Mr. China, Tim Clissold, New York: HarperBusiness, 2004

What makes Mr. China special isn’t the disastrous events it describes—although these include massive swindles, forcible detention, and a stabbing—or the larger-than-life characters who populate its pages. An account of a succession of more or less unsuccessful business ventures in China, interspersed with finely written descriptions of rural landscape and knowledge and sensitive explanations of Chinese language and perspective, Mr. China offers a literate, thoughtful, cultured approach to China that takes one well beyond the dos and don’ts of who to work with or what to invest in. By the end of Mr. China, you have begun to perceive the qualities of Chinese character and culture and landscape that so attract the Westerners who do become China hands. The following extracts give a little taste.

So what had I learned? From my eight years of hands-on work in China, I knew that I was dealing with a society that had no rules—or, more accurately, plenty of rules that were seldom enforced … rules were there to be distorted, and success came through outfacing an opponent. The irony was that the entire nation seemed to be shadowboxing with itself. Whereas to most foreigners China seemed too centralized, with an all-controlling party brooding at the hub of a vast monolithic state, everywhere I had looked there had seemed to be a kind of institutionalized confusion. (128–29)

I knew that we would have to find a Chinese solution to a Chinese problem. (129)

A tear had appeared as Shi turned his face to the wall and said waiguoren meiyou renqing gan: “Foreigners have no human feeling.” (214)

These new advisers were veterans of multinational companies, a bit like high-flying factory rats … They just couldn’t grasp that we weren’t in control … At that stage I was more worried about making sure that the electricity wasn’t cut off and the accounting records weren’t thrown into the furnaces in a factory where our most sophisticated human-resources strategy was to invite everyone to an enormous fireworks party. (227)

Clissold concludes, “If by writing this book I can make the Chinese people seem more human, less mysterious or threatening, just flawed and beautiful like us, then the troubles of the past ten years will all have been worthwhile” (249).

First published in Guanxi: The China Letter.