A Captivating View of An Economic Tiger



What Chinese Want is an exhaustive and revealing exploration of the Chinese people — and more specifically the different cultural, political and economic forces that shape their behaviors both as business leaders and consumers. Author Tom Doctoroff, who has lived and worked for 14 years in China as the regional CEO of the J. Walter Thompson agency, helps Western readers better understand this paradoxical nation of state planners and entrepreneurial billionaires.

Regimentation and Ambition

The paradox of regimentation and ambition is reflected in the Chinese people themselves. “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,” Doctoroff writes. “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.” This “unifying Confucian conflict” between regimentation and ambition, self-protection and status projection, fear and confidence, leads to the philosophical driving force that keeps the nation moving forward, Doctoroff writes. In short, he explains, the Chinese “want to succeed by mastering convention.” Maintaining stability is how you win. This overriding attitude leads to three timeless truths for the Chinese. First, everything is interconnected — which means that harmony rules. Second, chaos is evil and the only good is stability. And finally, the family, not the individual, is the basic productive unit of society. The Chinese, Doctoroff writes, are fiercely anti-individualistic.

The Rules of Entrepreneurial Success

Doctoroff introduces readers to two entrepreneurs that illustrate the potential of Chinese business despite the seeming constraints of the Chinese culture. Cai Hua is the founder of Always, China’s most extensive field marketing operation. Ding Shizhong is the founder of Anta, China’s largest sports shoe and apparel manufacturer. “Between 2000 and 2010, both Always and Anta emerged from practically nowhere to dominate their domains,” Doctoroff writes. How did they achieve such success? According to Doctoroff, their strategies and the leadership styles of their founders are quintessentially Chinese. For both men, scale is important; both have built enormous well-oiled networks. Scale prevents chaos — and begets security, Doctoroff explains.

Also, neither Anta nor Always have any interest in going global. However, they are very interested in learning from abroad to acquire a competitive advantage. Likewise, Anta and Always don’t want to create the breakthrough innovation of the future; they prefer incremental progress. Both companies are led by men who may be physically unimposing and softspoken, but who rule with an iron fist.

A Vast Array of Topics

Building on the cultural underpinnings that he has brilliantly laid out, Doctoroff proceeds to cover a startling and fascinating variety of business-related topics. For example, he offers rules for fostering innovation in a risk-adverse society. These rules include, among others, dramatizing the vision and offering creativity training. He explains the continuing tolerance of piracy, stemming partly from a disdain for the ideal of individual rights reflected in the concept of intellectual property. He reveals the cultural challenges behind the unexpected failure of Barbie in China through the words of his 14-year-old neighbor: “She’s so obvious.” Hello Kitty, cute and understated, is much more appealing to Chinese girls.

Tiger moms, branding in China, the societal implications of an earthquake, a tragic scandal involving tainted milk that killed six children and the ways that China sees the United States are just a sample of the topics covered in What Chinese Want. Doctoroff ends this fascinating and important book by dispelling some of the myths about China. For example, China will not be the dominant superpower of the 21st Century. China will be an economic superpower, but it cannot captivate the hearts and minds of the globe as America has. In Doctoroff’s words, “there will be more than one tiger on the mountain.”

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