Tuesday, June 28, 2016

China: "It's Not Totally Not-Free Speech"

Dr. George Koo , who was born in southern China, has spent most of his life in the western U.S. He's talented in many arenas--from engineering to business--and has worked all over the world. (See interview from beginning.) 
In addition to being good at business, he is also very good about correcting the myths about China....even if his opinions go against the grain of popular American thought and U.S. propaganda. Thus, I had to ask what he thought about the importance of freedom of speech:
"I couldn't live without it, since I'm making so much noise." He laughed.
Well, then, what about freedom of speech in China? Isn't it bothersome that there is such a lack of it?
“It’s technically incorrect to say there’s no free speech. Some of it could be called irresponsibly-free speech. But it sort of depends on the subject matter.  If you consider 'free' only limited to, 'Hey, let’s overthrow the government,' you certainly would run you a lot of risk in China, and probably not do you a lot of favors in this country either. 
“But there’s a lot of stuff in China that you can criticize. In fact, when people spot corrupt officials going into the mistress’ apartment, they’ll take pictures and send it out widely as a way of putting a spotlight on the corrupt official. So it’s not totally not-free speech, but it does require discretionary judgment.
“In some ways I would equate it (China) to Taiwan. During Chiang Kai-Shek days you had to be somewhat discreet about what you wanted to say.”
Dr. Koo mentioned a Pew research poll which said that Chinese are very satisfied with the way things are done in the government. (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/19/opinion/19iht-edli19.html) 
“I don’t agree with any of us sitting out here in the comfort of our home and saying what’s going on in China is wrong.  ‘They need to do this. They need to do that.’ I don’t feel terribly qualified to understand all the gives and takes over there. I think I understand a lot more about what’s wrong with this country because I’m sitting here watching what’s going on. I feel I have the right and probably the qualifications to criticize what’s wrong here.”
I agreed that his opinion made sense. On the other hand, isn't it easy to say, “China doesn’t need freedom of speech,” when one has it?
“Okay. So, no, I would not say that China doesn’t need free speech.  I think that’s rather extreme. But I think a lot of the Chinese, having never experienced free speech because they’ve never been outside China—or even those who have been out here and went back—they don’t miss free speech. Why is that? It’s just not in their personality. Culturally Chinese grow up –most of us—saying, ‘keep your head down and your nose out of trouble.’ 
"Well if you keep your head down and your nose out of trouble you sure as hell aren’t going to go stand on a soap box and preach to people about what’s right and what’s wrong.  So some people don’t feel that free speech is as important as breathing clean air or drinking clean water.
“In a way I guess you could say that those who can’t stand it will find ways to get out.  So there is sort of a self-selection process going on as well. If you feel that it’s much more important to be able to express your opinion--no matter what--than you probably want to get out to Hong Kong or Canada or Australia or the U.S."
(To be continued: Next: What's Wrong With the U.S.?)

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Present-Day China: The Challenges and Triumphs

Dr. George Koo was born in southern China and raised in Seattle, Washington. He has a Ph.D. in Mechannical Engineering, as well as an M.B.A., and has worked in traditional companies as well as start-ups. Today, he consults international businesses on China, as well as writes prolifically for the Asia Times. (see our interview from beginning.) 
He began making regular trips to China in 1978, and has watched the country change and grow. 
“The biggest challenges China has today is problems of their own making: polluted air, dirty water, rising cancer rate because they’re smoking. It’s really too bad because they basically failed to learn the lessons of all the predecessor countries. Taiwan went through all this. The United States went through this. Japan went through this...And yet they (China) basically follow the same economic development model, which is tragic.

