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June 25, 2012

We Still Don't "Get" China

 

I confess to being proud of my family and so when someone in the clan writes a book, I read it with great pleasure.  My brother-in-law, William Landay, recently released his third book, the crime thriller Defending Jacob, to great critical reviews and it has become a NY Times Bestseller.  And my uncle Ezra Vogel recently released a towering biography of Deng Xiaoping, which beat out Kissinger's book on China for the prestigious Gelber Prize, which is awarded to the best book on foreign affairs each year.

So when my cousin, Tom Doctoroff, released his second book on China, What Chinese Want, I was excited to read it.  Somewhat to the chagrin of the rest of the family, Tom left America for China 20 years ago to be an executive for advertising agency JWT (one of the WPP holding companies).  He quickly rose to become CEO of Asia for JWT and from that perch has witnessed the cultural transformation and consumerisation of the country.

What is amazing about Tom's book is that it is a cultural and sociological analysis of Chinese society disguised as a book about advertising and marketing.  Tom's observations range from wonky brand analysis (e.g., in his assessment of how Starbucks has become a sensational success in tea-obsessed China) to sweeping cultural and political insights.  For example, in reviewing China's halting efforts to instill more creativity in their schools in the hopes of creating a more innovative society he states:  

"Put simply, the Chinese are great at application but lousy at innovation...The Chinese are defensive and protective, are culturally and institutionally averse to ideas that buck convention."

I also enjoyed his observations about China's relationship with the United States.  "The Chinese do not want to beat the US," he writes as if trying to assure policymakers and the broader American society at large, "They want to stand beside it, proudly."  This attitude is rooted in the Chinese adherence to Confucian principles of harmony and the principle of being "ambitious, yet cautious to the core".  His explanation of China's fascination with president Obama was also telling, observing that Obama's "underdog status became a font of admiration," and that by reshaping the US political power structure as an outsider he "achieved what a sometimes-insecure China aspires for itself".

Tom's observations on Chinese culture, board room behavior, international affairs and consumerism are that rare insider's view provided by an able reporter who is steeped in American culture and values.  If you want to learn about the motivations and mores behind the next great global force, read this book.

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