Way back on May 13th, I got on a flight in Dulles. By midnight on the 14th, local time, I arrived in Taipei, Taiwan. GIE officially started the next morning.
Taipei is a very interesting country, because it’s technically not a country at all. It’s a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, along with Macau and Hong Kong. Our first visit was to the Foreign Minister of Taiwan, David Lee (a UVA doctoral alum). There, we ate a traditional Taiwanese seven-course meal.
We learned about Taipei’s attempts to define itself as a democratic country in spite of China’s presence. Part of these difficulties stem from the relative size of Taiwan’s economy to China’s. To be a successful entrepreneur in Taiwan, you either need to expand to China or find markets elsewhere in the world.
Taiwan is very important in the construction of microchips for consumer electronics. We met with TSMC, a leading Semiconductor Manufacturer, and learned about how they attract engineering talent that keeps them competitive. Other highlights were Taihu Brewing, a craft brewery started by an M.S. in Commerce ‘10 alum (Robert Babbage), and Wan Hai Shipping, an ocean freight company.
Somehow, luckily for us, the day that we arrived in Beijing, it was clear, blue skies. Beijing is known for its air pollution, and even though the skies appeared blue, even just one day breathing in the air was the equivalent of smoking four cigarettes!
It also happened to be about 100 degrees the whole time we were there. We visited the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, both of which were amazing, but I was also ready for a nice cool shower when I got back. That being said, I love Chinese food, and Beijing was my first chance ever to eat authentic Chinese food – it definitely did not disappoint!
As far as our meetings went, we met with several Darden grads to try to wrap our minds around the Chinese financial system. The Chinese stock market is generally considered unreliable, and other securities have very low returns, so most Chinese invest in real estate. One of the biggest questions we had over the course of the trip was about skyrocketing values of Chinese real estate: are they worth the hugely expensive prices, or are we looking at a bubble? Other meetings were with Shepard Liu, an infrastructure finance lawyer (very important in China) and United Family Healthcare, a private Chinese hospital.
Shanghai was my favorite city in China. We were there for the longest period of time of any city so far, and were luckily blessed with blue skies and only 90-degree weather – cool by the standards of this trip!
We had another finance panel in Shanghai – these panels were great as they were a bit more relaxed, so you got to ask more questions. We talked more about the Chinese economy and the vast potential it has due to its size. We also got to tour a SAIC-General Motors Plant. To do business in China, car manufacturers must form joint ventures with Chinese companies. We heard from GM about their JV with SAIC, and the difficulties that go along with that.
Another standout trip was to Nike’s Chinese headquarters. We toured their campus and got the chance to see how they were working with the government to get more kids to start playing sports at a young age. At the end of the trip, they even gave us employee discounts at the Nike Store on campus!
Shanghai just felt like an amazing environment. Many blocks were dedicated to gardens and parks, giving the city a very green and lively feel. Other notable tours were of Baosteel, a government-owned steel manufacturer, and Shanghai United Media Group, the government-owned main media company in China.
Shenzhen is right in the middle of the Guangdong province, the manufacturing center of China. When you think, “Made in China,” this is the province to think of. Even though we were only in Shenzhen for a few days, we were treated with an awesome surprise: a stay at the Ritz-Carlton, Shenzhen!
Shenzhen is a very young city, only having been built up in the past 20 years, and it definitely feels that way. It is a huge technological hub in China and receives tons of government money for both infrastructure and business. In the southeast of China, Shenzhen also sits right across the border from Hong Kong, and so has a relatively large expat influence as well.
I really enjoyed our company visit to Tencent, maker of WeChat. Tencent is essentially the Chinese Facebook, builder of a social media platform (WeChat) that the entire country uses. WeChat has a messenger (iMessage), a news feed (Facebook), a way to send disappearing photos (Snapchat), a way to pay your friends (Venmo), and even a dating app (Tinder). We learned about the many ways that Tencent uses the data it gathers to help police and firemen do their job better.
We also drove a few hours deeper into the province to view a sweater manufacturer, 4Moms. This manufacturer not only manufactured sweaters for companies such as Tommy Hilfiger, they also helped design the sweaters as well! It was really cool to see the actual process with which the clothing we wear was made.
The final stop on the trip was a mere 45-minute bus ride across the Chinese border. Hong Kong, similar to Taiwan, is an SAR, as a holdover from its days as a British colony. Hong Kong felt much more Western than the other cities, and has an expatriate population of about 200,000–mostly in finance.
We got to meet tons of UVA graduates working in finance in Hong Kong, between banking, real estate, and other areas. They echoed the importance of real estate to China and Hong Kong, similar to the other panels. The biggest takeaway they said to remember is that unlike the U.S., the government owns all the land in China and Hong Kong. Thus, land is leased from the government and they can reclaim that land for infrastructure projects, per say, or for whatever reason they choose.
We also had a chance to hear some speakers who tied together the entire GIE experience. Larry Franklin, professor at Stanford Law and Business schools as well as Darden and UVA law, and the Honorary Margaret Ng, former member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, worked to distill relations between China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan into a few major takeaways for us to remember.
We spent our time off visiting Victoria’s Peak, the mountain in the center of the island, getting drinks at LKF (a bar district favored by expats), or taking a ferry to Llama island (yes, that’s an island known for having tons of llamas). I took a ferry over to Macau, another SAR, to see the casinos and the remnants of Portuguese culture there. Finally, on the last day, we had a traditional Cantonese lunch at the China Club, a formal club in HK, and drew our own takeaways as a group about our experience.
This trip was incredible. I had the chance to experience China not only as a tourist, but also as a student diving deeply into the culture and challenges of doing business in China. Like the entire M.S. in Commerce program, GIE comes at you almost too fast to handle. You’re left at the end with your head spinning, wondering what to make of what you have learned. It’s now been a couple weeks after GIE (many of us planned personal travel – I explored Vietnam and Japan), and all the information is starting to sink in and I’m starting to feel like I have a real grasp for the area of the world my GIE experience exposed me to. That context that I’ve acquired will help me throughout my business career, giving me an amazing base of knowledge from which I can draw. Plus GIE is just a ton of fun!
-Written by Spencer Kulow, M.S. in Commerce 2017