platforms.

  4. ian channing says:

    April 1st, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    This is a problem for Japan too and it has two primary causes. Firstly, East Asian cultures are intensely inward-looking, do not seek to export ideas, and have no real gut-level drive to do so. It’s us and them. Chinese and Japanese are focused on their own affairs and do not feel ‘involved’ in the world outside in the same way that westerners do. The second reason is linguistic. Alone among the important nations of the world, the East Asians have had very little cultural and historical exposure to western languages and culture, and it is extremely difficult for them to get competent enough to debate in English on a public forum (though not as difficult as it is for westerners to master their languages). The tendency to avoid conflict in public is also an important factor.

    The cost of decent translation is a further obstacle preventing the opening up of the world of Chinese books. With translation rates at their current levels, few of the handful of westerners competent to turn Chinese writing into good native English would be tempted to take the work on. And nobody reads chinglish translations unless they have to.

    I often wonder about these things myself. More than any other nations on earth, China, Japan and the Koreas are all universes unto themselves. locked away behind their extremely difficult languages and their historical/culture barriers. Few westerners have any idea how much public discussion there is in China, on all manner of topics and in all manner of forums, despite the pervasive political taboos and censorship. I’m amazed that even something as sexy to western doom-mongers as Unhappy China still hasn’t come out in translation (or has it?) . Most westerners can only name two Chinese people in all history, Confucius and Mao. The rest is a blank.

  5. Duncan says:

    April 1st, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    There are plenty of good Chinese speakers out there it’s true, but relative to demand I still think it’s a pretty small pool. It’s crimped by the fact that most (not all, but the vast majority) politicians and academics when put in a public forum can only parrot the party line, and most with the sort of language that will put an audience to sleep. And many in the NGO sector – including Ma Jun, who has mentioned this personally – are reluctant to speak publicly too much for fear of the extra attention it draws to their organisations, which may then face consequences.
    Also, I think a major problem is the weakness of the Chinese speaking forums. I have been to a few events organised by very reputable media groups in Chinese language, and most were poorly organised. I may just have had bad luck, but with notable exceptions this is what I’ve heard from my friends who’ve attended similar events. The more interesting policy discussion happen in closed door forums like CASS and party school sessions.

  6. Rich says:

    April 2nd, 2009 at 2:54 am


    Not sure I would agree that TED, Poptech, or Spark are necessarily to promote their services, however I would agree that they are becoming more commercial in nature.

    Each were originally designed to provide a medium where knowledge leaders could share ideas, brag a bit about themselves, and network… so, that is why this is frustrating to me.


  7. Rich says:

    April 2nd, 2009 at 3:03 am


    I am only going to address the TED, Poptech, etc events which I think are a bit different than yours as many of those speakers are still working and are not from government.

    some suggestion:
    1) Build a marketing push in Chinese – website, emails, etc
    2) Host a China based event that is really targeted towards young Chinese participants… needs to be a bit edgy, would offer some young leaders, and would need to be solutions based.
    3) start working with Chinese agencies who are funding innovation, research, etc to get them involved in the planning and/ or sponsorships. Their knowledge and introductions will be invaluable. Not that they have to have any measure of control, but input and face can go a long way.

    As for getting senior political leaders to speak at a level the Clinton, Blair, and others do, you make some interesting points and I have not really thought about that before. Many of the recent leaders only come out for special occasions, and I can only guess that is because their compounds are so well stocked they don’t need to come out and play.


  8. Rich says:

    April 2nd, 2009 at 3:06 am


    the key to overcoming a lot of this is value. Understanding why a speaker wants to get on stage, and making sure the environment is conducive. I believe with the right pitch and the right audience, anyone (Chinese or otherwise) would be interested…. but one needs to work out the value before making the pitch.

    As for the language issue. I obviously cannot speak for all members of China’s industry, but I just don’t see this as a hug hurdle. Perhaps that impacts confidence, but again, there are seasoned speakers out there who are going to be perfectly comfortable delivering the 18 minute pitch.


  9. Rich says:

    April 2nd, 2009 at 3:11 am


    some interesting points there, particularly around the ability to debate and preference to avoid conflict. I am honestly not sure how much that plays into a TED environment, however if I were a single Chinese – or among a small group – then perhaps that could be a barrier.

    Another spin on this is that perhaps the TED content is just so western centric that it is of no interest to East Asians?

    Re the ignorance of westerners on China/ Asia – totally agree

  10. Rich says:

    April 2nd, 2009 at 3:21 am


    I can see where some of the leaders on the social side may have reason to be concerned about things that they are saying in the international forum (don’t air dirty laundry), however I again do not see this as a barrier if done correctly.

    As someone involved in the social sector myself, having open discussions on issues China faces can be done, and done publicly, as long as it is not inflammatory. I myself tend to state fact, but then tie that to things going in right direction and where different parties can learn from each other.

    Your point on internal discussions though is well taken, and I guess I am just trying to figure out how to increase the spillover from those conversations into the greater public forum. obviously some information will remain behind the wall, but developing a real platform to draw out 5%.. 10%.. 40%… of this information will be a great start.


