Books: Mr. China Hits the Road

4 minute read
Bill Powell/Shanghai

There’s a moment fairly early in Mr. China–actually, there are many moments, but we’ll focus on this one–when it occurs to you that maybe the people who make the big bucks, the Wall Street big swinging whatevers, as well as their dogged assistants, really are different from you and me. It is the summer of 1993, and bankers in the West have woken up to the fact that something, economically speaking, is really happening in China. Tim Clissold, the author and, in this case, the dutiful assistant, is in the midst of a grand tour of China with his new boss, known by the pseudonym Pat in the book, but in real life a fellow named Jack Perkowski, who in the roaring ’80s had risen to become head of investment banking at Paine Webber. Theirs is not a sight-seeing tour. They are looking for places to invest millions of dollars that Pat intends to raise back home on Wall Street. They see more than 100 factories. They crisscross China, going to plant after state-owned plant.

They also stay in dreary hotels with no hot water. They get up at 6 in the morning every day. They go to dinners where they have to consume monstrous quantities of a Chinese liquor called baijiu (pronounced buy- joe), which is basically moonshine, only stronger and not quite as tasty. And at those dinners, sometimes what they have to eat is … well, no doubt lots of fun for their bemused Chinese hosts. “There was one dish that looked like a bowl of ribbon pasta [but] it was crunchy and almost tasteless. I asked what it was, and the Mayor [of a city in northeastern China] said, a ‘Shandong specialty: steamed rabbit ears!'” Most westerners would say “Check, please” and head on home.

I know I would, and I live here in China. Thankfully for the reader, Clissold and Pat are anything but normal. They are present at the creation of China’s economic miracle, and they intend to ride it to riches, baijiu and rabbit ears notwithstanding. Clissold’s memoir of his years with Perkowski– 1995 to 2002–is an instant classic. The best “business” book previously written about China is probably Jim Mann’s Beijing Jeep, an account of the ill-fated auto joint venture in China’s early days of experimenting with capitalism. Mr. China (Harper Business; 252 pages) joins it at the top. Clissold, despite being a banker (now working at Goldman Sachs in Beijing), writes wonderfully. The book is sharply observed, funny as hell, and educational for anyone either doing business in China or thinking about it.

And make no mistake, Clissold reports from deep in the trenches. Eventually Pat invests in a variety of companies in China, dealing with everything from beer to brake pads; there’s nothing glamorous about any of them. Clissold, a fluent Mandarin speaker, becomes Pat’s chief troubleshooter–and there’s plenty of trouble. (How does $58 million “disappearing” from the books of a company you’ve bought grab you?) This is the mid to late ’90s, remember, when to many Chinese the definition of capitalism still seemed to be “The foreigner comes, gives me a lot of money, then goes away.”

Among several brilliantly drawn characters is a bureaucrat–“the chief engineer of the First Light Industry Bureau” of the Beijing city government–a Madame Wu Hongbo, otherwise known to Clissold as “my old Chinese sparring partner.” The accounts of his tangles with her–she “regulates” the Chinese partner with which Pat has bought a beer company–are hilarious, and sobering.

China is now moving so fast economically that, strange as it sounds, some of the events in the book already seem a bit dated. China’s joining the WTO has injected some order into foreign investment, and more foreign companies are setting up wholly owned subsidiaries instead of headache- inducing joint ventures. No matter. For anyone interested in the new China–and that’s a rapidly expanding universe in the U.S.–Mr. China is indispensable.

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