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Book review: … business in China

How to Manage a Successful Business in China
by Johan Björksten and Anders Hägglund

Despite the pretentious title, this book is a well-researched low-key introduction to one way of building businesses in mainland China. Maybe it is the Swedish-Chinese way. Both the authors have first hand experience from what they are talking about, which they generously share through examples and anecdotes. Both of them have been very successful in building profitable organizations, one from scratch and one as a dependence of a multinational corporation.

One of the authors is a renowned expert on Chinese, and teaching Chinese to foreigners. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that one of the main recommendations is to learn Chinese if you want to be successful in China. Still today, most foreigners coming to work in China do not learn more than a handful phrases and a most basic vocabulary. Chinese is considered impossible to learn. On the other hand, imagine going to the US without speaking English – what is the probability of establishing a successful business? It is almost ridiculous.
I am sure that Chinese is a “learnable skill”.

The most startling part of the book talks about guanxi – “connections”. The authors demystify this concept and show the equivalent concepts in the Western business tradition. Sometimes the cultural differences are smaller than we imagine.

Another myth of the one-billion-customer-dream that is debunked by the authors is that China is one homogeneous market. It is not. The vast area, the poor communications and logistics and the cultural differences makes China a difficult terrain to conquer. In many ways, China is like the European Union, with the same legal basis but different consumer preferences and with bureaucratic and practical problems for each sub-market to penetrate. Shanghai is as different from Kashgar as Paris is different from Vilnius.

The book is written in a classic schoolbook manner, which makes it slow to read and slightly boring at times. Nevertheless, it is a good counterweight to the abundant extatic China Fever literature.

After a Beijing brunch with one of the authors, I start to get the feeling that China is not so easy to describe in a book because of all the paradoxes. Speed is one example; some things are extremely fast in China, but other things are excruciatingly slow. They can build a house in a week, but it can take months to get the right stamp. How can I ever “understand” this? Maybe it is like quantum physics – you can never understand, only “get used to” how things work.

China is a worthy challenge!

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