Looking for Entrepreneurs? Head for China

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Filmmaker Ole
Schell has given us a compelling one-hour documentary that reveals
exactly why we should be concerned about China's challenge to the
United States.

It ain't because
they're "communists," no matter how persistently the Warrior
Conservatives parrot that outdated line. That China started to end
20 years ago. Today's challenge is the subject of Schell's film,
Win in China: The Story
of China's Entrepreneurial Revolution
.

"Win in
China" is also the name of the world's largest and most lucrative
business plan competition, broadcast as a TV series on national
state television. A uniquely Chinese combination of "The Apprentice"
and "Survivor," and China's first reality TV show, "Win
in China" is viewed by millions of enthralled Chinese. For
most of them, probably, this is their introduction to topics like
drafting a business plan, how to get a loan from a bank, setting
market goals and strategies, and, yes, meeting the needs of your
customers. For almost all of those millions of viewers, it defines
their own hopes, dreams, and aspirations.

Over 120,000
aspiring entrepreneurs enter this contest each year — yes, truly
everything in China is bigger, much bigger. About 100 are chosen
by the show's producers to compete. These are the ones seen on TV,
with fewer and fewer survivors after each round of competition.
Finally, as suspense mounts, only a handful of winners are left
to share around U.S. $5 million in venture capital grants. Survivor
No. 1 gets U.S. $1.5 million. (But, as the filmmaker notes, even
losers can be winners. With their exposure on national TV, some
of them will pick up business partners and obtain venture capital
outside of this official contest.)

The judges
are top businessmen in China — the nation's new rock stars — but
the public also gets a vote through texting. This truly is "educational
TV," with the top competitors explaining to the judges — and
the viewing public — their visions for fulfilling a market niche
and specifically how they would use the venture capital. The businessmen-judges,
in turn, explain to the competitors — and the viewing public — what
they like and dislike about each competitor, and his or her plans.
In the process, of course, they explain how they became successes,
usually starting from scratch.

The process
can be brutal. A businessman bluntly tells a contestant, "In
my opinion, you should not be an entrepreneur because of your personality.
Entrepreneurs have to be a little bit crazy. I suggest you get an
MBA in China and hold a job for five years before you try a venture
of your own." Ouch. Millions of Chinese, including your family
and friends, now know that he considers you too much of a wuss to
be a successful entrepreneur.

But the businessmen-judges
can also be inspirational, as when one of them explains to the contestants
that it's okay to lose — that's part of being an entrepreneur, and
he himself had failed in some ventures before he became a success.
What is not okay is to give up.

And they can
give advice in a folksy way. One businessman explains: "Passion
is not enough. If you're not competent, you can end up so broke
you cannot afford a wife."

One young woman
wants to start a staffing service for the more than 50,000 restaurants
in Shanghai, asserting that the owners rarely have experience in
picking good executive help. A businessman grills her: It is very
difficult to manage and train so many people. What makes you think
you can do that? Without hesitation, she asserts boldly: "I
believe in a military style of management." The crowd in the
studio audience roars, and the businessman smiles. You have a feeling
she's going to succeed, whether or not she wins this particular
contest.

Contestants
are also expected to be involved in community service. In one of
the film's funniest segments, a competitor is trying to convince
young kids to drink milk for its supposed health benefits. No way!
Yuk! In desperation our contestant turns to greed. He announces
a running contest to follow everyone drinking their milk, and the
winner of the race wins a portable refrigerator. Suddenly all the
kids are drinking their milk and running — cheerfully and eagerly.
(Even the choice of the prize tells so much about the difference
between China and the U.S.)

Along the way,
the survivors are divided into two teams, in a contest to see who
can sell the most life insurance. This televised competitive process
is as humorous as it is fierce, and reveals so much about Chinese-style
dog-eat-dog capitalism. One woman pulls the gender card on a potential
client, also a woman: "Buy from me. I'm a woman like you. I've
just had a baby, and I'm tired…" A young man tells a potential
client: "If you don't buy from me now, I'll be calling you
every 15 minutes." The fiercest competitor, Joe You, goes by
the nickname "Wolf" because of his business style. He
gets in trouble because of some of his methods as leader of one
of the teams. Will the judges rule against Wolf, or admire him for
his aggressiveness? I won't be a spoiler — watch the film to find
out.

At the close
of the movie, we are treated to the words of Chairman Mao, emblazoned
across the screen: "The socialist system will eventually replace
the capitalist system; this is the objective law independent of
man's will. However much the reactionaries try to hold back the
wheel of history, sooner or later revolution will take place and
will inevitably triumph."

Ah, such sweet,
delicious irony!

The question
immediately arises, of course: What are the implications of all
these Chinese entrepreneurs for the United States? After all, we
like to think of ourselves as the home of entrepreneurship
in the world.

I saw "Win
in China" at a screening sponsored by the Asia Society and
the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. Orville Schell, author
of nine books on China (and the father of the filmmaker), noted
in the panel discussion following the screening: "In China,
you can feel the hunger [to get rich, to achieve] after being
deprived so many years. Then, when you come back to the United States,
you don't see that hunger."

Perhaps it's
the classic story of a mature — some would say effete — society
being challenged by a raw, expanding, and yes, hungry new
power on the global stage. The Roman Empire and the barbarians.
And we know how that one turned out.

December
4, 2009

David
Franke [send him mail]
was one of the founders of the conservative movement in the 1950s
and 1960s, when Democrats and liberals were the ones who believed
in big government, fiscal recklessness, and an imperial presidency.

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