Win in China!

A reality-TV show is teaching the Chinese how to succeed in business.
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Our Candidates Zhou Jin, Song Wenming, Zhou Yu, Zhao Yao

All the contestants were interesting, but we found ourselves rooting for four. Zhou Jin, one of two women among the final 12, was general manager of an advertising agency, and her project was to develop new labor- training services. She had been seven months pregnant when the competition began, and was granted permission for a brief absence from the competition, but then fought her way back into consideration with strong performances. Ms. Zhou had a sassy air and, as best I could judge from others’ reactions, a sharp tongue. She had a lot of backing in blogs because of the way she handled her pregnancy.

We came to think of Song Wenming as the social- conscience candidate. He was a mild-looking, baby-faced man in his early 30s from Anhui province, an impoverished area many of whose people end up as illegal migrant workers in the big coastal cities. Song himself had earned an M.B.A. and held a job with a big international accounting firm. He resigned and, with two friends, started an employment firm to match Anhui people with jobs. His business plan was to expand these operations with new capital.

Zhou Yu was jokingly called by his competitors “Wolf” or “Wild Wolf,” but we thought of him as Country Boy. He was a tall, rangy 35-year-old with a buzz cut who had worked for years in the clothing business, and his business plan was to expand factories for lingerie and other ladies’ apparel. In manner, he was much earthier than most of the other contestants—barking out remarks, grimacing, predictably losing his temper at some point in each show. Among the final 12, he was the only one not to have gone past high school, and during PKs he talked about the limits of book learning and the value of the school of hard knocks. He was a favorite in mobile-phone voting.

Then there was Zhao Yao, who struck us as the smoothest of the candidates. He grew up in Beijing but now lives in Los Angeles, having been based in America since 1995. He’d left China to get an M.B.A. at the University of Wyoming, and then tried to set up what he later described to me as his “Wyoming-based self-service tour-planning company.” After work-permit problems, he’d moved to California, where he was a computer programmer, an accountant, and a business consultant. He dreamed of bringing the “direct-response marketing” business to China. Direct-response marketing is the polite name for the infomercial business, and Zhao planned to set up the infrastructure—call centers, payment systems, customer service—that would allow the George Foreman Grill, for example, to be sold on TV in China (except here it would be the Jackie Chan Grill).

Week by week, our candidates survived, until the last episode before the live finale. Zhou Jin, the woman, and Zhao Yao, the Californian, were both on the team that lost that week’s competition, and they were pitted against each other in the final PK. One or the other would go down! Their debate was relatively high-road, each pointing out his or her own strengths rather than the other’s weaknesses. Ms. Zhou looked shocked when the judges’ result was announced: She would go on to the finals, and Zhao was out. This seemed shocking because Zhao had seemed, probably even to her, such a golden-boy candidate. When the series was over, I asked him, in English, how he interpreted his elimination. “If I had just spoken my mind, here is what I would have said before the verdict,” he told me. “I would have told the judges, ‘I don’t think I’ve given you any reason to eliminate me. But the lady hasn’t given you any reason to eliminate her. Under the circumstances—her being pregnant, the struggles of a young mom, the public support—you should just take me out.’” As they did.

Everything about the live final show was meant to be spectacular. Most episodes had three judges; this time there were 11. In addition to famous investors, like Jack Ma and Hugo Shong, there were other prominent business figures, like Niu Gensheng, head of one of China’s leading dairy companies. Introduced separately, and given the right to make the final selection, were the heads of the two most respected firms in all of China: Lenovo, the leading computer company, and Haier, which has a high reputation for quality and which absolutely dominates the domestic “white goods” market for refrigerators, washing machines, and so on. Win publicists said this was the first time the two CEOs, Yang Yuanqing of Lenovo and Zhang Ruimin of Haier, had made a joint appearance.

The two finalists who were not among our candidates were the first two eliminated in PKs. Then things got serious. Ms. Zhou, Song “Social Conscience” Wenming, and Zhou “Wild Wolf” Yu answered questions from the judges—and mobile-phone votes showed that Song had done best of the three. Thus the two Zhous had to face off in a PK, whose drama was apparent even if you didn’t understand what they were saying. In an earlier round of questions, all five candidates had had to explain their greatest weakness. Mr. Zhou said that he had a bad temper—but that passion was a good thing in a leader! And so, he helpfully pointed out, was the kind of education you couldn’t get from books. For her part, Ms. Zhou said that her attention was always flitting from subject to subject; on the other hand, that kind of alert eye could help in running a business.

