China Beyond the Guidebooks

Recent books show that China's emergence after years of communist insularity presents a cultural and economic puzzle

THESE two books on American interaction with and reaction to China will leave you fascinated, but wiser, and not overly inclined to either live or do business there.J. D. Brown's adventures in "Digging to China" are at street level, at the "down and out" level - as his subtitle notes. He taught English in Xi'an, which he describes as one of China's most unlovely cities, eschewing anything resembling the tourist experience. Brown, a travel writer, begins his first night in Xi'an in a miserable, windowless room at the university, "weeping because this is the greatest mistake of my life...." Of course, his hosts consider these fairly luxurious digs. At first, daily life in China is horrid. Communism, he discovers, is the least of his problems. Although he comes to like the people, he finds the country colorless and harsh, filthy and forbidding, and the small habits of the Chinese rankling. Slowly Brown adjusts, even eating in local restaurants where beggars stand behind his chair, waiting to scoop up any scraps he leaves behind. He observes, with comic byplay, some of the unlikely visitors Deng's reforms attract, including the Reagans, who came to see Xi'an's famous terra-cotta army. That was topped by the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Kunming, the first British monarch to visit China. The mammoth reception for her is tumultuous - the streets are lined with Chinese, possibly millions, all cheering and shouting. It is perhaps her largest reception ever. But later Brown discovers that the entire city was given the day off from work. And none of them has the slightest idea why - or where Britain is. Brown's writing is light and discursive, dry and detailed, woven around archaeological and religious observations. The book also details his return to China, which takes place after the Tiananmen Square events. The 1980s, he says, were a closer brush with the West than China wanted. Brown concludes that China is chronically uninterested in hurrying change, nor is it interested in the opinion of the rest of the world. All of which can be frustrating for Western businessmen. In "Bulls in the China Shop," Randall Stross, a business professor at San Jose (Calif.) State University, chronicles the disasters and faux pas (and occasional successes) of American business in China during the '70s and '80s. Stross lived in China from 1979 to 1981, although in better digs than Brown had. He has an acute sense of humor, which is a necessity in China, and relies on the anecdote to instruct since so few rules apply. If you've read "Beijing Jeep the tale of American Motors' ill-starred attempt to build Cherokees in China - you'll recognize the situation, although Stross's writing is much more authoritative. He documents cases of American businessmen who routinely got bad advice or ignored good advice. Their worst error was thinking that the Chinese, now escaping from communism, wanted instruction in the superior American way to riches. Some of the tales of negotiation are sad, but others are hysterically funny. I particularly like the story of the Americans who were fooled by some waggish Brits into thinking that they could detect the ranks of the Chinese (who all wore identical blue suits) because the highest executives wore white socks. The Americans dropped things during meals to surreptitiously spy on their hosts' hosiery. Surprisingly, the Chinese did not let politics interfere with negotiations, but refused to allow the American companies to run any training sessions because some sort of cultural change might occur. American managers had to redefine their concept of authority. When the Sheraton Hotels prepared disciplinary procedures for tardy employees (discussions with employees about the "mutual" problem), the approach preserved the "fictional egalitarianism that dominated the rhetoric of the Chinese workplace." Whether it got people to work on time was another thing. One manager of an American company found 600 beds installed on the factory floor so that workers could sleep during work hours. Chinese marketing mistakes include a sewing machine trademarked the "Typical." The Chinese are crudely deceptive negotiators, he says, and provided inaccurate seismographic information to oil companies during the bidding for drilling rights. Billions were spent by Western companies, and little oil was recovered. Resulting ill feelings will take a long time to dissipate - but the Chinese are patient. Pumping consumerism to one billion Chinese can only be done in the near term via TV. For example, if you want to sell Oreos, which the Chinese don't like because of the dark color, you have to get everyone a 12-inch Zenith first. How can razors be sold to Chinese men unless they are convinced that shaving is an integral part of good grooming? a Gillette spokesman ponders. And why do the Chinese find Rambo "vigorous and graceful" yet enjoy the Disneyland saccharine theme "It's a Small World After All?" Well, it is a small world, but China is still a huge mystery. Stross begins and ends with the story of the production in China of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," produced on a Beijing stage in 1983 and directed by the playwright. The audience seemed to be getting it until the scene where Willy Loman's two sons go back in time, from men in their 30s to teenagers. The Chinese audience loved it, laughing and cheering and poking one another, having never seen such a "trick" before. It was, Miller wrot e in his journal, a total, irretrievable absence of comprehension.' " Patience, Stross counsels, and no flashbacks.

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