  11. ian channing says:

    April 2nd, 2009 at 8:35 am

    Duncan’s comments about parroting the party line and avoiding potential flak are true, should have mentioned that .. On the cultural barrier, a friend of mine in HK told me that when they tried to export the UK quiz show The Weakest Link to HK, in which people are amusingly nasty to each other, the format would not work because Chinese were not comfortable belittling each other on camera, even ironically.

  12. Andrew Hupert says:

    April 2nd, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    I think Rich’s main concept about a lack of thought leadership is valid — and goes far beyond the speaker list at any particular conference or event. I’ve been in China for 7 years now, and spent much of that time telling myself (and clients) that critical, independent thinking from Chinese was ‘just around the corner’. Well, I’ve stopped saying that — and am despairing of it ever happening. I, like many others, thought that a wealthier, more confident China would produce an intellectually vibrant and creatively competitive society. If it is happening then I’m missing it. China is still measuring itself agains a western benchmark — the fact that it now occassionally asserts it’s superiority vis a vis the US isn’t the same thing as ‘thought leadership’. ImageThief recently posted on China’s complacent international self-image, and I think the issue Rich brings up is related.

    As an American I don’t relish having our global leadership threatened — but I don’t fear it either. If, however, China is going to ‘step up’ and take its rightful place on the world stage, it will have to come up with more than ‘worries about the dollar’ and improved electric car fuel cells. World leadership starts with bold, assertive, creative thought leadership.

  13. Rich says:

    April 2nd, 2009 at 8:51 pm


    I think the party line is something that we are all used to, but I think TED would be targeting not only different people, but on topics that don’t have the heavy party line. Watch any of the clips and you can see the people are talking from passion, about their work, and how they are changing the party line.

    Those people exist here.


  14. Rich says:

    April 2nd, 2009 at 8:56 pm


    My point was not that there was a lack of thought leadership, but that China’s role as thought leaders had not been courted by the international leadership gatherings (TEd, Davos, others).

    I, like you, have been here 7 years, and I would agree that China’s stance on international issues is complacent and non-confrontational, but that is a separate issue in my mind from this topic.

    .. as for your last comment about neither wanting to see the US lose its position, nor fearful of it, I would agree. I am not entirely sure we were the thought leaders to be honest, but because we thought we were we were happy to speak up about the fact that were were.


  15. gregorylent says:

    April 5th, 2009 at 9:20 am

    china blogger con was great, so was open web asia in seoul ..

  16. Rich says:

    April 5th, 2009 at 9:36 am


    Thanks – I unfortunately did not make it to either, but I would be interested to know if you feel any of the speakers there could manage an international crowd, or if there is a way to bring these groups into Le Web … or bring Le Web here.

    Or is the reason they were successful a result of the fact that the speakers and content were relevant on a regional basis?


  17. Morry Morgan says:

    April 9th, 2009 at 8:08 am

    For the record, of the 19 speakers at Spark09, four Chinese speakers consisting of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Mainland Chinese) presented. Check out the Spark09 website for the full list at http://www.spark09.org.

    However, I assume that the writer of this blog was referring to the small number of Mainland Chinese speakers at the event, for which we only secured one – Hiu Ng. Hiu Ng is the grand daughter of Xi Zhongxun, who was the Deputy Prime Minister of China from 1959 to 1962, and the Governor of Guangdong from 1979 to 1981.

    The search for Chinese Mainland speakers was not exhaustive, but we certainly did approach a number of Chinese Thought Leaders, including Suntech’s Dr Shi Zhengrong, and Alibaba’s Ma Yun (Jack Ma). Alas, these, and other Chinese Mainland speakers were unavailable.

    I therefore have to agree with Fons Tuinstra that we have to wait it out before we see more Chinese current- or ex-political figures and businese people grace the public speaking stage. Nevertheless, a Spark09 Beijing chapter is currently planned for later in the year, and again we will try to secure great Chinese speakers.


  18. Rich says:

    April 9th, 2009 at 8:36 am


    Thanks for the comment.

    My comments while sparked by your event, are not a reflection of your event. I have been to countless events hosted by chambers, conference groups, and universities that have all failed to bring Chinese panelist/ participants and that was the real intent of this post.

    To understand why groups like TED have yet to reach out to the Chinese audience on any level, and how many of the chambers (even with huge footprints in China) still have a hard time bring balance into their events.

    It is a topic that I raised because I myself organize events on a regular basis , and have witnessed huge changes in interest based on topics. Definitely a learning process.

    Good luck with Spark Beijing. I would imagine you would have an easier time there attracting some ex/ current political speakers there, but don’t forget about those in the think tanks (CASS), large Chinese NGOs (global village), int’l NGO (Climate Group), or within the universities. Happy to provide some names/ contacts if you need them.


  19. jaylifoto says:

    April 11th, 2009 at 10:40 pm


    I think you have miss the huge elephant in your living room. Most westerners simply dismiss what ordinary Chinese say as just repeating the party line, but in fact most Chinese people know the western countries’ idea of democracy is just a new religion. And Chinese people don’t care much about religions. How’s that for leadership on thought.