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Mr. China: A Memoir Hardcover – February 1, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
A British businessman with a background in accounting and auditing, Clissold joined up with an entrepreneur in the early 1990s and set out to buy shares of Chinese firms and to work to make them more profitable. Within two years, Clissold's venture owned shares in 20 Chinese businesses, with 25,000 employees among them, but the story really centers on Clissold's encounters with the nation's "institutionalized confusion." Firing entrenched middle managers became a protracted process that led to factory riots and employees using company funds to set up competing businesses; the anticorruption bureau demanded cash bribes before opening investigations. Clissold's narrative is somewhat aimless, slipping from one misadventure (taking American fund managers to a condom factory) to the next, and there's a certain amount of too-easy humor derived from the exoticism of Chinese culture (e.g., the inevitable banquet where unusual body parts of rabbit and deer are served). Even in these passages, though, Clissold's fundamental respect for the Chinese culture is unmistakable, and the scenes where he leaves his office and interacts directly with the people can be quite vividly detailed. By the late '90s, millions of dollars poured into the companies yield disastrous results from an investment standpoint (and Clissold himself suffers a heart attack), but the Chinese economy as a whole hums ever more loudly. Crossover appeal of this title may be limited, but business readers are likely to be entertained.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
In the early 1990s, British businessman Clissold--with a passing knowledge of China and of Mandarin--found himself the point man between a group of Wall Street bankers with hundreds of millions to invest and a budding entrepreneur class in China strapped for cash and foreign expertise. This seemingly perfect marriage would become, as one investor put it, "the Vietnam War of American business." By decade's end, hundreds of joint ventures would fail and billions of dollars would be lost. If Clissold was well placed to help create many of these ill-fated partnerships, he's even better positioned to explain, through his own horrific experiences, what went wrong: a labyrinthine legal and political system that Westerners (even with Chinese help) could never decipher, a rickety and hidebound system of factory management in China, an almost-willful lack of respect by Wall Street for Chinese sensibilities, and often-flagrant abuse by Chinese managers of the Western largesse made available to them. A compelling account, related with sly humor and hard-earned wisdom. Alan Moores
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
This book provides many "a-ha" moments. Even while it is still difficult to think the way the Chinese think, at least you know your observations are correct. And, no, you are probably not imagining things.
Most of all, I appreciated author's explanation of his experience trying to explain timelines, metrics, and results to a US Boardroom, when the Chinese do not work according to our typical project roll-out.
The author is Tim Clissold, who, per the book’s back cover “has been working in China for 17 years (and)…lives in Beijing with his wife and four children.” The book’s earliest copyright date seems to be 2004, which puts Clissold in China in the late ‘80s. I’m not sure that he really explains why he first went to China, but, in any case, he did some traveling there at what he calls “the tail end of the planned economy.” He goes back to London, but then back to China in 1990.
He lived in a university in Beijing for two years, learned Mandarin and much of the ways the Chinese led their lives. With a financial background, he takes a job as a Mandarin speaker with Arthur Anderson. At some point, he hooks up with a guy from Wall Street who can connect with hundreds of millions of dollars from Wall Street to invest in China. With his buddy, Clissold goes into the business of looking for Wall Street investments in China.
And this is what the book is about: the series of investments and adventures investing in and managing these factories/companies over the next decade or so. There are excruciating details of predicaments and details involved with the management of the companies. Here, we learn, first hand, of peculiarities of Chinese business “rules,” if there are any. Here, the reader can feel Clissold’s frustrations, if not his fears.
And, the author gives us insight into how most of the factories that he visited were originally set up under the Russian period of industrialization under Chairman Mao. After the Russians pulled out, the Chinese Military took over ownership and control of many of the factories. After Mao dies, the Military begins to release the factories to civilian control under the Communist government. Per Clissold, China was then like the U.S. was in the 1880s. Most of the factories were in disrepair and in need of investment capital, something that was then not available in China, domestically. Clissold also saw China at that time as uniquely like the U.S., in that it had resources and a population that could sustain its own economy. In short, Clissold saw great opportunity with investments in China.