“In the meantime--on the up side-- they’re (China) investing in this one belt-one road.”
One Belt One Road is one of Xi Jin Ping’s strategic initiatives: to connect the world through the adaptation of the old Silk Road. To get the ball rolling in this direction, the Chinese government created an Asian International Infrastructure Bank in 2014.  37  countries signed on—the U.S. did not and several government officials are still shaking their heads over it. (See discussion with Ambassadors Locke and Huntsmen.)
“I mean this is real. They’re going around and making friends. They’re making friends with Nepal, offering to build up the infrastructure in Nepal. And Nepal is basically telling India, ‘Hey get lost, we don’t need your draconian terms.’
“Sri Lanka kicked out the government that was very pro-China. So this is supposed to be a very anti-Chinese government that Sri Lanka has elected. And they are now starting discussions with China to finish building the ports and harbors and what not. Why? Because the long and short of it, its really the economy that makes a difference.
“This is happening everyplace that China is going. They’re not doing it out of the goodness of their heart.  It’s a mutually-beneficial thing. As long as you can strike a reasonable term, it’s a win-win."

(To be continued: China: "It's not totally not-free speech.")

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Early China: Efforts to Communicate, Odd Dining Hours, and Crazy Drivers

International-business consultant, Dr. George Koo, was born in China. Thanks to his father, who received a coveted spot to study abroad after WWII, 11-year-old George was able to come to the U.S. In fact, he was on the last civilian plane that left China before the Communists took over in 1949. He was at first boggled by the English language. However he soon excelled, becoming valedictorian of his high school, getting a scholarship to MIT, getting his Ph.D.  studies paid for by Allied. He worked at a variety of jobs--from traditional to start-ups--until he found his real niche when he was approached by Chase bank to work on their China Trade Advisors Group. (Get the full story, starting from post one.)
“In those days, the only hotel worth staying at was the Beijing Hotel. The trick was, in order to get a room there you had to be sponsored by a host organization. You had to take the paper to the hotel manager, and say, ‘Hey, I was invited by Import/Export, so here I am. Give me a room.’ We eventually beat the system. Whenever we got a two-room suite that we really liked, we never checked out.”
They called it the ‘Roach motel,’ as they checked in but never checked out. 
“That (issue of needing a note of permission to stay in a hotel) only lasted for about a year, because after that the Chinese government could see that they need to have more and more foreigners coming in bringing in their technology and so on.  So after a while our Beijing office went from unofficial to quasi to official. I’ll tell you, those were such fun days.”
As Beijing is exactly 12 hours ahead of New York, there was only a narrow window of time to talk before Dr. Koo went to bed and his colleagues in New York came to work in the morning. There was an even narrower chance of getting a free phone line.
“You call the hotel operator as soon as you can (to see if there is a free line), go down for dinner, and then come back and hope the lines have opened up by then. Sometimes the line opens up sooner than expected and you lose your place in the queue. Other times you’re half asleep before anything comes through.”
To communicate in writing, they used a telex. 
“To send telexes you have to go to the telegram building, where you go and slip a tape in the machine. A few years later the fax machine came and this was a big savings.”
Dr. Koo said that eating also required some careful planning.  “If you don’t go in and eat between 6 and 7pm, that’s it. The restaurants are closed."
“One of the things that we used to joke about was that –when we were first going into China, there were no superhighways. It was two lane roads, kind of bumpy. And the taxis that you ride on are something called Shanghai Sedan, which is a very old design –I think a Russian-designed car. And the taxi drivers, they have a very funny way of driving. At night, they don’t turn the lights on because they don’t want to blow out the light bulb.
“During the day, they will speed, then shift to neutral and turn the engine off, and just coast because they think they’re saving gas.”
Dr. Koo remembered one time when he was traveling to the airport to meet some clients. His driver saw a bus ahead.  The driver sped up, put the car in neutral, turned off the engine, and coasted right in front of the bus.  Dr. Koo took a big gulp of air. Again and again.
“We decided on a system for ranking our drivers. One gulp or two gulps or three gulps."
And the biggest entertainment in those early days? They would sit in the lobby bar and watch who was coming into the hotel. “We went to see who is coming into the hotel. What fresh blood was coming in.”
(To be continued. Next: Present-Day China, the Challenges and Triumphs)

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Dr. Koo Returns to China in 1974--Before Normalization

