Business Republic of China
Tales from the front line of China's new revolution
Jack Leblanc. Blacksmith Books, 2008.
Reviewed by John Sexton
When Jack Leblanc finished an engineering degree in his native Belgium at the end of the 1980s, he felt he was born to be wild rather than work nine to five, so he took a teaching job in China. In the early 1990s, as economic reform stepped up a gear, Mr. Leblanc abandoned the classroom to take up business. In ten racy chapters he describes nearly twenty years of dodgy deals, and, as he puts it "more booze, more women, more karaoke, more hangovers, more seafood, more saunas, more than my body could take."
In Chapter One Mr. Leblanc describes how he sold some glass to some Chinese businessmen. Government officials were involved. There was a lot of haggling over price, fierce competition from an American firm, everyone in the negotiations was looking out for his own individual interests, and a few commissions were paid here and there. There were many evenings of glad-handing and drinking. Mr. Leblanc and several of the Chinese businessmen fell over once or twice. Mr. Leblanc noted that some Chinese go red in the face when they drink, some go purple. Since Mr. Leblanc's Chinese at the time (eighteen years ago) was less than perfect, there were plenty of opportunities for misunderstanding.
In Chapter Two, as part of the present-giving rituals associated with a major deal, Mr. Leblanc and his associates are each offered a lady for the night. The rather po-faced Roger and Etienne refuse, obliging Mr. Leblanc to (at least appear to) take three girls home -- a feat that gains him tremendous face in the eyes of his Chinese counterpart. The business deal fares less well, scuppered when the European company involved confuses the PRC and Taiwan flags.
Many years ago in London a friend of mine fell in with an American executive who heroically abused his expense account on booze, nightclubs and hookers. After months of free partying, a mix-up one evening meant that my friend had to pay for the entertainment. The next morning he woke up in a five star hotel with a blonde and a crumpled credit card slip on which was scrawled "Disco, 3000 pounds". Another friend, a banker, related how after a night of hard partying, the president of a central bank sent back a roomful of hookers, because he had specified all blondes.
The point of retelling these rather lame anecdotes is that no Chinese were involved, except perhaps as waiters and chefs in a restaurant earlier on the evenings concerned. And surely that's the point. Businessmen are businessmen all over the world. When groups of suits are out on the town they tend to drink gallons of booze, and a trip to a place of horizontal refreshment is often not very far from their minds. Just what is so fascinating about the exploits of dodgy, drunken businessmen who happen to be Chinese? Is it that China is perceived as big and threatening, something to do with the potential for world domination of some as yet unknown Fu Manchu character?
That's not to say Mr. Leblanc's book is not entertaining, although I found some of the details of the business deals hard to follow. It's just that I suspect Chinese business is not as unique as is suggested in the "Wild East" genre of books, of which this is one of the more readable examples.
There are a couple of minor quibbles that are probably editing problems. Mr. Leblanc repeatedly refers to Baijiu as rice wine, when it's more usually made from sorghum. Rice wine or Mijiu usually refers to a much milder and more palatable drink. Another is that Mr. Leblanc refers to Chinese refugees from "President Suharto's brutal Communist witch hunt" which fails to make clear that it was the victims, not Suharto, who were Communists.
Title: Business Republic of China: Tales from the front line of China’s new revolution
Author: Jack Leblanc
Format: Paperback, 248 pages
Pub date: April 2008
Cover price: US$14.95
Availability: All good bookshops, www.amazon.com and affiliates, or www.blacksmithbooks.com (postage-free within Asia)
(China.org.cn July 11, 2008)