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In Search of China's Riches Close

Robin Pharoah | Aug. 12, 2013

 

Stephen Campbell Moore as Joe and Claudie Blakley as Tess in Chimerica. Photo: Johan Persson.

 

In the summer of 2001, I was living in a factory, in a village, in central China. I was in the middle of a two-year stint of fieldwork for my PhD.

It was hot. So hot in fact, that the factory’s furnaces blazed only during the night, for fear that workers would succumb in the day. Most nights, I lay awake into the small hours, sweating, my senses overloaded by the clangs and flashes from the factory courtyard.

One morning, I was roused by one of the labourers. He announced that a VIP, Mr. Liu, had driven from the city during the night to collect me. Mr. Liu was a senior regional official who had taken me under his wing. I knew him well and we had become close. In fact, he had taken me out on many trips before, though never perhaps with quite this sense of urgency. I got dressed, washed the sweat out of my eyes with a bottle of drinking water, and went to the factory gates to meet him.

He looked at my dishevelled frame disapprovingly, then thought better of his critique and smiled: “We are going to do some business. We will eat with some friends.” I knew well what this meant. His driver beckoned me into his shining black car, and off we drove down uneven roads through the pinks and oranges of dawn, to a remote part of the province.

Eventually, we arrived outside the entrance of a nondescript restaurant, on the main drag of an ordinary provincial town, where we were met by a diligent young man in a familiar green uniform. He ushered us into the restaurant, through the kerfuffle of the regular lunchtime patrons and up some metal stairs to the private dining rooms above. Here, I was pointed to a door bearing characters that exaggerated the beauty of the interior.

Inside, a fog of smoke hung over a dozen or so smiling faces floating above a large circular dining table. Each of them rose to greet me.

Mr. Liu had various business interests, and he and I had developed a formidable partnership. Foreigners in this part of China were a rarity, let alone foreigners who could converse in Chinese and who knew how to partake in local social life. Mr. Liu, not to put too fine a point on it, used me to open doors, and make relationships with people he needed to know. In turn, I had learned how to give him “face” and how to ensure that these meetings, usually lavish banquets, went well. So I knew we would be drinking. I was ready for it. Used to it.

I was introduced, in the correct order, to everyone in the room, and learned that I was at a meeting of lower and higher ranked military officers, all eager to show off their prowess when it came to generous hospitality. Our host, the highest ranked man in the room, stood and gave a customary oration, but with a small caveat: that the only suitable way to mark this auspicious occasion was to toast with six (rather than the customary two) cups of the ubiquitous Chinese white liquor. The waitress behind him duly poured out six cups, and then delivered them in succession into his rice bowl. Other waitresses emerged from the corners of the room and did the same with the rice bowls in front of the rest of us. We were invited to stand and drain the liquid in one. Over the course of the meal we drank several more toasts, each time using a rice bowl filled with whisky-strength spirits.

I don’t remember the food, or the precise number of toasts, or whether I won or lost the playing-card-based drinking games that followed. I do remember that after the meal, we trooped off, drunk and euphoric, arms round shoulders, to a local shooting range, where I was taught to fire a rifle at targets that swam in my vision.

And I remember Mr. Liu congratulating me as we were driven home. And that the military men had apparently become customers.

Years later, on one of my many return visits to China, less the anthropologist now and more the market researcher and consultant, I found myself exploring seemingly more familiar business transactions. I had been employed by a well-known American technology company, to help them understand consumers and producers of hi-tech products in Beijing and Shanghai. This time I stayed in comfortable hotel rooms with “continental breakfasts” and English-language newspapers. My research was more mundane. I interviewed, observed and collected data on the lives of young, urban Chinese consumers.

My respondents and subjects didn’t blink at my white face or clumsy accent. They conversed with me about Western films, mobile phones and rising salaries. They showed off their knowledge of expensive wines, and exchanged business cards adorned with stylish logos and Western-sounding company names.

Had China changed so much? Were these new breeds of businessmen and consumers the architects of a modern China that is coming more and more to resemble Europe or America? Were business lunches shifting from banquet rooms to Starbucks? Were the old arts of relationship forming (lavish gifts, ceremony, etiquette) really disappearing? To be replaced by an individualistic pursuit of a “Western” lifestyle?

I built consumer models and created customer archetypes along the lines of market research anywhere else in the world, and flew back to London to deliver my findings. But I remained unsure that what I had seen could be so readily explained in terms of a national shift toward our own cultural models. My client was less interested in exploring the issue however, happy enough to find the familiar in a market that had once seemed so alien.

More recently, I found myself working in China again for another multinational company. This time, I was charged with uncovering the refined tastes and behaviours of those benefitting most from China’s economic explosion.

I met various characters during this work: overnight millionaires, the notorious sons and daughters of billionaire businessmen, young entrepreneurs and of course, established elites. It was fascinating. I discovered an emergent language that had risen to describe the various ways in which such people live. And again I saw the trappings of Western-style consumerism. I was introduced to the insides of opulent clubs and expensive wine bars on skyscraper terraces. I ate in restaurants that were lavish recreations of famous dynastic scenes.

But one Sunday lunchtime in Beijing, I found myself in a private, gold-bedecked dining room, eating honeyed scorpion with a retired army general. He was hosting a banquet to introduce a young media entrepreneur to a famous artist. And we were drinking health-scaring toasts again. I was transported back to the banquet a decade earlier.

Today, I am often asked by Western businesses: “When will these traditions finally die out?” Their implication being: “When will the Chinese finally become like us?”

And they point to those hi-tech consumers as proof positive that this is what’s coming.

But what if our eyes are deceiving us? What if, to those hi-tech Chinese consumers, Western brands are not cultural Trojan horses, but instead a new set of toys with which to play old games? Were the business cards so different from the formal introductions? Were the offers of expensive French wines really so different from the offers of elaborate toasts? Was the camaraderie of shared conversations about films and mobile phones so different from the camaraderie of the banquet? Because if they were not so different after all, then my experience at that provincial dinner table has at least as much to teach us about the tastes of young Chinese urbanites as does the apparent similarity of their consumer choices to their Western counterparts.

My new client devoured the idea, happy that they had an opportunity to steal a march on competitors. They devoted time and intellectual energy to trying to understand the more “exotic” aspects of Chinese life, and declining the option of leaping to the comfort of the familiar.

China is a country that beguiles Western businesses. They see large numbers (1,400,000,000), and dream of dollar signs preceding them. A new army of consultants (I should include myself in their number) are trying to help them make that dream come true. Some will succeed, others will fail. I would like to think that those with the strongest stomachs (perhaps literally), those willing to take a bold leap into China’s interior, will find riches.

 

Dr. Robin Pharoah gained his BA in Social Anthropology from Cambridge in 1999 and his PhD in Anthropology of China from the London School of Economics in 2004. He now runs the market research agency ESRO, where he regularly consults and organises consumer research projects to help businesses understand the Chinese market.