The 2010 Annual Meeting of New Champions, or “Summer Davos,” just wrapped up in Tianjin. An exceptional event. But perhaps the most interesting insight I gathered on the state of business in China today came from trying to get a local SIM card to make calls back to the U.S. I’ve changed names to protect the innocent, but otherwise this is what happened. I’ve never seen such intelligent, collaborative hustle leaning against such a jumble of byzantine rules.
I ask David, a front desk manager at my hotel, where I can get a SIM card. He tells me Sam from the concierge desk can go get one for me. I hand Sam a few hundred RMB, and he jets off.
A few minutes later, David calls me in my room and says that he forgot that you need to bring your passport to get a SIM card. So I go downstairs to meet Sam, and we walk the five blocks over to the China Mobile office together. It’s about 4:30 when we get there.
The office, about the size of a trailer, has travel posters on the walls and a long, unmanned glass case filled with manga characters that double as USB drives and cell phone accessories that have been gathering dust since Nokia was on top of the world. At the far end, two uniformed women with elaborate neckties wait for business. Sheila is sitting under a sign that says “Billing Area;” Rose beneath a sign that says “Cashier Area.”
Sam, by the way, is a Chinese version of Christopher Walken at 25 years old. He’s angular, with a light step, and he talks like Walken, both in English and in Chinese. That means his cadence is a pitter-patter of speeding up and slowing down, outbursts and outbeats. He exclaims “Yes!” when it doesn’t make sense, but he does it so effusively that you make the meaning work in your head because you don’t want the appeal of his presentation to fall flat.
Let me see if I can reconstruct what happened next. It was all in Chinese, so I can’t be sure of everything. But Sam explained a few key passages for me, and the visible events were universal enough, so I think I can be a pretty good reporter on what unfolded.
First Sam tells Rose what I want. A SIM card. She asks for how many days I’ll be using it, and I make signs for seven. That’s agreeable. Sheila asks through Rose and then Sam, what country I’d like to call using the SIM card. I tell them the U.S. They do some caucusing. First, Rose and Sheila exchange ideas, and then they bring in Sam, who adds enough to keep the deliberation going for a few more minutes. Then Sam turns to me to say “Calling U.S. on SIM card is very deeply expensive!” I ask how much, and it comes out to about 25 cents per minute, which isn’t cheap, but it’s a sight better than the $4/minute rate the U.S. company whose phone I brought is raiding me.
“Nah, that’s okay, let’s get the SIM card.”
He nods and conveys the conclusion to the ladies, who bustle about collaboratively now, looking up a table on a piece of laminated paper Sheila has uncovered. Sheila says something through her glasses, and Rose agrees. They turn to Sam, who then explains to me that they recommend “you don’t take SIM card, too expensive, and ECN is better.”
He’s right on the facts, since the ECN promises a 5 cent per minute charge for calls to the U.S., but it looks a lot like a calling card, and that suggests to me that I’ll get the U.S. raiding rate plus the calling card rate, so I beg off.