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


Best Business Books 2010: China

Zhang tracks how connectivity is giving rise to a collective consumer power that could transform the nature of business in China. For example, Chinese consumers using mainly mobile phones to communicate organized a spontaneous boycott of French retailer Carrefour after a French pro-Tibet activist attacked a wheelchair-bound, retired Chinese athlete during the Olympic torch relay in May 2008. Carrefour had nothing to do with the attack, but suffered the wrath of consumer-driven, nationalistic protest. “The interconnection of millions of Chinese empowers them as a group, as consumers, and as social members in a political regime to form a collective power to interact with merchants and policy makers in a way they never experienced before,” Zhang writes.

Even President Hu Jintao now conducts online chats with Chinese netizens, and has publicly stated that he tries to find time to gauge the public’s reactions to government policies via postings on the Internet — and craft government responses accordingly. “Formerly, the Chinese public was a passive receiver of messages from the top of society or within very confined boundaries; today everyone can be a newsmaker and broadcaster,” writes Zhang. “This collective power is only getting stronger and more sophisticated by the day.” The implications are significant enough that Zhang advocates building interactive platforms into all product marketing plans. She notes that even a small niche of consumers reached in this way can create millions of sales — and millions of potential boycotters for unprepared retailers and makers of consumer products.

The evolution of the Chinese consumer is a particularly important topic because Chinese government policy and the interests of the West are both focused on promoting domestic consumption as a driver of future economic growth. So profound is the change that Zhang reports that China’s longtime greeting “Have you eaten?” (Chi fan le mei you? or just Chi le?) — which originated in China’s past famines and hardships — now has a 2.0 version among China’s young, urban, connected consumers. They text one another: “Where are you?” (Zai nar ne?)

Some commentators argue that China’s new form of “state capitalism” poses a threatening challenge to free markets. Zhang paints a more realistic picture of the nature of Chinese capitalism. It’s neither single nor unified, she says. It is a body made up of three separate organs: state capitalism, which of course is omnipresent; a flourishing sector built on private capitalism; and international capitalism. The roles of the latter two are often overlooked by those observing China from the outside in. That’s why it’s important to have observers like Zhang telling us about the transformative changes unfolding in China 2.0 from the inside out. Her contextualized revelations provide the means for a new understanding, even for the well-initiated reader.

Road Trip

Peter Hessler often seems to stumble across insights in his epic 7,000-mile road trip across China. Along the way, in Country Driving: A Journey through China from Farm to Factory, this year’s best book on China, he manages to explore the human sides of industrialization, entrepreneurialism, urbanization, the creation of the auto industry, the inadequacies of China’s healthcare system, and the impact of the headlong building of thousands of miles of new highways modeled on the U.S. interstate highway system.

Hessler chooses his route from the only navigation tool at his disposal — a 158-page pack of road maps published by a company called Sinomaps. The roads on these maps look mostly like squiggly red capillaries without names; they tend to disappear altogether when they enter sensitive geographic areas that the government does not want exposed to visitors. Hessler decides to follow some of the capillaries that snake alongside a series of symbols that looks like this: ππππππππ. It’s the outline of the Great Wall.

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