The Little Red Book of China Business by Sheila Melvin; Sourcebooks Inc; US$19.95
Writing on China, particularly the success-in-business variety, is often predictable, boring or both. Writers have a tendency to take an I-know-China-better-than-you tone (which may be true but is still irritating) and provide a myriad of examples gleaned from Harvard Business School of executive gaffes and ventures that turned bad. Little insight is offered into the circumstances in which these errors were made.
An alternative is the kitsch China book, with a clever title or celebrity writer trying to scoop a little of the gravy from the China train. After the first few, most of these books tend to blend into one another. The messages are generally the same: Do research, tailor products, be patient and don’t assume that all 1.3 billion Chinese are going to run to the nearest store to pick up your wares.
The Little Red Book of China Business by Sheila Melvin, seemed to hold the same promise. A title that plays off the ubiquitous book of Mao Zedong quotations – available from touts outside China’s tourist hotspots – was more turn-off than enticement. Opening it was a painful effort.
But judgments based on the cover are weak at best. The Little Red Book of China Business was an informative surprise, easy to read and full of interesting insight. And it conveyed a familiarity with China that made it easier to read.
The Mao school of management is lately becoming trendy because, even if his policies plunged China into a mini economic dark age, he understood the Chinese people. A fearsome strategist and political thinker, he had a unique talent for getting the people he ruled to do his will, even if it meant jumping from the proverbial bridge.
In this sense, there is a lot to be learned from the Chairman.
Melvin begins each chapter with a quotation from Mao and uses it as a platform from which to explore how Chinese people may regard a particular set of circumstances or approach a conflict. In this way she delivers lucid explanations of the differences in attitude between China and the West. It is topped off with straightforward tips on how to extrapolate this historical information into practical steps.
Pearls of wisdom
Leave your arrogance at home, Melvin warns, and be ready to criticize yourself. Know that it is easier to flow with the stream and, most likely, fit in with the plans of the Chinese government. Some access is better than no access.
Investigate the real situation on the ground (Mao was a superb and detail-oriented investigator). Understand that laws are often still there to protect the government not foreign investors. Realize the importance of subtle messages and the force of the people: “If Mao Zedong were alive today, he would almost certainly be a blogger.”
Avoid dogmatic tendencies and the one-size-fits-all approach, although Melvin warns that “unfortunately, China seems to bring out dogmatic tendencies even in generally non-dogmatic people – just as it did in Mao.”
If there is one theme, it is this: the need to recognize opportunities when they present themselves. There are numerous examples of how cloning Western business models doesn’t always work in China – from the Wal-Mart store that discovered that a noisy environment helps sales to the executive who understands he will not make China fit his mold but must adapt himself.
Melvin lays out the historical background, the current state of affairs and some examples with very little in the way of judgment. Every chapter ends with “a crystallization of collective wisdom,” highlighting general points that can help businesses operate in China.
Despite including plenty of practical advice, rarely does it offer a particular blueprint to follow – which is refreshing. It leaves it up to the reader to absorb and apply the information.
Excerpt: Know your place
To be sure, Mao’s successors have tempered his often belligerent approach to foreign policy and instead emphasize his concept of “mutual benefit” as they assess China’s interests. While he was oblivious to international opinion, they are generally solicitous of it. And where Mao in his final years sought economic independence, his successors have staked their political future on economic integration and interdependence. But, the Communist Party has never deviated from Chairman Mao’s basic philosophy – that foreign things should be made to serve China.