A Chinese Century? Not Quite ~ Tom Doctoroff

In the narrowest sense, a superpower has the military might to force the world to acquiesce to hegemonic resolve (for example, the Soviet Union). Then there are economic superpowers that influence capital flows and global growth rates. When they struggle, the world does too. Finally, there are soft superpowers, nations that “own” universal values.

American strengths and weaknesses. In response to the brouhaha over the American debt ceiling, a correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt wrote in July, 2011: “Out of the American twenty-first-century crisis could come the downfall of the dominant power of the twentieth century.” His sentiments, perhaps overheated, are a reminder that nothing lasts forever. It is to be hoped that America’s disorientation, triggered by the rise of China, political polarization, and a hangover of material self-indulgence, is not permanent. Even if GDP growth slows due to protracted deleveraging, the combination of a growing population and high per capita income ensures continued economic sway. America’s military budget, currently eight times that of China, will continue to underpin geopolitical clout, even as the country’s status of as an 800-pound gorilla diminishes in a multi-polar world.

American values — as opposed to its political system — will have global appeal for generations. Individualism — the encouragement of society to define oneself independent of society — does not travel well, but respect for the dignity of the common man touches all hearts. Iconic American brands such as Nike and Coke, vessels of hope, will never go out of style. American pop culture will not be challenged. Superstars — from Lady Gaga to Michael Jackson to Angelina Jolie to Johnny Depp — epitomize self-actualization, an aspiration that transcends culture.

China’s soft power gap. China will undoubtedly evolve into an economic superpower. Its economy, within decades, will become the world’s largest. Per capita disposable income will be constrained but aggregate spending power will be massive. China’s industrial tentacles will be felt everywhere; traditional Chinese medicine will become more popular; and university students will learn Mandarin.

But China will not easily capture hearts and minds. The Chinese are ethnocentric. In large ways and small, an instinct to narrowly defend interests can be off putting:

First, the country maintains a chip on its shoulder regarding indignities suffered at the hands of foreigners between the Opium War and the establishment of Communist China in 1949. Strident outrage erupts whenever any country “hurts the feelings of the Chinese people.”

Second, in a pinch, the government lapses into bullyboy petulance, throwing economic and military weight around the region. Diplomatic relationships with Japan and India are tetchy, largely because China remains brittle and insecure. Decades-long territorial disputes are unresolved.

Third, although Chinese society is more civil than a few years ago, daily life is still dog-eat-dog. Charity organizations are underdeveloped due to the party’s reluctance to grant authority to any entity not under its direct control. Families, unprotected by rule of law, fend for themselves at the expense of individuals outside the clan. Anyone who fails to conform to convention — for example, the handicapped or mentally ill, homosexuals, and AIDS patients — is socially ostracized. Spitting and burping in public is commonplace. In crowded elevators and airplanes, mobile phone users lack volume control.

Fourth, Chinese, a language in which written and spoken forms are completely unrelated, remains a temple of linguistic exclusivity, a walled garden, frustratingly off limits to everyone but the most disciplined and determined foreigners. Every character requires memorization; every sentence must conform to structural imperatives.

When in Rome? Despite fascination with the world, the Chinese do not assimilate easily. China tries hard to be open — road signs are bilingual, English is a passion, trade links are robust, macroeconomic policies during financial crises were constructive — but, emotionally, the nation stands apart. Information is controlled. Defensive instincts militate against free and easy exchange of ideas. Until trust is established, foreigners are treated with polite suspicion. Manufacturers that acquire Western companies have difficulty integrating domestic and international management teams. The global footprint of China’s state-controlled English-language news outlets is growing, but broadcasts are so dull international viewers tune out. The opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, impressive in scale and moving in ambition, lapsed into mawkish cliché when gears shifted from celebrating China’s glory to preaching “One World, One Dream.”

China’s ability to leverage the assets of other cultures is peerless. Its superhighways are modeled after America’s and major web portals are copycats of Western sites, tweaked for local users. The Party has also integrated itself into the fabric of the global trading system as a check against domestic weaknesses (for example, poor corporate governance, pliable standards of financial transparency). But, unless deemed “safe,” foreigners are still confronted with awkward silences and robotic smiles. Bonding at the national level is a long ways off.

China will be an economic superpower only. There will be more than one tiger on the mountain.

Note: This article is adapted from my upcoming book, What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism and China’s Modern Consumer, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in May, 2012.


Tom is one of Asia’s most respected advertising professionals and also a leading expert in Chinese consumer psychology. Born and bred in America’s Detroit and educated in Chicago, he took a detour to Hong Kong in 1994 and never quite made it back to the States. His unique combination of pan-Asian work, plus more than a decade based in China, has made him a leading expert in the cross-border management of brand architecture and brand building.

He has appeared regularly on CNBC, NBC’s The Today Show, Bloomberg and National Public Radio and is frequently featured in publications ranging from the Financial Times and Business Week to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Furthermore, he is a sought after keynote speaker for events such as the International Advertising Association’s global symposium, University of Chicago’s Global Management Conference, the China Luxury Summit and the JPMorgan Asia Pacific Equities conference.

Tom started his advertising career at Leo Burnett in Chicago but jumped ship to JWT (Chicago). In 1994, he moved to Hong Kong as Regional Business Director for clients such as Pepsi, Philip Morris/Kraft and Citibank. In 1998, he landed in China as the Managing Director of JWT Shanghai. In 2002, he was appointed Northeast Asia Area Director (China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea) and Greater China CEO. Through diversification into customer relationship marketing (CRM) and trade marketing, promotion network management and brand identity/design, JWT Northeast Asia has emerged as one the most synergistically integrated, creatively dynamic communications networks. Some of JWT China’s key clients include: Unilever, DeBeers, HSBC, InBev, Ford, Nokia, Microsoft and Nestle as well as several leading local enterprises such as Lenovo, COFCO, China Unicom, Yili dairy and Anta shoes.

Tom is the recipient of the “Magnolia Government Award (白玉兰政府纪念奖),” the highest honor given by the Shanghai municipal government to expatriates and was selected to be an Official Torchbearer for the Beijing 2008 Olympics. He is also the author of the best-selling book “Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer” and his most recent title, “What Chinese Want,” to be published in April 2012.

Tom completed his undergraduate studies at Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and his MBA at the University of Chicago.
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