When I was working in China, I was living in an area my boss described as ‘The Money Province’. This was a region that had witnessed and experienced what can only be described as an influx of sudden wealth. In this particular province, wealth had flowed in unexpectedly after a long, tumultuous and torturous period of poverty.
I had visited China once before I moved there to live. But the region that I was posted to; was not the one that I had been fascinated by. I’d briefly visited Beijing and I was drawn to the ancient Chinese culture that had given birth to one of the world’s greatest civilisations. Chinese soil has witnessed and given birth to many golden eras in its long past. The Tang Dynasty, in particular, is what comes to mind when I remember the glory days of China.
However, the region I had been posted to for work was a ‘new money’ province. A sudden influx of money had arrived on those shores to greet a population of people who had lived in poverty for what must have been centuries. They had grown wealthy incredibly fast. The money came in suddenly after a long period of not having had money for generations.
Historically, China had been an agricultural country. The Money Province I’m referring to, which is Zhejiang Province, is now an industrialised region. When we generally think of a rags-to-riches story, we think of farmers who eventually become landowners through their hard work, grit and strategy. In China, however, this landowner is no longer running the same business as his or her predecessors. Now we had industry. But at the same time, these were industries that had been profitable in another place and had ‘moved’ or been relocated to China.
When I was working in this region, I met a lot of people who were very wealthy. I would ask them, “What do you do?” They would tell me that they made socks, buttons, apparels, shoes and so on. They were making our everyday necessities and had gotten rich doing it. And they were now in a phase where they had more money than what they knew what to do with. They had achieved this by supplying these necessities to the world.
When I was there, I felt like there was nothing to do except make money. I was compensated pretty well at the time. But beyond that, there was not much in my ability to explore much beyond the financial gain of it all. I remember that there was a real sense of chaos. Most of it I would ascribe to a lack of any consistent policy, high risk-taking, excessive corruption and a general sense that money can buy anything and money can sell anything.
There was this general feeling in the air.
When everything in life takes on such a transactional dollar value, it skews your perception of money, people and resources. The way in which things were being treated–be it resources like buildings or even people. It was quite shocking for me to see. The reckless disregard for everything. You could smell the greed.
It was a normalised thing in this environment.
Despite the financial rewards, I was asking myself, “Is it worth it?”
Is it worth giving up my integrity, my honesty, the value that I place on myself and others as well as my own work?
The only thought on everyone’s mind was: I will join my father’s business or inherit a large sum of money. That will take care of my financial future, which in turn would take care of everything else. Most of the people I met in Zhejiang Province didn’t take education seriously. When in actuality, education would have helped them with long-term planning, vision and goals.
When I was there, I got restless. I was looking out the window and wondering if I really wanted to be here.
The corruption: it’s either you play the game or you’re out of the game. By virtue of playing, everyone ends up being a bit or a lot like this–even if you do have integrity and a strong inner compass. I did meet people who had integrity and said that they wanted to change things.
I met a few people who didn’t want things to be like this as they understood that it was detrimental to long-term progress. They knew that they needed to do things in a better way. They knew that hard work was necessary and that there needed to be a focus on the fundamentals of what makes for a good society instead of getting caught up in every single whirlwind that was coming their way.
The fundamental problem was not the influx of money. It was the influx of money coupled with greed. The wanting more and thinking that this upward momentum was going to last forever for no other reason than because it had to.
I realised that being rescued from poverty or having made it out of poverty–or even having received a sudden influx of wealth–is not the answer.
Eventually, something will come in. Whatever brought it in, will also take it away.
I’ve seen this happen time and time again in enterprises as well as in families. There was a windfall that came and poured it all in; and there was something that came and it all left. It’s part of the natural cycle of money.
But if we do build a good system and a good structure–instead of getting caught in the highs and lows of it–then when the highs come, we’re not whisked away into the distance with how amazing it all is. And when the lows come, we’re not down the dumps as we know who we are and what we’re about. Eventually, we know that something will come around and our fortunes will turn again–like they did it before.
Greed is not a problem with commerce. The only way that we can deal with it is through emotional and mental programming. This is about possessing a fundamentally strong mentality and emotional backbone to deal with whatever comes to you: whether it’s a windfall or a big loss.
This is a human predicament that ensues when wealth comes suddenly and doesn’t stay. It’s because this momentous upturn was never meant to be an indefinite one. It was meant to show up in your life and then it was meant to leave. It was a taste. A taste of wealth. It can last ten years or it can last a hundred. Is it all up to us? I don’t think so.
The rise and the influx of unprecedented wealth usually comes after a really low lull point. But after that, it can crash overnight or it can be a slow and steady decline and descent. Even if all the strong fundamentals are in place, it is not sustainable indefinitely.
It can only sustain itself for as long as it can be sustained.