Mr. China’s Lessons

In the Hutong
Watching Almost Famous for the 40th time
0231 hrs.

After letting it sit on my shelf since getting back from Sydney three weeks ago, I finally picked up Tim Clissold’s Mr. China over the weekend. And couldn’t put it down.

I was more than a bit wary about even buying the book, much less actually reading it. History always needs to be read critically, histories of China even more so (due to the paucity of corroborating information,) and memoirs with greatest care of all, in that there is rarely a way of verifying the accuracy of the author’s contentions. China memoirs, needless to say, need to be taken with a shaker of salt.

There is no doubt in my mind that Clissold’s portrayal of his own role in the evaporation of his company’s capital probably cast more blame on others and less on himself than deserved, but this is a human failing, something we all do, and I’ll not hold that against him.

Even discounting for that, the book rings remarkably true.

I have three takeaways.

  1. Avoid self-righteousness. It would be incredibly easy to criticize Clissold and his employer. Hindsight is 20/20, folks, and these guys made some mistakes – some HUGE ones – but they are mistakes many others (including some of us) have made ourselves. The big difference here is scale.
  2. That leads to the second takeaway, which when coming into China, start small. The learning curve in China is steep and unforgiving, and for that reason it’s not a wise move to put all of your money on the table before you’ve really got the place figured out. Bet all of your chips up front, and you’re going home in a body bag.
  3. The third thing is that there is no substitute for microscope-up-the-tailpipe due diligence combined with deep, day-to-day involvement in the business by an executive you know you can trust implicitly. If you show up, kick the tires, not your head, sign the JV, and head off to drink bai jiu with the locals and then leave the venture in the hands of your partner, you deserve what you get.

It also takes me back to a point I have long made – from a management standpoint, the Sino-foreign joint venture is the single worst business structure ever invented.

Pick up Clissold’s book and read it. It’s an education for the uninitiated and a great reminder for those of us who should know better already.