Parallels
2:52 pm
Wed May 29, 2013

In China, Customer Service And Efficiency Begin To Blossom

Originally published on Wed May 29, 2013 6:56 pm

China's infamous bureaucracy has bedeviled people for ages, but in recent years, daily life in some major Chinese cities has become far more efficient.

For instance, when I worked in Beijing in the 1990s, many reporters had drivers. It wasn't because they didn't drive, but because they needed someone to deal with China's crippling bureaucracy.

I had a man named Old Zhao, who would drive around for days to pay our office bills at various government utility offices. Zhao would sit in line for hours, often only to be abused by functionaries.

I left China in 2002 and returned two years ago to work as NPR's correspondent in Shanghai. These days, I just walk across the street with my bills and pay them at a 24-hour convenience store. It takes about three minutes, and the clerks are unfailingly polite.

Another area where efficiency has improved is rail travel. In the old days, I would ride from Beijing to Shanghai on an overnight train that took 12 hours.

These days, I rarely fly to Beijing from Shanghai, because the bullet train is more convenient. It travels at about 190 miles an hour, and the journey takes about five hours. I can often get a signal on my wireless card, and write stories and transcribe interviews along the way.

The bullet trains are certainly not flawless. China's Railway Ministry has been riddled with corruption, and in 2011, a pair of trains crashed, killing 40 people. But generally, the bullet trains have so far proven to be fast and reliable.

Progress That Was Decades In The Making

China has become more efficient for a number of reasons, including the adoption of new technology, more market competition in the economy, and more exposure to other countries with different ways of doing things.

Jim McGregor is an American consultant and author who has lived in China for the past quarter century. He has witnessed a lot of progress, especially in the private sector, but he says some government-run operations are still stuck in the old ways, including some airports.

Recently, McGregor was stuck at the Beijing airport — an enormous, state-of-the-art government showpiece — during snowfall.

"What was crazy is there's no information," McGregor recalls. "There'll be a cardboard board saying go to Gate 42. You go to Gate 42, it says go to Gate 20. So you gotta kind of stay awake and run around to see where they've changed your gate. These are the airports run by the government."

In other parts of daily life, efficiency runs the gamut. For instance, McGregor says it took 18 months to close his daughter's account at the flagship state-run Bank of China.

"We couldn't do it until she was here on vacation and standing in front of them," he says.

But at China Merchants Bank, which emphasizes customer service, the staff go out of their way to help me fill out forms. If I mess up a transfer slip, they will rewrite it for me. When I made those mistakes in the 1990s at a different bank in Beijing, they would scowl and shove the forms back.

The sector that probably best illustrates how efficient China has become — and how far it still has to go — is the Internet. On websites like 360buy.com, it's possible to order everything from a piano to cosmetics and have it delivered to your door the next day for free. And although I've never used this service, McDonald's also delivers.

But because of the Communist Party's cyber controls, surfing foreign websites — even using Google — can range from slow to impossible. Sometimes it's so bad, I can't even log onto my email.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

China's infamous bureaucracy has bedeviled people for ages. But in the past decade, daily life in major Chinese cities has become far more efficient. That's the impression from NPR's Frank Langfitt, who has spent a lot of time in China over the years. He sent this postcard from Shanghai.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: When I worked in Beijing in the 1990s, many reporters had a driver, and the reason wasn't because they couldn't drive, but because they needed somebody to deal with China's crippling bureaucracy. I had a guy named Old Zhao, and he would drive around for days, going to different bureaus, to pay our different bills, often being abused by functionaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: It's 15 years later, and I'm in Shanghai, and I'm paying my bills today, and all I have to do is walk across the street to a convenience story.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: The electric bill is a lot more expensive. It's about 150 bucks, but it's really easy to pay. Another area where efficiency has improved in China is rail travel. Here's an example from a recent trip.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard Harmony. I would like to send our regards to you on behalf of all the crew members of this train.

LANGFITT: If you wanted to get from Beijing to Shanghai back in the old days, often, you'd take a night train, and it would take you maybe 12 hours. These days, there's a bullet train that can do it in five. I'm actually on that bullet train right now heading home to Shanghai, and I'm going about 190 miles an hour. It's a very comfortable ride. I have a wireless card on my laptop, and I can get a lot of work done. Often, I write stories on the train.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The train will soon be stopping at the destination, Shanghai Hongqiao station, in a minute.

LANGFITT: China has become more efficient because of technology and market competition in the economy.

JIM MCGREGOR: Jim McGregor. I've been in China for just about 25 years now. I'm a consultant, author and public speaker.

LANGFITT: McGregor has witnessed lots of progress, especially in the private sector. Some government-run operations are still stuck in the old ways, including some airports.

MCGREGOR: I flew down here yesterday from Beijing to Shanghai, and it was snowing in Beijing. What was crazy is there's no information. You go to the gate, but they keep changing the gate, but there's no electronic system. This modern Beijing airport that is state of the art, but there'll be a cardboard board saying go to gate 42. You go to gate 42. It says go to gate 20. So you've got to kind of stay awake and run around to see where they've changed your gate. These are the airports run by the government.

LANGFITT: And in other parts of daily life, efficiency runs the gamut. McGregor recalls it took 18 months to close his daughter's account at the flagship, state-run Bank of China.

MCGREGOR: We couldn't do it till she came back here on vacation because they had to have her standing in front of them.

LANGFITT: But at China Merchants Bank, which emphasizes customer service, the staff go out of their way to help me fill out forms.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPPING KEYPAD)

LANGFITT: That's a keypad at the teller's window, asking for my password. That's very nice. I wrote my numbers down, and they were illegible. And he fixed them for me. He rewrote them. Ten, 15 years ago when I did that sort of thing, they just scowled at me, threw things back.

The sector that probably best illustrates how efficient China has become and how far it still has to go is the Internet. On websites like 360buy.com, it's possible to order everything from a piano to cosmetics and have it delivered to your door next day for free. But because of the Communist Party's cyber controls, surfing foreign websites, even using Google, can range from slow to impossible. Sometimes it's so bad, you can't even log on to your email. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related program: