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What Chinese Want
Culture, Communism, and China's Modern Consumer
By Tom Doctoroff
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Tom Doctoroff
All rights reserved.
MODERN MIDDLE KINGDOM: OLD PIPES, NEW PALACE
What makes Chinese people tick? To secure a peaceful, productive twenty-first century, we in the West must achieve a deeper understanding of their motivations and behavior. The Chinese are often described as inscrutable, even by some who have spent long stretches of time in China, but this is misleading. Despite China's growing significance on the world stage and an explosion of new Chinese material and lifestyle opportunities, local culture remains intact and, to those with cultural curiosity, knowable. China is modernizing, but it is not becoming Western, nor is it in the throes of a debilitating spiritual or cultural disorientation. In order to establish a productive relationship with the Chinese people, we — business people, politicians, students, and tourists — must reorient ourselves to engage with a profoundly different worldview.
China's economy and people are evolving rapidly, but the underlying cultural blueprint has remained more or less constant for thousands of years. As the nation races toward superpower status, it will nonetheless remain quintessentially Chinese — ambitious yet cautious at the core. In this sense, the country doesn't necessarily threaten to eclipse its Western counterparts. China's social structure and cosmological orientation yield strengths and weaknesses that complement, rather than debase, our own Western worldview.
AN ADVERTISING GUY'S GOAL: EXPLORATION AND DEBATE
To some, advertising executives exist at the fringes of legitimacy. We are neither hard-core business people nor scholars. We do not control the levers of capitalism or offer academic insight. In fact, a few believe our profession is inherently corrupt, profiting from base human desires by transforming them into products pumped out of factories like processed cheese.
On self-deprecating days, however, I remind myself that advertising people exist at the intersection of commerce and culture. Our ultimate goals have always been, first, to identify fundamental motivations for behavior and preference, and, second, to translate these insights into revenue-generating consumer propositions. No matter what the product category or target demographic, insight and profit margin are inextricably linked. In order to transform a mouse into Mickey Mouse, we must be both amateur cultural anthropologists and unaccredited psychologists.
After a four-year stint in Hong Kong, I arrived on the Chinese mainland in 1998. I have been eager to explore the nooks and crannies of modern Chinese life, as many of the firsthand experiences I describe in the later chapters will attest. I bought a classic Shanghai-style house in the heart of the former French Concession, a tree-lined, intimate-yet-lively milieu favored by locals and expatriates alike. I grappled with the teeth-gnashing frustration of home maintenance. I slowly vanquished the prejudices of local neighbors, modest folk who regarded me as an overindulged foreign invader.
Professionally, I have had the privilege of partnering with leaders of dozens of corporations, multinational and local, private and state owned. Directly or indirectly, I have managed, and aspired to motivate, thousands of employees — an aggressive-yet-conservative, inspiring-yet-maddening, starry-eyed-yet-pragmatic group. Together, we have mapped the corners of China's consumer and commercial terrain — from glittering coastal capitals to scrappy, gray, cookie-cutter inland towns. We have infiltrated both Orwellian boardrooms with conference tables the size of squash courts and apartments no larger than a US suburban bathroom.
It is impossible to "manage China" without curiosity, and more important, the willingness to articulate and refine conceptual frameworks. If we lack the courage to formulate operating hypotheses regarding a fundamentally alien worldview, Westerners will be lost. What follows is my take on what makes China Chinese. These theories are, by their nature, generalizations and not necessarily bulletproof. But they have helped me navigate a strange landscape for many years, and I believe they can help others do the same.
MODERN CHINA: CONSTANTS AND VARIABLES
People frequently assume, given my long tenure here, that I have witnessed huge changes. Well, yes and no. Average per capita income — in purchasing power parity terms — has skyrocketed from less than $1,000 per year to more than $6,000. China has become the world's second-largest economy, soaring from industry neophyte in the mid-1990s to manufacturing powerhouse today.
It is also now the world's largest auto market, a phenomenon that has transformed urban and suburban roads beyond recognition. Shanghai's restaurant scene rivals Europe's. If purchases during trips abroad — to, say, Hong Kong or Paris — are taken into account, Chinese consumers are now the most avid buyers of luxury products. Even in lower-tier cities, where the middle class has only recently begun to develop, residents are more worldly and more connected to global forces than during any time in history. China boasts more than 800 million mobile phone subscribers, 500 million Internet users, and 250 million microbloggers (that is, Chinese Twitterers whose number quadrupled in 2011 alone). Connectivity, contrary to media reports, has not been dramatically handicapped by the "Great Firewall," the government's ban on politically sensitive websites and foreign social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. In the realm of pop culture, young Chinese are as intoxicated by Glee's pop cool and The Big Bang Theory's geek chic as their American counterparts.
Diplomatically, China has been integrated into multinational organizations, including the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the G20. Sociologically, the country has also opened up. Divorce rates, almost nonexistent twenty years ago, exceed 40 percent in first-tier cities. Premarital sex, condemned during the 1980s, is now a wedding prerequisite.
China is blessed with an ancient worldview, a cultural blueprint with inviolable constants that nonetheless evolves to accommodate contemporary circumstances. Many observers suggest that the country is in the throes of a spiritual crisis: it is struggling to identify a philosophical and moral center of gravity in the midst of twenty-first-century realities, a disorientation exacerbated by postrevolution ideological swings, including the Cultural Revolution and the contradictions inherent in "socialism with Chinese characteristics" (Deng Xiaoping's description).
I disagree. If anything, the country is in the process of slowly rediscovering values that have always set it apart. China has remained a cohesive civilization for more than 5,000 years, through epic ups and downs, from Tang dynasty glory when China was the center of the world to Qing era degradation, when the world carved up China. Since the Bronze Age, the country has remained unified by cultural and cosmological truths. It will not abandon them today but rather will leverage them to adapt to changing conditions, both domestic and international.
The 1972 Michelangelo Antonioni documentary, Chung Kuo — China, offers a revealing window into these arguments. As his cameras trawl from Beijing to Suzhou to Shanghai to Guangzhou and weave through the countryside, we are transported through time, back several decades to a stripped-down, dusty, and gray nation. Entrepreneurialism, which would have been considered a profane concept, does not exist. Maoist structures, low-tech factories, and utilitarian housing scar the landscape. The contrast with today's China, exploding with neon and color, is stark.
However, by looking into the subjects' eyes, we can still recognize the Chinese soul. The humor, the directness, the wariness, the warmth, the sarcasm, the shrewdness, the knowing wink, the titillated gleam when cash is exchanged, the celebration of small joys ... these quintessentially Chinese traits were as evident during the Cultural Revolution as they are today. The film demonstrates the incontrovertible: China is becoming modern and internationalized. But it remains Chinese.
AN EVER-PRESENT CONFLICT: AMBITION VS. REGIMENTATION
Westerners are often disoriented by the seeming paradoxes of contemporary Chinese society. On one hand, the Chinese are cautious and self-protective. They are rule bound, fixated with order, tentative in implementing change, obsessed with preserving face, understated in expressing opinions, and supremely hierarchical. On the other hand, they are ambitious and like to boldly project status, as evidenced by an obsession with luxury brands as tools of advancement. They are also compulsively entrepreneurial, passionate about educational achievement, operatic in industrial aspiration, militantly nationalistic, and driven by success.
Of course, one size doesn't fit all. But there are unifying themes and variations on these themes that reflect socioeconomic and geographic truths. In fact, I am convinced that there is a unifying Confucian conflict — between self-protection and status projection — that brands, by the way, have a fundamental role in resolving. Unlike practically any other country (Korea and Vietnam come closest), China is both boldly ambitious and solidly regimented, with hierarchical and procedural booby traps for anyone who hasn't mastered the system. The tension between upward mobility and fear-based conformism shows up everywhere — in business meetings, in struggles with in-laws, in every new-generation release on the Internet.
The duality can be perplexing. The world is stunned by the nation's epic revolution in its infrastructure and its rise from economic backwater to industrial world-beater. This transformation has been driven by a number of inspiring characters, from Deng Xiaoping, who imposed an economic blueprint upon a chaotic, confused post–Cultural Revolution landscape, to Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba.com, the world's largest business-to-business e-commerce platform.
In many spheres, however, China remains infuriatingly static, blank faced, passive-aggressive, even brain-dead. Decision making within state-owned enterprises is no less opaque than twenty years ago. CEOs continue to toggle between market and political imperatives. The shiny new Boeing 777s shown off by the nation's airlines are misleading. The reality is institutional rot: Carriers are quasi-commercial concerns with strong ties to the military; modern airports are Lego-like, and PA systems blare travelers into submission. Passenger service is an oxymoron; customers are herded onto planes with no departure times; communication between air traffic control and pilots is treated as a state secret.