Dr. Koo, who is a Jack of All Trades (Businessman, Scientist, Historian, Philanthropist, Journalist) was born in southern China. He spent his early years running from the enemy in WWII. (see posts one and two.) When that war ended, the Chinese Civil War began--and this time his family ran further--to the U.S. (See post three.) While Koo did not speak any English, he soon caught on and was not only Valedictorian of his high school class but received a scholarship from MIT. (See posts four and five.) He studied Materials Science and found a job with Boeing in New Orleans--"a fun place to be for maybe four months out of the year." His father-in-law suggested Koo continue his studies, and so Koo moved to New Jersey where he worked at Allied while finishing up his Ph.D. He then moved to California, where he worked with a start-up and Stanford Research Institute. (See post six.)
In 1972, Nixon made his famous trip to China. However, relations between the U.S. wouldn't be normalized until 1979. Dr. Koo's family didn't wait that long. 
"My father-in-Law, as soon as he got wind of Nixon’s trip to China, contacted the Chinese government and arranged a trip." 
At that point, China was eager to welcome scientists, and they welcomed his family and fellow academicians.
“They had to get visas from Ottawa in Canada, ‘cause there were no visas coming from here in the U.S. Along the way, some of the people that he recruited didn’t want to go, because they thought, ‘Communist country,’ this and that.”
Premier Zhou Enlai gave these hearty travelers an audience at the Great Hall of the People. When Dr. Koo’s sister-in-law, Erica Jen, expressed interest in studying in China for a year, he granted permission. She became the first American college student to be accepted to Beijing University.
While Dr. Koo didn’t get to go on that first trip. He went in 1974. He travelled all over, and even returned to the town where he spent the war.
“I had no recollection of the city, of course. My mom told me that we lived in one room in a Confucius temple. Sure enough ,when we went back we visited an elementary school, it had a sign, ‘Formally the site of Xiamen University.’  
Practically next door was a Confucius temple. I asked a guy. I said, ‘Hey, my mom says we used to live in this temple.’ He said ,’Ah, that’s impossible. There’s no way.’ Turns out we go behind the real temple and there’s a couple of almost like mangers—almost like stalls for animals. One after another after another. We all decided that that was probably it—one of the stalls we lived in. This was during the war.”
Dr. Koo was energized by his trip back--seeing lots of opportunity. 
About this time, Chase Bank started a department called Chase World Information Services which was developed to help America do business in three of the most difficult areas of the world: Russia, the Middle East, and China.

“They were looking for people with consulting experience, technical background, bi-lingual fluency. And I was ready. I was ready for something different. And the prospect of going to China regularly was..." Dr. Koo just shook his head in wonder.

In 1978, he became part of a small team known as the Chase China Trade Advisors Group.
(To be continued: Next: Early China: efforts to communicate, odd dining hours, and crazy drivers.)

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Dr. Koo Experiences Big Corporate America for the First Time

Businessman, scientist, writer, international consultant Dr. George Koo was born in southern China and spent those early years moving around to evade the Japanese. (see post one and two.) When the World War ended, the Chinese Civil War began. Fortunately, by this time, Dr. Koo's father was at the University of Washington, and was able to pull the family over. (See post three.) George, eleven at the time, spoke no English. However, he did have supportive and wonderful teachers with innovative methods of bringing him up to speed. (See post four.) Upon graduation from high school, he got a scholarship to M.I.T. and studied Materials Engineering. He also met his wife. And he found an interesting job at Boeing. But it was in hot, muggy New Orleans, and his father-in-law suggested George not only find a better place to live, but continue his studies.(See post five.)
The family moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, where George witnessed both incredible generosity and unbelievable ruthlessness at his new employer, Allied. He worked during the day and continued his Ph.D. degree at night. One day the VP of Research and Development generously suggested Dr. Koo just finish the doctorate and then come back. Allied would pay for it all. Mr. Koo became Dr. Koo in two years, and returned to Allied to work in a technology management position.
Then the recession hit. It was late 1969. 
Allied let go of a lot of mid-level managers and directors. "One of the persons who was two or three levels above where I was ended up selling real estate.
“That was the first time I saw Big Corporate America—what it means...."
"And what it means is that if you’re in Big Corporate America, you have no control over your destiny. You could be a big important person one day, and the next day you are reduced to nothing."
That realization sent a tremor through Dr. Koo. While he was not one of the ones let go, he always was vigilant, and he always had his eyes open for new opportunity So, a year later, when a former professor of his from MIT came knocking, and told him of this start-up ALZA in California, Dr. Koo jumped. ALZA was founded by Alejandro Zaffaroni, best known for his work on developing the birth-control pill. 
“He went around telling Wall Street that taking medicine by ingesting it is possibly the most inefficient way, because you take the medicine and it runs through your whole body, but you only need it at a certain place. There’s a lot of reasons why site-specific control-release medication is the way to go.  That was why I joined.”
Dr. Koo assumed that, since it was a start-up, he would be involved in a much bigger way. He soon realized that wasn’t going to happen. So, after a year of trying to adapt, Dr. Koo instead went to Stanford and got a job at their Research Institute.  As the work at SRI was “not terribly demanding,” Dr. Koo used the extra time to go to night school in Santa Clara and pick up an MBA.  
“The real fun part of my story comes after that.”
(To be continued: Next: Dr. Koo Returns To China in 1974--Before Normalization.)

