Book Review: The One Hour China Book: Two Peking University Professors Explain All of China Business in Six Short Stories
by Jeffrey Towson and Jonathan Woetzel, pp. 132, Towson Group LLC
Every few months it seems, another well-regarded journalist or veteran businessman goes on a two week trip to China, and comes back ready to slather the editorial pages with either a paean to the glorious future they witnessed or an attack on the sheer horror they saw in their well-worn junket from Beijing to Shanghai, usually via an interior metropolis such as Xi’an or Chengdu, with their requisite terracotta soldiers and pandas (which may also inform their reactions, as few people are neutral regarding either the world’s greatest monument to megalomaniacal egotism or the world’s most loveable ursine). And, with the notable exception of a few brilliant works by a few exceptional writers, none of these editorials are worth the paper that they’re printed on, or even the electrons needed to transfer them to your screen. Trying to capture China in a single article- like trying to capture America in a single novel- is a feat of hubris that is doomed every time it’s attempted.
Of course, The One Hour China Book wasn’t written by a China newcomer, but by two seasoned hands who teach at the Peking University Guanghua School of Business, China’s most prestigious business school. Woetzel, a McKinsey partner with almost twenty years experience in China, and Towson, a private equity investor with experience across Asia, are as qualified as any to explain business in China to newcomers. Woetzel’s McKinsey pedigree, however, is telling- while McKinsey’s reports on the Chinese market are generally some of the most insightful there are, and I highly recommend all of them, their cogent take on the “macro-realities” of China often have little to do with the annoying and frustrating “micro-realities”, which, unless you’re already a Fortune 500 high flier, are the ones that you’ll be dealing with on the ground as an entrepreneur, trader or small-business branch manager; given this, TOHCB is pretty much exactly what you’d expect- a product that rings more of McKinsey or Harvard Business School-type analysis than hands-on lessons from someone who got their hands dirty building a business- a background that neither author has.
Towson & Woetzel begin by telling us that business in China is like business anywhere else. I might add that while this is true in part, if it were true on the whole such works as TOHCB would be completely unnecessary. Likewise, their second major assertion- that similar books overemphasize the political- is another that I’d say is simultaneously true and untrue.
The book mainly focuses around six “megatrends”, a word that sends shivers down my spine as it echoes the work of pop-futurists John and Doris Naisbitt, whose work (if I can call it that) China’s Megatrends is the hands-down worst book I’ve ever read on China, and certainly ranks among the worst I’ve ever had the misfortune to read in any genre. Yet, while China’s Megatrends was almost entirely a secondhand product based on the very shallow “research methods” utilized by the Naisbitt China Institute, TOHCB at least has some semblance of critical analysis behind it’s pronouncements. After data from various sources (often McKinsey) is presented, each megatrend is then illustrated by a story of an influential Chinese entrepreneur and company that exemplifies it. Again, while this isn’t necessarily a bad way to illustrate important macro-trends, it does leave a little to be desired in the way of relatable experience. The six trends are, as follows:
#1 Urbanization, illustrated with Wang Shi and China Vanke, the world’s largest real estate developer.
#2 Huge Manufacturing Scale, portrayed by Ren Zhengfei and Huawei, arguably China’s first world-class multinational company
#3 Rising Chinese Consumers, illustrated interestingly by Huayi Brothers studios (admittedly a more interesting fit than most Chinese consumer products firms, however)
#4 Money – and Lots of It, explained through Peter Ma and Ping’an- China’s first major indigenous insurance firm
#5 The Brainpower Behemoth, which ominously used Shi Zhengrong and Suntech, China’s fast-rising-and-swiftly-collapsing solar panel empire, to illustrate it’s points, and finally
#6 The Chinese Internet, with Pony Ma and Tony Zhang of Tencent taking the point.
All of the stories are interesting (even to those of us who have heard them before), and most all of the trends are on-point and undeniable. While I have quibbles with some of their takes (for instance, some of their conclusions on point #5 betray a notable lack of experience with the products of the more mediocre rungs of the Chinese education system and definitely sound like the products of observations by people who have only worked with China’s best and brightest- like McKinsey consultants!), they are only that- quibbles- with data and observations that are otherwise sound. Finally, their most important concluding remark is one that I couldn’t agree more with: “Looking for stable growth (the optimist case) is ridiculous. Being concerned about volatility (the pessimist case) means you don’t really know what country you are in. China is experiencing regular booms and busts across its economy the same way a rocket ship experiences turbulence.”
Finally, while your time may vary, the One Hour China Book took me about two and a half hours to plow through, though I’m a slow and easily distracted reader. This isn’t necessarily a negative, as it makes the book just about the perfect length to cover your connecting flight from Seoul to Shanghai on your first trip to the east. In short, while I wouldn’t say the book is a must-read, I’d say it’s an excellent short introduction to complete China newbies (or niubis) on their way over to do business for the first time. But older hands can skip it.
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This review, written by LCB editorial staff, is part of a current series featuring our take on notable recent books about doing business in China and related topics. Stay tuned for next time! You can always find more book recommendations in our LCB Store; for details on our affiliate program please see here. As always, feel free to leave a comment below and tell us what you think!