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[Review] What Chinese Want

With a population of 1.3 billion sprawled over a gargantuan 9.6 million sq km, the People’s Republic of China is widely known as the factory of the world. The middle kingdom’s dominance of global economic and sociopolitical affairs is impressive, with many regarding them as the “factory of the world”. Its ability to mobilize epic resources to achieve ambitious goals are also much-lauded.

However, what is the average Chinese person really like? What elements constitute the building blocks of China’s society – the very essence of being Chinese?

Enter Tom Doctoroff’s cleverly crafted book “What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism and the Modern Chinese Consumer“. Written from 14 years of experience working and living in China (Doctoroff is the Greater China CEO of J Walter Thompson), the book is a comprehensive treatise on modern China, capturing its worldview, business environment, consumer markets, societal fabric, and engagement with the world.

In Doctoroff’s philosophical – and wonderfully poetic – lenses, the Chinese worldview can be distilled into three eternal truths:

1) A fatalistic, cyclical view of time and space characterized by meticulous inter-connectivity of things big and small. This is epitomized by the “Yi Jing” or Book of Changes which is an ancient divination system.

2) A morally relativistic universe in which the only absolute evil is chaos and the only good is stability, a platform on which progress is constructed. In his book, the Chinese place a huge emphasis on stability, supported by their tripartite beliefs in Legalism, Taoism and Confucianism.

3) A view of the family, not the individual, as the basic productive unit of society. This theme is carried throughout the book, with the Confucian precept of nation, community, and family taking precedence over self even in hyperconnected China.

From the rarified air of Chinese billionaires, incremental – as opposed to radical – approach to business innovation, uniqueness of China’s digital generation, to the need for ego projection through materials purchases and the tentative steps taken in global engagement, “What Chinese Want” covers a lot of oriental ground. Backed by profiles of real life Chinese whom Doctoroff interacted with over the years as well as adequate statistics, the tour de force of today’s China helps one understand what makes the contemporary Chinese tick.

Perhaps the most enlightening chapters are the ones that cover Doctoroff’s forte – consumer research, marketing and advertising. We’re taught that brand development in China is virtually non-existent with its overt emphasis on sales as opposed to marketing, and that consumption is an ego-projection exercise for the rich, middle class and mass markets alike. Interestingly, foreign brands are useful for external consumption, a tool for “pragmatic advancement” whereby one’s status is matched with one’s Pradas, LVs, or Apples.  Back in the recesses of one’s home, the cheaper and more cost-effective local brands like Haier or Anta may abound.

The tenets of modern Chinese society revealed how it tenuously balances the inherent conflicts between community good and personal ambition. Adopting a family first, country second and anti-individualistic mindset, the average Chinese has taken to the Internet as a “largely anonymous open microphone for self-expression”. While the occasional protest is allowed within certain constraints, the Communist government’s firm hold on the rule of law has made civil society virtually non-existent in China. Indeed, the Chinese are paranoid about safety and security, shunning actions that will rock the boat.

Ending the book with 10 myths on modern China, Doctoroff surmises that the impending changes in China with the rise of a more vocal and educated generation will not result in a erosion of its fundamental values. China will never become America, and the growth of the Chinese economic juggernaut poses no real danger to the rest of the world.  While China’s more than 500 million Internet users changes how young Chinese view the world, the party is still in control of digital discourse, allowing the masses to “let off steam” while monitoring bulletin boards and chat rooms to “expunge discussion of sensitive topics”.

Overall, the book produces an incredibly accurate insight of the Chinese consumer despite being written from a Western perspective. I like how the author peppers his observations of everyday life in Shanghai with uncanny insight into how one can worm one’s way into the Chinese heart. While there are occasional sweeping statements that may be more poetic than pragmatic, it is clear that he has a deep grasp of the subject.


Walter is a seasoned marketer and publicist with almost 19 years of experience in marketing, communications, social media engagement, events management, strategic planning and corporate development. A judge of the Singapore Blog Awards, he blogs at Cooler Insights.

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