I just finished reading Tim Clissold’s ‘Mr. China’, a part memoir, part retelling and analysis of his first decade of business in China, starting in the early 90s. Although it is fully title ‘Mr. China: A Memoir’, I think that this is perhaps a bit misleading, but we will get more into that later.
First published in 2004, this book documents the period in which the most significant foreign investment was happening within the PRC. Deng Xiaoping had taken his now legendary southern tour and radically expanded the prospects for a capitalist market, establishing special economic zones for foreign investment. Clissold creates a compelling narrative following his role as a sort of intermediary between the interests of a huge business personality, the high rolling financiers back on Wall Street and ultimately the numerous business ventures within China through which they hope to make a fortune. At present, it is not uncommon to hear those in the business world gleam about the prospect of harnessing the potential within a billion plus consumer market; this notion a ten-fold in importance at the time of Clissold’s story, and sets the stage for much of what occurs. The title, ‘Mr. China’, is a dubious reference to those individuals, then and now not small in number, who thought they could so easily dive in and manipulate a market that they couldn’t understand.
I greatly enjoyed this read, as it seems to be an honest portrayal of one man’s true interests as a young venture capitalist. Clissold makes no attempt to tone down his intentions of being greatly successful, and is very capable of looking back on his failures with an introspective attitude. The story is told though a serious of mishaps that occur during the authors time in the business. With a mixture of rebellious factory leadership, disgruntled workers and a pervasive feeling of cultural misunderstanding, the author does an excellent job of using his descriptions to bring readers to agree with his feelings, but then to turn around and show you why you fall prey to the same misconceptions that brought him down. It is very difficult to view such difficulties from anything but a Western sense of the way business (and ultimately society) should function, but in the end one must bring to point the fact that this is not a society built on the same framework.
This is all well and good, but I did feel that Clissold could have delved a bit further into these ideas during the course of the narrative. Instead, he touches on such vital aspects only slightly during the middle, and then waits until the final ten or so pages before really digging in to find out why things are the way they are. His conclusion, I felt, is too sudden and a bit hard to join with the rest of the story, and in the end you are left to make many conclusions on your own. But hey, this can be a very good thing for those with a bit more time to really think. In closing, who should read this book? History students, economy buffs and aspiring venture capitalists the like will enjoy this work. Will it help you on your road to establishing businesses within the worlds largest market? Probably not, but it will really make you think about what you might actually be trying to accomplish.
I place this book in my top 10 for China reads. Get a copy from Amazon- you won’t regret it!