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It ain't because they're "communists," no matter how persistently the Warrior Conservatives parrot that outdated line.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.
A Bull in China: Inves... Best Price: $3.50 Buy New $9.57 (as of 11:55 UTC - Details)
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