What the Chinese REALLY want
A lot of time, money and effort has gone into trying to understand the Chinese psyche.
While most of these emphasise China’s economic, political and business environment, few tackle what the Chinese really think.
Finally, a new book solves the problem. Tom Doctoroff’s views are likely to be overlooked, however, as he is “mad man” working for one of the world’s biggest agencies, J Walter Thompson.
Here is a summary of Doctoroff’s insights, based on his book What Chinese Want ($47 at Unity Books in Auckland).
Family, values and culture
The family, not the individual, is the basic productive unit. This features top-down patriarchal management, with peasant fathers retaining authority over billionaire sons. Chief executives are subservient to Communist party leaders.
Conformity is valued. No Chinese wants to stand out while fitting in. In business, this undermines bottom-up innovation, product quality and excellence in services. Creative expression is perceived a threat to established authority.
In the consumer area, Chinese are ready to pay a premium for, say, a luxury handbag or a coffee at a trendy café that make them look and feel good in public. But they won't pay over the odds for something that is used privately at home or is a big-ticket item such as a house or a car.
Chinese culture has a fatalistic, cyclical view of time and space characterised by what Doctoroff calls the meticulous interconnectivity of things big and small. This provides balance or harmony and explains why Chinese have a predilection for lucky numbers and feng shui – they call it “logical superstition.”
Society, education and the legal system
Most Chinese learn from their history to abhor chaos and crave for order and stability, the dual platforms on which incremental, rational progress can strive.
The Party considers that it knows best what ordinary Chinese want and need to build a "harmonious" society. It sets the strategic priorities at the national level and turns foreign influences to its own purposes. Economic or family interests are pursued at the expense of individual rights and civil society.
The education system emphasises rote memorisation with long periods of study. Half of all mothers care about nothing but their child's studies. They are also drawn to products promising learning masked as fun, such as a McDonald's website that offers Happy Courses for multiplication.
The legal framework is built on the threat of punishment, not protection of rights. Every housing complex pays 1-2 residents to snoop on neighbours and report suspicious activities to authorities. They also handle complaints about uncivil behaviour, overflowing trash, construction dust, etc.
Doctoroff’s 10 myths about China
He concludes his book with these commonly believed myths:
• Popular anger means the party’s power is weakening
• American-style individualism is taking root
• Contemporary Chinese have no beliefs
• The internet will revolutionise China
• The China market is, like Europe, many countries
• The Chinese consumer is inscrutable
• The Chinese growth model is in critical danger
• China Inc will eat America’s lunch
• China will become the 21st century’s super-power
• China is militarily aggressive
Also spelt out in the book, but best expressed in this BBC interview, Doctoroff believes it will a be a long time before Chinese businesses challenge those of the West, Japan, Korea or even India.
"Companies find themselves limited by ineffective investment in research and development; limited shareholder rights; ineffective corporate governance; zero protection of intellectual capital; capital markets corrupted by political favouritism; and CEO “kings” whose focus is split between the bottom line and political imperatives."
The Arafat conspiracies
If the Chinese worldview values stability at all costs over chaos, the opposite holds for the Arab Middle East.
That part of the world runs on conspiracies and Wikipedia even has a page on Arab accusations of how Israel uses of animals as a tool of espionage.
The news service Al Jazerra is also keen on conspiracies, the most recent being the poisoning of Yassar Arafat by polonium-120, a form of radioactivity and last used to kill the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London a few years ago.
Kim’s Small World after all
North Korean watchers are puzzled by some footage on state-run television showing costumed versions of Tigger, Minnie Mouse and other Disney characters prancing in front of Kim Jong-un and an entourage of clapping generals.
They also watched Mickey Mouse conducting a group of young women playing violins in skimpy black dresses. At times, scenes from the animated Disney movies Dumbo and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were projected on a multi-panel screen behind the entertainers.
This is not the kind of show you would see in the mullahs’ dictatorship of Iran or anywhere in the West, for that matter, given the Disney organisation’s enforcement of its intellectual property rights.
The New York Times, with remarkable restraint, quotes a Disney spokeswoman as having no comment beyond a statement: “This was not licensed or authorised by the Walt Disney Company.”
The Times report notes that this performance may be significant because of an official statement that Kim, who took over in December after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, had a “grandiose plan to bring a dramatic turn in the field of literature and arts this year.”
The footage also includes a segment with Kim gesturing like a symphony conductor as he gives guidance on music and art to what appear to be a half-dozen North Korean reporters busily scribbling in notebooks.