Not unlike Wall Street, Western commentary on China tends to oscillate between extremes of fear and greed. The fear narrative: China is manipulating its currency, building up its military, oppressing its dissidents, and preparing to eat our economic and geopolitical lunch! The greed narrative: Yeah, but think of all those emerging middle class consumers, just itching to embrace our values and buy our stuff!
Both perspectives are rooted in ignorance of China, home to the world's oldest civilization as well as its most dynamic modern economy. If we're to coexist peacefully and even profitably with billions of Chinese, we need to understand their political, economic, and cultural choices. In short, we must develop the cultural empathy that will allow us to see the world through Chinese eyes.
That kind of empathy comes only from long, intimate experience with Chinese society. Enter Tom Doctoroff, an American advertising executive who has lived and worked in mainland China for the past 14 years. Doctoroff runs greater China operations for J. Walter Thompson and has also emerged as a go-to pundit for Western TV and radio producers seeking quick, sharp insight into Chinese behavior.
In What Chinese Want, Doctoroff presents an invaluable primer on the culture and buying patterns of the Chinese. Although he writes primarily for an audience of Western marketers seeking to reach Chinese consumers, his book should interest anyone who wants to understand what makes modern China tick.
An ad man at the end of the day, Doctoroff repeats his messages relentlessly, until they lodge in one's cerebellum like a Coke jingle or a Maoist precept. His key points: Chinese crave security and fear chaos. Unlike Westerners, they define success primarily in terms of social recognition rather than self-actualization. They want to stand out while also fitting in. This influences all their buying choices, from cars to clothes, jewelry, and even tattoos.
According to Doctoroff, Chinese rarely challenge authority figures because their culture is rooted in Confucian respect for hierarchy. Their concepts of morality are relative, not absolute: Whatever promotes unity and social harmony is good, and anything that promotes instability is bad. For this reason, Western notions of universal human rights tend not to resonate deeply in China, where social stability trumps abstract morality every time.
Doctoroff argues, provocatively, that countercultural manifestations like China's celebrated political dissidents and contemporary artists, as well as its burgeoning online media and lively underground rock scene, are not signs of a society in process of becoming more liberal, as Westerners understand that term.