JPRI Critique Vol. XV, No. 5 (November 2009) Yes, You Too Can "Win in China": An Interview with Filmmaker Ole Schell by Dustin Wright
China's rapid economic development - like Japan's "economic miracle" of the 1960s to 1980s - has generated considerable discussion and debate, both in academia and popular media. Today much of the debate revolves around whether the startling pace of China's growth can be sustained. For example, a report from the conservative American Enterprise Institute warns that China will be unable to maintain eight percent annual GNP growth based on export-oriented production. Other analysts and organizations counter that although China's export growth has indeed slowed since 2007, its overall economy continues to expand at impressive rates. Many observers have noted, moreover, that China is faring the current global recession better than any other major economy.
In addition to debates focusing on aggregate figures like GNP, exports, and productivity, China watchers are turning their attention to the people and ethos behind the heady numbers. Anna Greenspan, a contributor to the online blog The China Beat , has called Shanghai's street vendors "the most entrepreneurial and creative sector of society." What makes street vendors and other small-scale businesspersons in China so entrepreneurial and creative? James Fallows offers an interesting route to answering this question: study what China's new generation of aspiring entrepreneurs watch on TV at the end of a long working day. In a 2007 article in The Atlantic , Fallows reports on the game show Ying Zai Zhongguo ( Win in China ) - a show whose immense popularity and correspondingly gigantic viewership makes the Super Bowl appear in comparison like a city council meeting on your local public access channel.
The show's premise would be familiar to American fans of reality TV: fledgling entrepreneurs compete for prize money put up by some of China's most successful entrepreneurs-turned-venture-capitalists, who also serve as the show's panel of judges. For the contestants, successfully promoting a business plan, demonstrating ambition and business acumen, or exposing competitors' lack of experience and casting doubt on the viability of their ideas are all key pathways to winning a chunk of the prize money, which totals over USD 5 million.
Filmmaker Ole Schell, son of renowned Sinologist Orville Schell, has profiled the show in a new documentary, also called Win in China . The filmmaker recently posted a great piece at CNN's AC360 blog, where he describes meeting up with one of Win 's successful contestants, now putting his prize money to use with a lingerie business. The documentary has recently been screened around the United States, in venues such as the University of Chicago, the New York-based Asia Society, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Here, Ole Schell talks with us at JPRI about the film.
Dustin Wright [DW]: Can you tell us what your film is about?
Ole Schell [OS]: Win in China is about the entrepreneurial revolution happening in China now and its ultimate overt manifestation on China Central Television (CCTV). We follow not only the entrepreneurs competing on the show, but what it means historically.
Despite [the show's] overt boosterism of the marketplace and capitalism, it was nonetheless on state-run television, CCTV, with the apparent blessing of the Chinese government media watchdog, the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. So, that is to say the least a little ironic.
DW: What trends in Chinese society really stood out when you were filming this documentary?
OS : Aside from the obvious trends of almost everyone being an entrepreneur and the streets of every major city being lined with construction cranes as far as the eye can see, several things indeed stood out:
The businessman is the new icon. I saw some of these guys mobbed like rock stars by young people with business plans and dreams. You go to any highway and images of the entrepreneurs as the hero on billboards have replaced imagery of Chairman Mao and glorified images of workers. If you look at the new CCTV building in Beijing or look at the view from the Bund in Shanghai, you see how modern parts of China are. It's frightening to see just how far the West is falling behind.
DW: Who watches this show in China? Is it only middle-class urbanites or does the show have popularity outside of the cities? How many people watch this show?
OS: On CCTV2 and DVD Win in China [the TV show] had over 200 million viewers. People of all stripes in China are becoming entrepreneurs both small and large. You hear stories if people who make a business out of collecting coal that falls off a truck at a weigh station, one piece at a time, or a guy who had a contract to take urine from restaurants and port-o-potties and then purify and sell it to a pharmaceutical company. Then there are young men who are totally uneducated but started selling pot stickers on the street, then motorcycle parts, then cars, then real-estate, becoming billionaires by their 30th birthday.
These stories are not uncommon in China. So I think Win has appealed to anyone with a dream.
DW: In the United States, many people enthusiastically believe that they can jump socioeconomic barriers, as long as they are willing to work hard. How does this compare to China? Does the "entrepreneurial spirit" differ?
