Tim Clissold is an Englishman who learned Chinese and became the on-the-ground implementer for a group of American investors who decided in the early 1990s to go for it, investing in manufacturing stateowned enterprises all over China, and playing the risk-return ratios at their most extreme.
He opens with the following explanation: "The events that I describe in this book actually happened; but this is the story of an adventure, rather than an expose, so I have changed the names of some of the companies and people who appear."
He tells horrific tales of how millions and millions of dollars were invested in various enterprises, and how the realities of "Chinese characteristics" came into force causing all sorts of trouble. Lies, double-dealing, theft, violence, fraud, you name it, it's all here, and the people and situations Tim describes are the real China, baby.
It is as much a description of the naivete of western investors when entering an alien world purely on the basis of the promise and potential of a very large number – 1.3 billion. In retrospect, the idea of transferring millions of dollars into a bank account without having adequate guarantees about the signing rights for withdrawing the money is insane. But they did it, and it's hard to blame people for taking money off investors apparently so determined to throw it away.
In spite of all the shenanigans, Tim somehow comes out of it with the right attitude – that China plays by its own rules, and you can't blame Chinese people for adhering to those rules.
"If by writing this book I can make the Chinese people seem more human, less mysterious or threatening, just flawed and beautiful like us, then the troubles of the past ten years will all have been worthwhile," he offers nobly at the end.
It seems unfair to lead you through all the amazing stories of China investment in the real world that he tells in this groundbreaking book. You just have to read it yourself. Suffice it to say that the most high profile story of the syndicate's investment in Five Star Beer in Beijing and its farcical consequences is just one of many great tales of China in the raw to be found in this book.
At the heart of all the stories is the fact that China is in the process of changing from a closed, state enterprise-dominated command economy through to an open and more reasonable market economy. Pioneers in this long march like Tim and the investors he represented have inevitably had to face a few confrontations and totally whacko frauds along the way.
At one point, where a bank manager in Shenzhen disappears with a large amount of his investors' cash, Tim asks: 'But did he explain what the hell he was doing on a trip to the States with Wang to sell brake parts in the first place? He's a bank manager, not a car-parts salesman!'
And another exchange: 'He was a bit hazy on that one,' said Li Wei.
'Hazy?' I exploded. 'HAZY?!'
You need to read the book to see the story to which this refers, but the exchange sums up the vague world into which black-and-white westerners step in China, so often unprepared.
The different approaches to business is best reflected in this wise comment:
"A core difference between Chinese and Western business: for a Westerner, a contract is a contract, but in China it is a snapshot of a set of arrangements that happened to exist at one time."
How true, how true.
Mr. China, by Tim Clissold, published in April 2004 by Constable & Robinson. 288 pages. ?7.19 on amazon.co.uk