There are new markets to share out there, and the old capitalist way of doing things won’t be the one that captures them.
In this collaboration between researchers at the Wharton School and the China Europe International Business School, there are the usual tables depicting, say, the value of mergers and acquisitions over the last decade, and the usual nostrums about how Chinese society is governed, for all its communist veneer, by Confucian ideals. Beyond these to-be-expected features, though, lie some surprising insights into how the biggest players in the Chinese economy—beyond the state and military themselves—worked their ways into their positions and, more important, what makes them different from their counterparts in the West. Take Zhang Ruimin, for instance, CEO of the Haier Group, the world’s largest appliance company. As a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, he was “charged with bringing down bourgeois elements within society, especially anybody associated with capitalism.” He then rose through the ranks in construction and manufacturing, returning from a trip to Germany ashamed at the shoddiness of Chinese goods—so much so that, in the factory he now headed, he ordered that defective units be smashed to pieces. His experience in the Maoist era, the authors write, made him cautious and perhaps even fearful but also unusually committed to an economic experiment that is still playing out, based on the traditional guanxi (“personal networks of relations that give an executive access and influence”) but also on some notable precepts—e.g., the idea that economic success should benefit all members of society and not just a few players. Examining several business leaders and their strategies, from “resetting the game” to eliminate weak positions to growing business partners and suppliers in concert with growing one’s own business, the authors ably demonstrate how the once-countercultural practice of capitalism in China remains unlike the variety practiced in the West.
Full of object lessons, this is a valuable overview for students of international commerce.