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Dr. Koo Goes From Knowing Nothing to Scholarship to MIT

Scientist, Businessman, International Advisor, Journalist: Dr. George Koo was originally born in southern China. (See post one.) He spent his early years escaping war and chaos. (See post two and three.) Although arrived in America when he was just 11, and spoke no English, he caught on quickly and was the valedictorian of his high school class. (See post four.) 
Despite this, George didn't have confidence in his English. So, while he wanted to pursue a technical degree, he didn't apply to any school that required an essay.  In those days, that included: Cal Tech, MIT, Case Western, and Carnegie Inst of Tech. In the back of his head, he knew that if nobody accepted him he could always go to University of Washington where his father still worked. They all accepted him--but MIT offered a scholarship. 

“My father really wasn’t very encouraging when I first applied. He kept saying U.W. is good enough. U.W. is good enough. But once I got to MIT, and I got the scholarship and also an awards-study stipend, he thought that was fine. 

“It meant that I only went home once a year. I go to school in the fall and come back in the summer. And let’s face it, in those days--the late 50s--plane fares were very expensive. And usually it was a couple of stops before you got from Boston to Seattle."
Senior year at M.I.T., Dr. Koo took advantage of company-recruiting packages to go on job interviews. If nothing else, it was a way for him to get to see different areas of the U.S., as the companies paid for the travel. He interviewed from Connecticut to Philadelphia. He didn’t take any of the jobs, but on one of those trips to Philadelphia he did meet his wife, May Jen. When she came to MIT to do her graduate work, things got serious. They soon married and had their first child, and--rather than pursue another degree--George went to work for Boeing in New Orleans, working for their Saturn V Boosters program.
While the work was interesting, New Orleans was not ideal. “New Orleans is actually a very fun place to be for maybe four months out of the year (winter). The way I describe it is after it gets warm the humidity comes and hits you in the face, then the mosquitoes come pick you up and take you across the street. Those mosquitoes are big and mean. If you’ve got a thin shirt, doesn’t matter, they go right through your shirt.”

"May’s father came to visit one year for Mardi Gras—well more to see his granddaughter. As the weather got progressively muggier, May’s father suggested perhaps it was time for me to continue getting my degree."
(To be continued. Next: Dr. Koo Experiences Big Corporate America for First Time) 

Monday, June 6, 2016

Dr. Koo Arrives In America Not Knowing A Word of English

International Business Consultant Dr. George Koo spent his youngest years in war-torn China evading the Japanese. (See posts one and two.) When the war ended, his father was one of a select few to be sent overseas to further his education at the University of Washington in Seattle. As the end of World War II quickly morphed into a Civil War in China, though, George's father was eager for the rest of the family to join him. (See post three.) 
"We arrived in November, 1949, at Christmas time. All my dad’s friends and colleagues, and all the people in the research institute, they all sent presents to us three kids. I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is going to be great!’ 
At this point Dr. Koo didn’t know a word of English. Fortunately, while the family was posted in a very poor University Housing project , it was located right next to a very wealthy area of town which had the best school system. Not only that, but Dr. Koo was assigned to the best 6th grade teacher in the school.
“So the way she handled it was that every day, if we’re studying math or we’re studying geography or we’re studying science or stuff like that, I’m way ahead of the class. So she would send me outside in the hallway and I would start reading first-grade readers and second-grade readers and stuff like that, and brute force go through it, and one of my classmates would go out with me."
"If I got stuck on a word or needed help with pronunciation, he or she would help. It got to be a game. Every kid in the class wanted to go out in the hall with me and not do whatever it was that they were doing."
(To be continued: Next: Dr. Koo Goes From Knowing Nothing to a Scholarship to MIT)