During the PK, it was as if Ms. Zhou was trying to make Mr. Zhou explode. “You are avoiding my questions, maybe you don’t have enough learning to answer.” “They call you the Wolf, it would be better for the Wolf to stay in the wilderness.” After Mr. Zhou (unwisely) mentioned that he was thinking of going back to school, she dug in: “Even if you get the diploma, it won’t mean real skills.” After inserting each of her barbs, Ms. Zhou would slap her PK button with a smile at the audience and a little rise of her eyebrows. Wild Wolf would splutter and yell, slamming his fist onto his button, and finally getting a near-ovation from the crowd when he said, “You question my skills, but I am standing here tonight! That should be proof enough for anyone!” He also had the last words, which were: “I’ll talk to you later!”

As it turned out, in trying to provoke the Wolf, Ms. Zhou ended up mortally wounding them both. The judges declared him the victor over her in this PK—one said later that he was “like China itself, from a poor background, still crude, but proud of its rise”—and so she had to sit down. But in the anticlimactic final choice between Mr. Zhou and Song Wenming, the M.B.A., Zhou’s fiery and uncontrolled outbursts during his PK with Ms. Zhou proved his undoing. All 11 judges spoke, many saying that passion was great, but you needed a steady hand to build an enterprise. Song Wenming was nothing if not steady. The Haier and Lenovo CEOs glanced at each other and gave the winner’s name: Song Wenming.

What had it all meant? I got in touch with our four contestants later on, Zhao Yao in person when he visited Shanghai and the others by e-mail through a translator. Each made veiled and provocative comments about the contest itself. When I asked Ms. Zhou about differences between the contest as she experienced it and what viewers saw on TV, she said she could not give any details, “because of traditional Chinese values” of discretion. “All I can say is that the exposure of the most repulsive side of human nature by us—if there was any, because of the award—did not, fortunately, appear in front of the audience.” (She added that some altruistic moments had also escaped capture.) She said that she had often felt “condescension and suspicion” toward her talents from others on the show because of her gender, but hoped that her success would be encouraging for Chinese women in general. (“And after all, the United States only now has its first woman speaker of the House.”)

When I asked Zhao Yao whether his life was different now, he began in stentorian tones—“The impact of my involvement in the show has been profound”—and then started laughing and said, “I am taking the tone promoted by the show, enthusiastic and assertive!” He said that becoming famous enough to be recognized on the street had been of great practical benefit, since a real venture capitalist had now offered him funding. “I do wonder if the actors in U.S. reality shows would be expected to iron our own shirts and wash our own socks while encamped in a hotel room for a month,” he added. “Maybe they do— I only know that’s what we did.”

Zhou Yu, the Wolf, said he was glad to have been the people’s champion. He had also learned that his wife was now referred to as “Wolf’s Wife.” Song Wenming, the winner, said that he had grown exasperated at times but had been confident he’d do well as long as he could just be himself before the judges. In indirect or open ways, all of them made clear that what was shown onscreen had been trimmed, rearranged, and highlighted to seem more dramatic. “Maybe this is the ‘reality’ that reality TV is introducing us to!” Zhao Yao said.

About one point all of them sounded utterly sincere: their hope that the program would encourage more people in China to start their own businesses. Song Wenming put it in historic terms: Its age-old ethic of stability was part of the reason China had fallen so far behind Western countries, and even now, “Chinese culture does not facilitate creativity very much.” He hoped the show would introduce the “positive power” of entrepreneurship. Ms. Zhou said she hoped potential entrepreneurs would learn the importance of both perseverance and passion. There was much more in the same vein.

“I have a close friend on the staff of a state-owned company,” Wang Lifen, the show’s producer, told me. “After the final episode, she called and said: ‘I have to quit my work unit and my company! I have to be an entrepreneur, because I want a new life.’” Women must retire from state-owned companies in China by 55; men, by 60. “No one can provide for the next stage of life but me,” Wang’s friend told her. According to Wang, a “minister-level” official in the Chinese government called the head of CCTV when the series was over and asked, “How can we make everyone watch this show?” (In China, this might not be a purely rhetorical question.) As a start, CCTV has renewed the show for two more seasons.

“There is no religion in China, so it is very important to promote the right kind of values,” Wang said. “Today for our society, the entrepreneur can be our hero.”

“Hero” might be going too far, but the participants on Win seem to have been received in the press and blogs as modern Chinese role models. Having listened to their dreams and followed their onscreen contests, I cannot help wishing all of them well. Even more, I hope China’s development is such that their show is eventually looked back on the way Horatio Alger’s Luck and Pluck is: as an unsubtle and perhaps over-sincere effort to teach people the rules of peaceful prosperity. I hope it doesn’t eventually become another bit of evidence about the Chinese bubble: the way people behaved when they thought the good times would always go on.

James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. 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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