Win in China!

A reality-TV show is teaching the Chinese how to succeed in business.
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(Photos courtesy of Win in China)

You think TV is bad in America, and then you watch it someplace else. For all of its defects, American TV generally has high production values— attractive people to look at, sets and staging that don’t seem homemade—and it is often the place where new ideas get their start, just before they become worldwide clichés.

Right now the curse of Chinese TV, apart from its being state-controlled and de facto censored, is the proliferation of stupid low-budget “reality” shows. The oddest reality show I’ve come across while channel surfing was a “World’s Strongest Man–type contest between teams of midgets. The cruelest, put on by the state-owned China Central Television (CCTV), pitted young families against each other in elimination events. Each family team had three members—father, mother, elementary-school-aged child—and did coordinated stunts. Three families survived each show to appear in future rounds, and three were sent home, the children inconsolable and the husbands and wives looking daggers at each other.

Contestants on Win in China square off

Fortunately there is also a best Chinese reality show, or at least one that my wife and I followed avidly through its increasingly suspenseful Tuesday-night episodes last year. We first heard of Ying Zai Zhongguo, or Win in China, from a Chinese-American friend, Baifang Schell, who was involved in the production. We became so interested that in December we traveled to Beijing to be in the audience at CCTV’s cavernous main studio for the live, final episode, in which one grand champion was chosen from five remaining contestants. Like many other Chinese reality shows, this one featured a segment known by the English letters “PK.” This means nothing to most English speakers (penalty kick?), but it is widely recognized in China as meaning “Player Kill” in online games.

The PK stage of Win served the function of the Tribal Council in Survivor or the Boardroom in The Apprentice: After a contest or judges’ assessment each week, two of that episode’s competitors ended up pitted against each other in a three-minute lightning elimination. This is PK, in which one opponent issues a question, challenge, or taunt, and the other tries to answer, outwit, and provoke the first. Once done speaking, a competitor slams a hand down on a big button, stopping his or her own clock (as with a chess-match timer) and starting the opponent’s. Faster and faster, each contestant tries to manage the time so as to get the very last word. The audience gasps, cheers, and roars with laughter at the gibes—and at the end, one contestant is “killed,” as determined by audience vote or a panel of judges. Even if you can barely follow the language, it’s exciting.

But something else distinguishes Win in China—not just from the slew of other reality shows but also from its American model, The Apprentice, with Donald Trump. “The purpose of The Apprentice was very functional,” Wang Lifen, the producer and on-camera host of the show, told me (in English) shortly after the final episode. “There’s some job that already exists, and Donald Trump is just looking for somebody to fill it, while providing entertainment.” Wang said that she had higher ambitions for her show: “We want to teach values. Our dream for the show is to enlighten Chinese people and help them realize their own dreams.” Having seen the program and talked with contestants and compared it with some superficially similar Chinese reality shows, I don’t scoff at what she said.

The didactic and uplifting ambitions of the show could be considered classically Chinese, the latest expression of a value-imprinting impulse that stretches from the Analects of Confucius to the sayings of Chairman Mao. Or they could be considered, like the Horatio Alger novels of young, muscular America, signs of an economy at an expansive moment when many people want to understand how to seize new opportunities. Either way, the particular message delivered by the show seems appropriate to China at this stage of its growth. Reduced to a moral, Win in China instructs Chinese people that they have chances never open to their compatriots before—but also that, as one contestant told me at the end of the show, “The only one I can rely on is myself.”

Wang Lifen moved from Beijing to Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2004, for a one-year fellowship at the Brookings Institution. She was then in her late 30s and was an influential figure in CCTV’s news division, where she had created and produced documentaries and talk shows. By the time she returned to CCTV, a year later, she was ready to act on a question she’d asked while watching American TV: What would an improved, Sinified version of The Apprentice look like?