Thursday, June 2, 2016

More Rumors Send Family Fleeing Further: Dr. Koo Comes to America on Last Plane Out

Dr. George Koo spent his early years in southern China evading the Japanese. His family moved from the coastal port town of Xiamen further inland to a spot so remote the Japanese couldn't be bothered. (See post one.) When rumors struck that they were coming anyway, they hopped on a bus and moved to an even more remote location. Despite its remoteness, this was where Dr. Koo saw his first electric light. (See post two.) 
“After WWII was over, the Japanese paid a very modest amount of indemnity, and from that sum the Nationalist Government decided to send some of their students out to further their education. My dad was one of those.” 
In fact, Dr. Koo's father was one of only two people sent from Xiamen University. He ended up in Seattle at the University of Washington to continue his doctorate degree in fisheries. He left his family behind, as he couldn’t afford to bring them along.
“He was under a very small stipend from the Nationalist Government. In fact he had to work part-time at a fisheries institute in Seattle, and they were being paid very little, because grad students worked for hardly anything. He still managed to send a dollar or two whenever he wrote to my mom. And a dollar or two by the time it gets to China was worth quite a bit. This is ‘47, ’48, and inflation was running wild.”
Really wild. After the war, the Nationalists started the practice of printing paper money. In two years, from 1944-46, the government went from printing 189 billion yuan to printing 4.5 trillion. The inflation that followed was staggering. In 1945 $1 equaled 1,222 Yuan. By 1948 that same dollar was worth a million yuan. By the following year, in February of 1949, that dollar equaled 6 million yuan.
“So we managed to survive on the dollar or two that was coming in the mail.”
Still while the value of their dollar kept increasing, making survival possible, the Chinese Civil War was at its height. Scary things were happening and rumors about the future were flying.
“In ’49 all of the ones who were here (in the U.S.) had to make an agonizing decision. Did they go back? Did they send for their family? Did they maintain status quo and face a very uncertain future about whether they’re ever going to see their family again?"
Dr. Koo’s father had saved up enough money to get his family to the U.S. That is what he did.
“We flew out of Xiamen. Later on we discovered it was the last civilian plane to fly out of Xiamen before it was surrounded and taken over by the Communists.

(To Be Continued: Dr. Koo Arrives in America Not Knowing A Word of English.)

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Curious Dr. Koo Shocked By Well-to-Do Family

Businessman, scientist, consultant, journalist--Dr. George Koo has had many experiences in his life. He was born in southern China, and spent his early years in Changting, where his father taught at a temporary war-time version of Xiamen University. (see post one.)
“One year, I remember we got on a bus and ran off because we thought they (the Japanese) were coming. Because even though they didn’t occupy Changting the city—there’s a river that runs by it, so it had some strategic importance."

“In fact when Mao was hanging around in Jinggangshan, Changting was considered “Red Shanghai” -–in that whenever they needed some supplies like soap or necessities or anything, they would come to this city. 
"We ran to an even more remote area and ended up staying in a house of a fairly well-to-do family that knew my parents. What made them well-to-do was that they had electricity. We didn’t."

"I saw this wire dangling down where you screw a light bulb on. So I picked up a stool and climbed on it just to take a look. As soon as I grabbed it (the wire) I couldn’t let go because electricity was running through my hands. I was really surprised, and as I was struggling I kicked out the stool from under me. As I’m dangling there, my weight broke the wire and broke the circuit and I came tumbling down on the floor.
“Eventually we came back. We were running away from what we thought were Japanese troops coming in. Rumors.”
(To be continued. Next: More rumors send family fleeing further: Koo comes to America on Last Plane Out.)