When the Chinese feel insecure, they retrench, slinking into a self-protective cocoon. Progress comes to a halt; eyes deaden. When they feel safe, they go for it, shifting from the back to front foot. Prodigious productive forces are set in motion. Confident China, kissed by the winds of economic transformation, wants to take off. Fearful China, still awakening from Leninist hibernation, suffers from chronic learned helplessness.
The tension between ambition and regimentation begs two questions. First, how did the conflict come into being? And, second, how does the nation adapt to the contradictions within its own society? These polarized instincts have coexisted since time immemorial and reflect enduring truths of Han civilization — that is, the culture of ethnic Chinese who represent 92 percent of modern mainland China's population. They explain why China is at once inspiring and maddening, rising and falling, the promise of the future and a vestige of the past. As to how the nation adapts, it comes down to striking a balance between the two forces and advancing within the system, not outside of it. So what do the Chinese want? They want to succeed by mastering convention. Challenge to order, natural or societal, is a fool's errand. Ultimately, in order to win, all Chinese need to maintain stability.
THREE TIMELESS TRUTHS
As a result, the Chinese worldview can be distilled into three perpetual yet shape-shifting and interrelated truths:
1. A fatalistic, cyclical view of time and space characterized by meticulous interconnectivity of things big and small
The Chinese excel at logic and linear reasoning. Verbal refinement, in their view, is a lovely asset but not an invaluable one. As such, the Chinese government is populated by a vast legion of statistically obsessed technocratic engineers who have orchestrated — in a step-by-step, top-down manner — a prodigious reformation of the country's transportation, energy, distribution, and housing infrastructure. China, assuming bugs — political or otherwise — have been purged from the system, is a well-oiled, glorious machine. As Miguel Patricio, Asia's chief of beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev, puts it, "The Chinese Communist Party, on its better days, is a ruthlessly efficient corporation."
The impulse to study, diagram, and prognosticate societal — and cosmological — design is ancient. The Yi Jing, or Book of Changes, is one of the oldest of the Chinese classical texts. It contains an intricate divination system, the ba gua, comprising four masculine (yang) and four feminine (yin) elements that can be combined into sixty-four hexagrams that progress cyclically, shifting from yin to yang and back again. It explains everything from the stars in the sky to the sand by the sea and is instrumental in promoting alignment between heaven and Earth. The earliest version of the text, written on bamboo slips, dates to the latter half of the Warring States period (mid-fourth- to early-third-century B.C.E.) and manifests itself today in predictive readings of all sorts: palmistry, phrenology, feng shui, numerology, and astrology. It explains why the Chinese people, despite the opportunities created by economic development, remain fatalistic, eager to manage destiny but not to challenge their place on Earth.
Critically, the Book of Changes centers on the dynamic balance of opposites, the evolution of events as a process and acceptance of the inevitability of change. Even today, the Chinese worldview shuns absolutes of any kind — legal, moral, psychological, economic. Happiness, and success, can occur only when an individual achieves harmony with the surrounding world, which is composed of many variables and few constants. Change, and the wisdom to adapt to its inevitability, is one of the enduring hallmarks of Chinese identity.
2. A morally relativistic universe in which the only absolute evil is chaos and the only good is stability, a platform on which progress is constructed So the world is ever changing, sharpening an insecure, and pervasive, self-protective instinct. The challenge of balancing opposites, let alone aligning heaven and Earth (that is, cosmological and secular laws) is monumental. In this context, China has always struggled to adapt to the elements. Historically, a sub-optimal crop could result in millions of deaths. Every year, the Yellow River burst its banks, often flooding broad swathes of countryside. Earthquakes — omens of celestial displeasure — strike frequently, with pitiless wrath. After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, a disaster that killed more than 80,000, a shell-shocked nation grieved for seven days — television stations broadcast only in black and white — and then picked itself up and proceeded with the business of preparing for the Beijing Olympics, as if calamity were an inevitable fact of life.
Excerpted from What Chinese Want by Tom Doctoroff. Copyright © 2012 Tom Doctoroff. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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