OS: Yes, this is similar and I would argue that this sentiment is even stronger in China. People are by and large comfortable in the United States whereas people in China are often very hungry. Things move so fast in China now, and practicing business there is a way to get ahead and advance very quickly.
Until you go there it is hard to fathom the true entrepreneurial energy that permeates around every corner. It is a really exciting place to be with so many opportunities.
DW: It seems that anytime we discuss China and "free market" capitalism, we inevitably bring up notions of change within China and the transformation or weakening of the CCP. Having met many young entrepreneurs, along with pillars in Chinese business, like the founder of Alibiba Group, Jack Ma, do you think the motivations and goals of China's capitalists amount to anything beyond creating wealth?
OS: Honestly, I think that despite the lip service given to bettering the country and creating jobs to push China forward, most but not all entrepreneurs are out to better themselves. There is a lot of talk of helping China and doing charitable work but I think this is sort of a window dressing to excuse the capitalism. There are still fading vestiges of communism that this talk must satisfy in some way. Remember, it was not that long ago that all of this private enterprise was totally forbidden.
That being said, someone like Jack Ma, who acted as a judge on the show, really had the best interests of the country at heart. He really believed in informing his countrymen about business in hopes of creating more jobs and modernizing his country. I believed him when he said that greater transparency in business and would lead to greater transparent modernization in China.
DW: Do you think the global recession has changed the goals or expectations of China's entrepreneurs?
OS: I was there when the crisis first hit and it slowed things down for a little while, but there is such an entrepreneurial fervor in China that it seems things have rebounded. HSBC bank just predicted the Chinese GDP would grow by 8.1 percent for 2009. There is such an entrepreneurial wave over there and so many people joining the middle class as consumers, workers, and job creators, that it seems China has weathered the storm better than the West. China seems to also have been more successful with its stimulus package than we have been so far in the US.
DW: To what extent do the entrepreneurs that you met want to sell their products abroad? I wonder if they are frustrated with the recent decline in consumer consumption in places like the United States and are instead pushing products for domestic consumption.
OS: Zhou Yu (nicknamed "The Wolf" [and a former contestant on the show]) is looking to expand and sell his products internationally. Right now he sells most of his bras and panties domestically in China. He has explored doing this in continental Europe and may expand there soon.
China's trade with the world is based primarily on supplying foreign demand for goods. That being said, there is a whole consumer class, which is rapidly growing in China as more and more peasants and workers join the middle class. Jack Ma actually has a venture to reverse the flow of goods by setting up a b2b (business-to-business) that hooks up American suppliers with buyers of goods in China. This is a further sign that China is maturing as an economy.
The Wolf is an example of this shift in China. As the country modernizes and becomes more westernized, its businessmen are looking not only to manufacture items traditionally associated with western culture but also to have them purchased domestically. So, as more and more peasants join the modern workforce the more China's economy will become self-sustaining.
For its part the government is undertaking a huge effort to create jobs for the ever growing middle class by supporting small business incubators at places like Tsinghua University in Beijing and by green-lighting shows like Win . This is done to not only stimulate entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese people but to create jobs.
DW: Your last documentary was a behind-the-scenes look at the often exploitative world of fashion modeling. Any similarities between the aspirations of a young model in New York and the aspirations of a budding business owner in Beijing?
OS: Perhaps, yes. Some of the young women in our film, Picture Me , came from abject poverty in Eastern Europe or elsewhere and were taken or sent to the big city to bring their whole families to a better life. This is also common in China. One person will get rich and then bring his whole family along with him. In both worlds you can succeed very fast, but of course neither world is without its pitfalls.
DW: I imagine China is becoming an increasingly alluring place for documentary filmmakers. Do you have any advice for someone hoping to film there?
OS: There are so many compelling stories in China that it isn't hard to find someone or something to follow, be it the underground music scene, the deteriorating environment, entrepreneurs, or economic reforms. I would say go to China with an open mind and get ready for things to move quickly once you're plugged in. It's pretty rapid fire over there and you never know whom you'll meet. The current generation is full of stories as many of them grew up under the "red, red flag of Chairman Mao" and during the Cultural Revolution but came of age under the cranes and massive expansion of Deng Xiaoping's reforms.
DUSTIN WRIGHT is a graduate student in the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz. An earlier version of this interview appeared on the online blog The China Beat on October 15, 2009.