But dealing with Chinese business people involved pain. The massive dinners with serious drinking were a burden. The country’s infrastructure was primitive. Factories had been relocated to rural areas that were hard to get to and were vulnerable to natural disasters. But by the early 90s, the Chinese economy was beginning to take off, and numerous countries had businesses clamoring to get a foothold. Competition was fierce.
Clissold’s Wall Street buddy raised the money in ways that astounded the author: “It was the wealth of the individual families in America…that really amazed me; I had no idea that such vast fortunes were controlled by families or individuals who had either made or inherited money,” he said. (This was the early 90’s, mind you.)
Clissold had visited 100 Chinese factories. His buddy had raised $200 million. The idea was to invest in multiple factories, with the goal of eventually consolidating them into a single corporate entity. That was how money was made in the U.S. Why would it not work in China, too?
With each deal, Clissold got majority ownership, but this did not mean that he would have majority control. Details of all his problems in this area abound in the book. But Clissold was essential. His Wall Street buddy did not learn Mandarin nor the details of how to deal with the Chinese in business. His buddy was the salesman. Clissold had to explain to the investors back on Wall Street what was going on at the ground floor. Clissold had to keep all the pieces of the puzzle in place.
He works for eight years, then has a heart attack and decides to quit. But he goes back in 1998. He is hooked, including with the language. But I don’t think that he really tells us the details of the overall business. He does tell us that after 10 years, he had worked himself out of a job, that the era of joint ventures was over in China. He says that billions of dollars were lost by Western investors, but he infers that he and his were winners.
I don’t think that he really wants to tell us the details of how he and his made money. It may be that his companies were at the base of the massive production of goods imported into the U.S. during the 90s. He says that the main purpose of the book is to better inform the American people of the ways of the Chinese in the hopes that we will better understand how the two countries need to interact and coexist in the future. Again, the book is more of a memoir than anything else, but it contains enough historical and personal insights to make it a good read.
By now, the world knows how quickly China has modernized and compressed the western world's industrial revolutions into a fraction of the time, creating the second largest economy in the world. As a result, the volume of entrepreneurs and companies doing business in China has exploded, as have the stories of failure. This book contains examples of both and is written with a voice that is both credible and likable.
A must read for those with dreams of Middle Kingdom riches.
Honestly, how many times have we seen this situation?
1. Foreign manager comes to China.
2. He has spent NO time living in China and becoming aware of his surroundings.
3. Said foreigner has no inkling of the general level of depravity/ corruption/ pettifoggery that is Chinese people.
4. He gets ripped off in the first few business ventures and that is not enough for him. He just keeps on going--and keeps on getting ripped off.
There's a sucker born every minute, and that truism works forward in time as well as backward. This book came out in 2006 about things that had happened during the 1990s. But there have been MANY books written about people who have made the same, identical mistakes. A selected sampling, covering about 400 years (that I myself have read).
1. The China Dream: The Quest for the Last Great Untapped Market on Earth. From the time of Qing Dynasty, merchants have been trying to sell here.
2. NO ANCIENT WISDOM, NO FOLLOWERS: The Challenges of Chinese Authoritarian Capitalism This covers the 90s until today.
3. One Billion Customers The late 90s and early aughts.
4. 400 Million Customers The years between WWI and the Japanese occupation in Shanghai. Mr. Crow stayed here 25 years and never launched a SINGLE successful product.
5. To Change China: Western Advisers in China. Covers all of the Qing Dynasty and then up into the 80s.
6. Poorly Made in China: An Insider's Account of the China Production Game. A fluent Mandarin speaker completes his MBA. He advises so many people losing money that he finally decides to just write a book about it (since he gives the same advice over and over).
The author backs off from reaching the obvious conclusion (that the locals are basically a bunch of mountebanks), but if you read all of the aforementioned books, you can't escape that conclusion.
This book was purchased second hand. Because I've read SO many of these books, it's not worth more than a second hand purchase price ($0.01 + shipping).
It was about 2 afternoons worth of reading.