What Chinese Want: A Book Review

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Doctoroff, Tom. 2012. What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism, and China’s Modern Consumer. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tom Doctoroff has opinions and he isn’t afraid to express them. There is no beating around the bush here. I appreciated his direct style and getting right to the point, though he has a tendency to oversimplify things. There is nothing worse than dancing around the issue to the point that you’re not sure where the author stands. Not so with Doctoroff. He also tends to overgeneralize, saying things such as :

“Chinese fear chaos; they are unable to imagine social order without autocratic control.”(p. 26)
“In China, no one invests in status brands unless everyone recognizes them.”(p. 76)
“. . . the imitation and piracy of brands–has become a national point of pride.”(p. 79)
“. . . there are few Chinese labels actually preferred by mainland consumers.”(p. 86)

This may be true for the emerging middle class, but what about the millions who are happy to have consumer goods, period. For them, the cheapest brand will do.

Of the Chinese education system, he says, “It’s primary role is to advance the interests of the nation, as defined by the Communist Party.”(p. 126)

I know many faculty members at Chinese universities that would strongly disagree with this, especially those in the humanities. Again, he is overgeneralizing.

“Surgeons will still be bribed by patient’s relatives to ensure adequate care. Medical equipment will still be manned by inadequately trained and poorly compensated staff. Local banks, while dependable for low-end transactions, will offer no investment alternatives beyond basic savings and high-risk, opaque mutual funds.”(p. 152)

A rather pessimistic viewpoint. China has progressed in practically every area of society in the past 30 years. I see no reason to believe that things won’t continue to change and improve.

“On a personal level, the Chinese admire–are even intoxicated by–US-style individualism. At the same time, they regard it as dangerous, both personally and as a national competitive advantage.”(p. 195)

Again, this is debatable. I have not met too many Chinese that are enamored by Western individualism. Most find it rather odd.

Despite Doctoroff’s tendency to overgeneralize, and his frequent repetition, he is not afraid to challenge the reader; he makes you think, ask questions. Some of what he says may even anger you, especially if you are native Chinese. All of this is okay. I like someone with an opinion even if I don’t agree with it. The best books are those that challenge you.

In sum, this book provides a nice look into Chinese consumer culture. The reader comes away with a better understanding of the dramatic changes in society in China today. I recommend it, especially for those interested in advertising and marketing and want to understand what’s going on in China.

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