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 / Winter 2010 / Issue 61(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2010: China

Probing China’s Infrastructure

Marina Yue Zhang with Bruce W. Stening
China 2.0: The Transformation of an Emerging Superpower...and the New Opportunities
(Wiley, 2010)

Peter Hessler
Country Driving: A Journey through China from Farm to Factory
(Harper, 2010)

Elizabeth C. Economy
The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future
(2nd ed., Cornell University Press, 2010)

Edward Tse
The China Strategy: Harnessing the Power of the World’s Fastest-Growing Economy
(Basic Books, 2010)

Too many books about China fall into one of two dichotomous categories: “good China” and “bad China.” In the former, a rising China presents tremendous opportunities for those who figure out how to lasso and ride the “great dragon,” profiting from its enormous economic power. In the latter, China is a threat, a rising Yellow Peril–tinged specter of repression and economic domination that imperils Western ideals and global supremacy. Both approaches have sold well, but neither offers the depth of understanding needed by corporate strategists.

In order to truly comprehend the opportunities as well as the risks posed by this massive nation, we need to read deeper. Rather than glossy overviews that postulate grand top-down theories, the best books about China start on the ground and probingly elevate our understanding. This year, they delve into China’s growing technological backbone; the rapid, tendril-like growth of its nationwide highway system; the impact of its economic development on the environment; and the strategic implications of its societal transformation.

Consumers Arise

The unfortunately titled China 2.0: The Transformation of an Emerging Superpower...and the New Opportunities appears at first glance to be one of those once-over-lightly, lasso-the-dragon overviews. It is not. Author and management consultant Marina Yue Zhang grew up in mainland China, received her undergraduate education from Beijing University (her country’s equivalent of Harvard), and then earned an MBA and a Ph.D. in management in Australia. She combines a well-researched perspective with the nuanced understanding of a native mainlander and filters them through well-communicated critical analyses. The result is a deeply informative book that examines the impact of technology on China’s economic development and ongoing social transformation.

Zhang calls this new China “2.0” to distinguish it from the monolithic China of old, where information was imparted by the government to the people in top-down fashion and economic development was a function of central planning. She argues that “China 2.0 signifies a new phase in China’s development and the need for completely revamped thinking about what China is and how it works.”

It might be tempting to watch the travails of Google and eBay in China and think of the Chinese as technologically backward and isolated. But Zhang demonstrates that the very opposite is true. Despite living behind the great firewall of censorship, more than half of China’s 1.3 billion people use mobile phones or the Internet. This connectivity is having a profound effect, according to Zhang. It is mobilizing public opinion and forging a new social order, as well as creating a level of political transparency and institutional reforms that Chinese leaders had managed to avoid until now.

China 2.0 is filled with surprising statistics. For instance, more than 160 million Chinese have a personal blog or other Web space. Zhang suggests that China’s one-child-per-family generation is looking for social engagement in cyberspace to compensate for an isolated upbringing. More than 400 million Chinese are registered for QQ, an instant messaging application, and more than 75 percent of Chinese Internet users have one or more instant messaging accounts, compared to just 39 percent in the United States. Chinese rely much more heavily on instant messaging than they do e-mail, which is easier to censor and track. Only 56 percent of Internet users in China use e-mail at all, Zhang tells us, and then primarily for business communication.

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