The Audience rallies for its favorite contestants

It would be Chinese in being huge. There would be thousands of initial candidates, with entry open to any adult “of Chinese origin” anywhere in the world. More than 100 (versus The Apprentice’s 18) would have a serious chance to compete on-camera for the prize. The nature of that prize indicated why Win in China could seem more American than its American model. Instead of a job and a paycheck within a Trump-style empire, Wang offered seed money for new entrepreneurial ventures—and for more than just one contestant. By Chinese standards, the sums were enormous. The ultimate victor would receive 10 million yuan, or nearly $1.3 million. The runner-up would get 7 million yuan, and the three other finalists would get 5 million yuan apiece. With other prizes and incentives, the money the show was offering came to nearly $4 million.

This would be large even for a U.S. show, but the source of the prizes was even more unusual. Wang raised the money not from sponsors or the network but from individual investors in China—for instance, Andrew Yan, of Softbank Asia Infrastructure Fund, who had recently been named “Venture Capitalist of the Year” by the Chinese Venture Capital Association. Yan and a few other investors, including Kathy Xu, of Capital Today, and Hugo Shong, of the U.S.-based company IDG, put up the pool of prize money—in return for a 50 percent share in the real-world businesses the winning contestants would use it to create or expand. Twenty percent would belong to the contestants, and 15 percent to the show’s production company. The remaining 15 percent would go by “lucky draw” to viewers who had voted for candidates, via mobile-phone text messages, during the show’s run. In effect, the many weeks of the program (33 episodes were shown in all, some live) amounted to a drawn-out, public version of a pitch to venture capitalists (the investors) from entrepreneurs seeking their backing (the contestants). Every week, contestants would be put through some kind of quiz or business-oriented team challenge that would whittle their numbers down. Wang had an additional hope for this process: that it would give viewers practical tips on starting businesses of their own.

Within a few months of her return, Wang had rounded up the financial backing, gotten the show on CCTV’s schedule, and begun the hunt for candidates. (China is a timeless civilization and so on, but today’s business deals can happen very fast.) Her team posted Web notices and placed ads in 20 newspapers around the country, asking potential entrepreneurs to send in résumés and business plans. In March 2006, the top 3,000 (!) files were sent to screening teams, which reduced the pool to about 500. Interviews of at least 15 minutes apiece then produced 108 semifinalists—an auspicious number, because of the “108 heroes” (also known variously as the “108 bandits” and “108 generals”) of a famed uprising in the Shandong mountains a thousand years ago.

Song "Social Conscience" Wenming triumphs over "The Wolf"

All of the 108 came to Beijing at their own expense and made a mass climb of the Great Wall, along with the investors, producers, and judges, to build team spirit for the challenges ahead. Then, in one televised debut episode, the 108 were divided into two big teams and winnowed down to a field of 36, based on their performance in a computerized simulation of business decisions. Meanwhile, all 108 were given off-camera seminars on finance, personnel management, and other skills each would need as an entrepreneur.

Through the next stage, the 36 survivors appeared in groups of four before panels of judges that included prominent Chinese business and academic figures. The best known was Jack Ma, co-founder and CEO of China’s dominant e-commerce site, Alibaba. Each contestant had two minutes to present his or her business plan (three women were among the 36), after which the judges would begin the interrogation. What about holes in the plan? What was Plan B, if the sales projections didn’t pan out? Why was this plan better than other candidates’? Often the questions came from investors whose own money was at stake.

On September 5, the producers held a reception at CCTV’s Beijing headquarters for 6,000 guests: contestants, friends and family, press, and business dignitaries. The 12 finalists were announced—and then taken away to the Huang Yuan hotel in Beijing, where they would spend the next four weeks being filmed competing.

The seven further weeks of the show, which took the 12 contestants down to the five who would compete in the finale we went to, drew an audience that grew to 5 million (considered large for this “serious” a show), were discussed avidly in numerous blogs, and had a structure more or less familiar from American reality shows. The competitive pattern was essentially like that of The Apprentice: The 12 contestants were divided into two teams, which then competed against each other in some real-world business task—selling life insurance, raising money for charity, improvising a solution to some other business problem. Members of the winning team got to come back for the next episode. Members of the losing team went through various other assessments that included a final PK. Based on how the pair sounded when debating, a panel of judges would send one or the other home.

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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