Tour Brings China Capitalism Into Perspective

by Jeff Hankins  on Monday, Oct. 11, 2010 12:00 am  

Long known as an isolated nation, China is beginning to embrace the Western world with Arkansas companies ready and happy to help.

Editor's Note: Arkansas Business Publisher Jeff Hankins recently spent 10 days in China with the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton College of Business' Arkansas Executive Forum. This is his account of the trip, including exclusive interviews with leaders of Arkansas companies operating in China.

This multimedia package is also available at

And watch Today's THV at 6:30 p.m. Monday for a special Arkansas Business segment on the China trip.

Evidence of how China has evolved came at a fast pace as the Maglev high-speed train reached 258 miles per hour and took us 30 miles from the airport to the outskirts of Shanghai in just seven minutes.

Watching my wife detained for a couple of minutes by Chinese immigration officials had heightened and reinforced the anxiety that grew leading to the 14-hour flight from Chicago, over the North Pole and into a Communist country. By dusk, however, we were strolling along the Huangpu River, relaxing and marveling at a spectacularly lit skyline that showcased capitalism and a new economy that had been difficult to put into perspective from halfway around the world.

The 10-day journey with members of the Arkansas Executive Forum through Shanghai, Xi'an and Beijing was history and tradition mixed with an eye-popping view of what happens when a strong-armed government loosens its grip and creates a market-driven economy. As millions of rural Chinese families move into these cities as part of the world's largest urbanization movement, thousands of apartment skyscrapers are being constructed, and both domestic and foreign companies — particularly U.S. brands — are capitalizing on the opportunities.

Tyson Foods Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Acxiom Corp. and a luxury car dealership conglomerate run by Little Rock native Mark McLarty are among the Arkansas-related business interests with footprints in the Chinese market.

(Video: Click here to watch Jeff Hankins' video report on Arkansas businesses operating in China.)

American restaurant chains, particularly KFC and McDonald's, have perhaps the strongest presence, and brands such as Apple, Coca-Cola and Gucci are serving China's appetite for Western culture. It quickly became clear why. As if the sheer volume of people wasn't stunning enough — one can't overstate the masses and crowdedness everywhere you turn — their attire in the cities was surprisingly American. None of those Chinese outfits or people with the cone hats pulling buggies like we used to see in movies. Casual dress was everywhere as people used all sorts of transportation, from old, rusty bicycles and scooters to taxis, buses and luxury cars.

The streets were lined with young people, who also filled the designer fashion stores and paid top dollar for Coach handbags. The center of Xi'an, whose 9 million residents include 450,000 college students, was particularly crowded with shoppers one night. Most of them are products of China's one-child policy, and they receive money from newly wealthy parents and grandparents.

(Slideshow: Click here for a photo tour of China's cities, including Shanghai and Beijing.)



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