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Showing up unannounced works best in China's less developed cities


MARCH 17--Just showing up at a company's gate and requesting an interview with the president is not something that can be done in most places. Try this in Shanghai or in Freeport, Texas, and the answer is likely to be the standard: "Do you have an appointment?"

When I embarked on this trip down the Yangtze River, I expected that, out of necessity, I would occasionally just drive up to chemical companies that I learned of and request interviews. If a company refused to promptly provide me with information, the visit would be a loss.

Luckily, this has not been the case. Executives in the Chongqing area are more than happy to usher foreign visitors into their president's office if he is there. Finding where the company is located, driving to the gate, and asking for the president seems to be the way to go.

Contacting the companies ahead of time is, by contrast, an exercise in futility. Send an e-mail message in English, and there is a good chance that it will not be read. The vast majority of spam e-mail messages in China are in English, so one must be careful to craft a specific subject heading such as "Request to visit Chongqing Chemical Plant."

STRONG-HEADED A manager says injuries are few at this chemical plant, but the workers don't wear hard hats.


DECEPTIVE Although Chongqing Pharmaceutical Research Institute is steadily improving its lab instrumentation, the outside of the building is still shabby.
Calling ahead by phone is frustrating unless one has the cell phone number of the person one is hoping to meet. But before getting that cell phone number, it can take up to 10 phone calls to find out who the right person is. This, of course, assumes fluency in spoken Chinese—my Mandarin Chinese is passable—in order to repeatedly explain who one is and what the purpose of the visit is.

But finding a company's office can also be a problem. Chinese addresses are not always arranged according to a rigid system. I unwittingly entered the offices of the Public Security Bureau--the police in charge of stemming internal dissent--convinced that I had reached Chongqing Chemical & Pharmaceutical Holding Group. A young security guard took me to the nearby offices of CC&PHG, even riding in the elevator with me until I reached the right floor.

Once one is finally inside the company, things go smoothly. Not only did my interviewees answer questions to the best of their abilities, but they also had no hesitation in taking me on tours of their facilities. This led to some surprises.

At the Chongqing Pharmaceutical Research Institute, which conducts drug research and manufactures pharmaceutical ingredients, the surprises were good. The hallways and staircases of the administration building, where the general manager's office is found, are in poor shape. But the labs where the company does its main business are in much better condition. Several floors have been newly renovated, and work is ongoing on other floors.

At Chongqing Xinhua Chemical Plant, a titanium dioxide producer, the surprises were not so good. Granted, the company is about to move to a new location and build a new plant. But employees are for now working in buildings where many things seem ready to fall off. They wear no hard hats and no gloves even as they operate heavy machinery.

Liu Yuan Jun, the well-spoken and thoroughly pleasant export manager of Xinhua, didn't hesitate to let me take photos of the facilities. Other than it being old, he saw no problem with the plant. When asked about safety, he simply said that there were almost no accidents. His is certainly a different philosophy from that of large multinational company managers who try to prevent accidents before the fact. In Chongqing, if no one has been hurt, why worry? I found it hard to argue with Liu's logic.

To reach the next interview, I waved at a taxi driver, who slammed on his brakes and slid to a stop in front of me. I boarded and we sailed into Chongqing's mad traffic. Like every one else around, I did not fasten my seat belt.

[Back to Chronicling the Yangtze River]


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