Chinese Rules- Mao’s Dog, Deng’s Cat, and Five Timeless Lessons from the Front Lines in China is one of those business books about China that have been popular in the last few years. The author Tim Clissold might be familiar to a few people since he also wrote Mr. China, a well-known part-memoir about his business dealings in China, which I haven’t read.
Chinese Rules starts off with Clissold being called into action in his native England to help rescue a carbon-trading deal gone wrong in China. Clissold had relocated back to his homeland with his family after 20 years in China, but is eager to go back. The business deal in question involves the selling of carbon credits by a Chinese firm from its two new power plants, not exactly a topic to get anyone’s pulses racing. Nevertheless it is a potentially lucrative business and vital too, given the environmentally conscious time we live in. Not surprisingly, all kinds of nonsensical and frustrating situations occur, but a deal is accomplished despite an embarrassing baijiu (Chinese hard liquor) episode with the English boss of the firm that hired Clissold for this deal.
Spurred by this achievement, Clissold and a female associate decided to go into the carbon trading business in China. They get funding from Bill Gates’ Millenium Foundation, then look for a carbon credit seller in China whom they can trade from. Which is when things get really juicy.
Clissold and his associate soon find a Chinese partner to work on a deal to buy and trade credits from a power company. The Chinese middle-woman is a fine example of the disingenuousless prevalent in society and business in China. She acts and looks like someone at the top of her game, as Clissold himself says, but she turns out to be unreliable, shifty, arrogant and greedy. Eventually, Clissold manages to dump her from the deal and handles negotiations with the Chinese company directly. There is more lack of communication and delays, though the deal takes off and they are able to sell off some credits.
Throughout the book, Clissold introduces his Chinese rules such as the “art of war” is vital to the Chinese way of handling conflict (indirectly rather than direct) and the trying of new things by taking gradual steps. These sound sensible but he also describes rules that are ambiguous and not directly related to business such as that China is a civilization masquerading as a state and how history has made China prize stability. These are not exactly false but the deeper lessons that Clissolds thinks that these rules impart – that China – are a bit whimsical.
To present the rules, Clissold describes several important events in China over the past two hundred years. It seems contrived and makes the book more of a history text than a business book. I am sure some people may benefit, though since I am already a bit familiar with the history mentioned, I did not learn anything new.
As if the main ordeal above wasn’t enough, there is another deal near the end involving a Chinese fruit juice mogul who owes an insurance company money. Clissold is hired to get back the debt which involves no lawyers or court orders, but constant pandering, passive aggressiveness and maneuvering. Going to the courts would never have worked, Clissold says, but getting the provincial governor involved and putting up with a whole year of negotiations did, since it allowed the mogul to save face while coming up with a solution.
According to Clissold, this is the proper way to deal with Chinese. He’s an expert with decades of experience in China and published books, but frankly in my humble opinion, I think that is nonsense. He is a fine writer and describes history and events very well, and he seems to have a strong appreciation of China, but it is dangerous to be suggesting that people need to scrape and bow when doing business with China, which his “Chinese rules” imply.
Inexplicably, Clissold is convinced in the end, despite how this sorry affair turned out, that China is the future.
The only thing I am convinced about is how full of bullcrap the country is in many ways and that it would be appalling if Chinese norms and practices, as the book illustrates quite clearly, were to influence the world.