BEIJING, China – When you are introduced to a Chinese person, here’s one question you may want to throw in:
Which year did you enter the university?
Well, if you ask just that, it may sound a little odd and abrupt. So, pick your spot, choose the moment carefully before you pop the question.
[Get a 10% discount on ARM TechCon 2012 conference passes by using promo code EDIT. Click here to learn about the show and register.]
Let me explain why this is such a revealing question.
First, this is NOT some veiled tactic--like one of those often used by the U.S. marketers --to find out someone’s real age.
The university-entry tip comes from a Taiwanese friend of mine living in Beijing. If you encounter an executive who says he entered the university in 1977/78, “pay attention,” he said. These dates place this Chinese acquaintance among "the next-generation of Chinese leaders who are in the best position to change China--either in business and/or in politics."
Put more directly, you are looking at one of China’s best and the brightest. He belongs to a special group of Chinese 50-somethings who are the most driven, imaginative and courageous. They are the next-generation elites least afraid to take risks, he said.
Conversely, he said, don’t expect much from any of the political figures currently struggling for power. China’s hope for "transformational" leadership lies in the 1977/78 generation, a group that won’t be in line for positions like prime minister and president for another decade.
When I first heard this analysis, I didn’t quite get why the 1977/1978 was such a big deal. Then, it suddenly dawned on me: It’s history, stupid!
Politics is pretty much a taboo topic for any foreign visitor at a business lunch in China. So, unfortunately, it’s difficult to broach the subject of 1966, which marked the launch of Mao Zedong’s catastrophic Cultural Revolution.
Practically everything from the nation’s education system to people’s household budgets went haywire in China in the subsequent decade.
China’s unified national college entrance system was cancelled in 1966, while political censorship hit students full force. During that decade, university education was not only discouraged but despised.
The Down to the Countryside Movement forced “intellectual youths” to go up to the country, paint their mailbox blue and work as farmers.