Cheap and Good small commercial kites flying at Chengdu 2015
China has a deserved reputation for goods that are very cheap but of unreliable quality. For western businesses this is a hugely frustrating because getting the consistent quality their markets demand out of China is problematic, while they can't source elsewhere because of the prices. A common purchaser's refrain is; "we'll pay a bit more if we can just have products we can trust" and they can't understand why this doesn't seem possible. But the reasons are clear: China is currently the fastest developing and most competitive business environment in the world - and the largest. Just now, it's driven by price first, delivery second and quality a distant third. For businesses there, occasional product failures are better than no orders because your prices are too high- and there are plenty of new customers to be had if you lose a few anyway.
It's not a new phenomenon; every country that has ever played industrial catch-up goes through this phase: France and Holland in the 19th century, Japan and Korea in the 20th for examples. Eventually a few businesses in each field emerge from the melee with the scale and skills to lift the quality without becoming uncompetitive..
There are signs that this is beginning to happen now in China.
10 years ago, kites for sale there were complete rubbish; they cost less than a dollar including line, but generally wouldn't hang together long enough to get into the air- even in the hands of experienced fliers. The public flying areas at Chinese kite festivals were typically strewn with abandoned and broken kites- and angry parents with children in tears, probably having been turned off kites for life.
Last week at the Chengdu festival, there were cheap kites in bright colours and huge variety; new and creative variations on old themes like bats, serpents eagles and characters.
And they were flying very well.
After the event, these kites were carefully packed away for next time, any left lying around rapidly found new owners, and considerable time and effort went into retrieving those that were stuck up trees.
What a change!
Sure, there are still bad kites being made in China, but these are now usually only of the promotional variety- for which advertisers rate fly-ability as a very low priority and competitive tendering pushes prices to a level at which it is impossible to make reliable products.
If kites are a proxy for Chinese manufacturing in general, and I think they are, then the rest of the world's manufacturers are due for an even bigger hiding than they now realise- having largely convinced themselves that the nightmare of Chinese competition might be survivable after all "because they can't make quality".
Chengdu 2015 Police as anchors.
But it's not only at the small framed kite end of the market that China is starting to get things right.
The large show kite sector is also changing. For years, all we have seen out of China has been copies- and bad copies at that (fortunately for the Peter Lynn brand), but increasingly now, although copying is still rife, original designs are appearing, or at the least, different enough not to infringe copyright.
And mega kites too: Liu Tao's huge Chinese good luck symbol kite flies very well in smooth winds (like at Xiamen in November '14) but also handled the tiny field and gusty conditions well enough at Chengdu last week ago to extract exited roars of delight from the large crowd.
The Dancing Shark at Chengdu 2015
But leaving the business theme and going on about kites in general, as I do, there is an enthusiasm for kites in China that I don't now see in Europe, USA- or in New Zealand. Probably this is a combination of their cultural tradition and the recently acquired affluence and leisure to indulge this. Parents have memories of flying kites with their parents and are keen to repeat this experience with their own children- but with new, bigger and brighter designs, as is true for everything there now from clothes to cars to consumer electronics.
And the public are much more actively involved at kite events in China than is generally possible now in western country regulatory environments. Not only the spectators either: Policeman there are not only willing kite anchors but at Chengdu helped pack kites away afterwards. And they had battens with which to hit people who woouldn't get out of the way- for their own safety of course.
Anchoring, packing and crowd control: Never before have these three intractable kite festival problems been so neatly solved.
Apart from the crowd control aspect, this is so far from what any NZ policemen would see as their role (they're all too busy finding sneaky ways to ping drivers for being 5km over the speed limit anyway), I had a sudden thought that maybe the western view of China as a repressive police state is not the entire picture.
Chinese good luck symbol.
Chengdu 2015 launching Lius meg kite
Good luck at Chengdu 2015
But there are risks in having the general public sometimes on the field with the show kites- as the recent tragic death of a 5 year old boy in Vietnam who was caught up in large Flag kite as it launched attests. But this is the first fatality in 40 something years of soft show kite flying at kite events to my knowledge, which is a pretty good safety record by any standards. And better on-field management (like clearing the field when the wind gets up, and not doing long launches when there's the risk of catching spectators) can mitigate most risks. Kites need to be flown safely, but if kite flying in Asia become divorced from the public to the extent it has at many western events, then kite flying in general will be the worse for it.
That the centre of the kite world is shifting back to China is mirrored by wider geopolitical trends. For most of its 5000 year history as a recognisable country, China had been the world's strongest power. Then from the 1500's, innovation was stifled, institutions ossified, and Western Europe surged past. China then endured 300 years of humiliation, culminating in the 19th century "gun boat diplomacy" and opium wars when western countries used force to crush resistance to their drug pushing. China was so weak in the 19th and early 20th centuries that even tiny Japan made colonial incursions.
Now that they are rapidly regaining strength and self-respect, their intense nationalism is hardly surprising.
But for the rest of the world this is a worrying process.
An obscure "9 dash line" on a 1947 Nationalist Chinese map has been taken up by the current regime as the basis of a claim over most of the South China Sea, including many islands that other countries consider are theirs. In one hit, this has brought China into conflict with Japan, Korea, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines- and with Taiwan of course which is where the Nationalists retreated to in 1948. Indonesia's not impressed either. It's puzzling why China is pursuing this; surely if their goal is hegemony, then they would have been better to pick these targets off one at a time rather than cause them all to unite against a common enemy- and invite the US in as well. And if China's goal isn't territorial control, then why are they doing it at all? But they are not backing off. The huge building program on the disputed Spratly Islands can only be in preparation for military bases to enforce control of this area.
And their so called "internet sovereignty", towards which end, at huge cost (a hacker army estimated at1million now manning the "Great Firewall of China"), access to Google, Facebook and many other parts of the WWW have recently been shut off within China. What can this be for other than to direct Chinese public opinion inwards so as to boost nationalistic sentiments in preparation for conflict?
Is the world headed for a new cold war with China and Russia against the US and Europe, fuelled by armed conflicts at the disputed borders? Has it already started?
In the 19th century it was 'gunboat diplomacy", as Europe shamefully took advantage of China's weakness.
In the 20th century, "ping pong diplomacy" led to the great rapprochement between China and the West.
Could the 21st be the century of "kite diplomacy"?
Busy as I am playing with my toys, I'm willing to drop everything and give this a go if it will help.
PETER LYNN, ASHBURTON, NEW ZEALAND, 1 APRIL '15
Boomer by John and Irene Tan at Satun 2015
Single Line single skin kite development update: John and Irene Tan in Singapore are now making 2.5sq.m 7 cell "Boomers" for sale. They are doing a fine job of them too.
And I've just received a first production sample of the 3sq.m 5 cell "OneSkin" style from Kaixuan in China. It flies as well as my prototypes do- and is a lot neater, so I'm thinking of pushing the go button.
But both styles are currently reliable only to 35km/hr or so. Above this they require time consuming bridle tuning which cannot be done in a production context. I'm hopeful that this will eventually get sorted, but for now they are only suitable for light and mid-range conditions.
Which doesn't seem to be slowing demand any.
The continually updated diary of these developments is available on the peterlynnhimself website for those interested in more detail.