Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Win in China - Review

A few weeks ago, I received an email asking me to review a documentary about entrepreneurship in China. The film, called Win in China, produced by Robert A. Compton, sounded like an interesting project and I jumped at the opportunity to view the film, review it, and then interview Mr. Compton.

Today, I'm going to post my thoughts on the movie.

"Win in China" is a documentary about entrepreneurship in China framed by highlighting the Chinese reality TV show, "赢在中国" (literally "Win in China"). Compton's film shows exclusive behind-the-scenes footage of the reality show and has extensive interviews with both the creators, contestants, and observers of the show. The TV show, "赢在中国," is now, in 2009, in its third season. Compton's documentary looks at the first season of the show in 2006-2007.

The reality show's basic premise had contestants entering a business plan competition with more than $5 million (US dollars, not RMB) in prizes. Think the Chinese version of Donald Trump's "The Apprentice." The winner of the contest received $1.5 million for their business (that sure beats Trump's prize of getting a job with Trump Industries!). To win the competition on "赢在中国," the contestants had to impress a panel of judges as well as the viewers watching, who could text message in their votes for who they thought performed best. The judges of the show were many of the top business men in China, including Alibaba.com's CEO Jack Ma (Ma is widely known as "the Bill Gates of China").

The documentary begins by laying the scene that is present-day China. This might be a review for China Hands already familiar with the ins and outs of contemporary China. But to anyone unfamiliar with Deng Xiaoping or the story of "Special Economic Zones" like Shenzhen, this introduction is very helpful in, literally, seeing what has happened in China over the past twenty plus years.

As anyone who's been to China in recent years knows, Chinese people no longer wear Mao jackets or carry little red books. Executive Producer, Wang Lifen, of the reality show, "赢在中国," is quoted in the documentary saying, "Entrepreneurs are the biggest heroes in Chinese society. Many came from nothing, yet they've created so much." Indeed, China today could not be further from the China of Mao, the "Great Leap Forward," or collectivized farming. Compton's film wants to dispel any notions from those in the West who don't know China intimately that Chinese people still think in terms of Maoism or Marxism.

One of the most interesting parts of the documentary is when a group of China's industrial leaders trained and lectured the contestants on the show. Contestants, and, of course, the millions of Chinese watching the show, were given lessons on IPOs, start-up capital, and other basic entrepreneurial practices by Mr. Ma and many of the other top executives in China. The audience was given a step-by-step how-to on how to become a successful business man.

"赢在中国" was meant to be entertaining for the masses. But there was a much bigger reason why the show happened: the Chinese Communist Party wanted more people to become better entrepreneurs. The show, being broadcast on China's Central Television in Communist China, was, essentially, capitalist propaganda. This contradiction, highlighted well by Compton's film, is one of the most fascinating aspects of contemporary China.

The theme of picking one's self up by the boot straps and, in a larger picture, China's transformation from a collective to individualistic society is another main theme of Compton's documentary. One of the creators of the reality show said, "In today's China, anyone can win." This mantra is what the CCP wanted to promote with the show. China needs millions more entrepreneurs if the country's economy is to continue growing at the break-neck pace it has been moving.

The most memorable character from the TV show, and, thus, Compton's documentary, is the contestant, Zhou Yu. Zhou personifies this notion that peasants in China can go from, as one of the commenters in the movie put it, "farming to Ferraris." Zhou was born in rural Hebei Province and (most likely) did not graduate from high school (Zhou is very coy about how much formal education he's actually received).

Zhou's nickname is "the Wolf" for his cut-throat business practices. During competitions, he spied on the other team and lied to third-party participants trying to get information. In other instances, he pushed the rules of the show as far as he could. He wanted to win and tried to by any means possible.

His practices, many of which were questionable to me, were debated by the shows judges and audience. While the other contestants on the show didn't appreciate the Wolf's "win-at-all-costs" business practices, the audience sure did. He repeatedly won the popular vote of the Chinese people watching the show. One of the judges even went so far to say that "the Wolf represents the Chinese spirit."

I won't tell you how the contest ends. It does have a twist and controversy. You'll have to view the film to see whether the Wolf is crowned the ultimate winner of the show.

Compton's "Win in China," clocking in at about an hour with additional interviews added, is worth checking out. The documentary's interviews, footage of contemporary Chinese business practices, and insight into Chinese culture make it worthwhile.

But I believe the biggest reason to watch the movie is to get familiar with the most memorable character - the Wolf. The Wolf is the ideal businessman for contemporary Chinese people. Understanding him, and to a larger extent Chinese businessmen and China's current attitudes towards business, will give one a much deeper understanding of China going forward and would be advantageous for those doing business in China to know about.

I had a very interesting conversation with the producer of the documentary, Robert A. Compton, last week. We covered a wide-ranging array of issues. Check back soon for a transcript of the interview.


Anonymous said...

Wow, I've heard a lot about this documentary, so you getting asked to review it and getting an interview with Compton is a pretty big feather in the cap of ole Mark's China Blog, very nice.

Haven't seen it yet, but from your synopsis I am already a bit disturbed about the Wolf's tactics and his popularity. I know personally that this America is not the same one I grew up in, and it appears that the whole world is losing its moral compass. Reality shows in particular seem to reward terrible behavior and what a terrible message that sends.

Part of my job involves trying to locate stolen and lost property. Its simply amazing, I almost never see a misplaced purse or wallet get turned in. A purse or wallet is left unattended nightly and maybe 1 in 20 times it will get turned in (no joke). An unattended purse lasts maybe a minute before someone takes it, loots it, and dumps it. I personally feel its the Wolf's of the world and society's stamp of approval for this type of behavior that has contributed to this moral decay.

China today reminds me of America when it was a land of opportunity ripe for those with the entreprenurial spirit. Unfortunately, one of America's downfalls and one of the main reasons the world economy collapsed was the lack of business ethics. Its a shame that in this birth of an economic Superpower its starting out its infacy with it being acceptable to be unethical.

Well I look forward to viewing this documentary and your interview. Kudos Mark, I think they came to the right person.

Mark said...

Thanks for the props, Hopfrog. I always appreciate the insight you put into the comments.

I hear what you're saying on the Wolf. I hope my review didn't come across as an endorsement of him. I found him interesting, but disturbing as well. Seriously, parts of the documentary were almost cringe-worthy with the stuff he was pulling.

There is no doubt that the economic crisis has a lot (or everything) to do with business ethics, or lack there of.

Despite any problems you or I might have with the Wolf, I think it's a good idea for Americans to at least see what the guy is like. Americans are going to be dealing with people like the Wolf for generations to come.

Anonymous said...

If anything I got the impression you were put off by his tactics.

Agreed that this is something probably very educational for Americans. I had hoped when I first saw the rise of China's economy that they would learn from our mistakes and do it better. I'm starting to get the vibe that we have been used as a rolemodel that the Chinese are bent on one-upping, including the bad things, and things which may in fact hurt China in the long run.

I ordered a copy of the DVD this morning. Looking forward to viewing it and sharing some more thoughts.