What lurks beneath

War and office politics

What lurks beneath

"I told you not to gossip by the water cooler"

Another week and another hugely popular war series is the talk of Chinese television.

We reported in WiC9 on two other military blockbusters (Soldier Assault and My Colonel and My Regiment) that were generating impressive viewing figures.

Now we have another one. A series called Lurk (Qianfu in Chinese) has stormed to the top of the ratings.

But the show – which dramatises the experiences of a Communist spy infiltrated into a Kuomintang (Nationalist) unit in 1945 – seems to be provoking some unusual debate.

Most of its viewers (as well as netizens in general) are more concerned with its lessons on office politics than the more conventional military narrative. Lurk has become the must-see show for anyone wanting to climb the corporate ladder.

The ‘business section’ aisles in today’s bookshops promote the insights of an unlikely range of authors, albeit packaged up for the dwindling attention spans of the average executive and put into business-speak.

Some – like Sun Tzu’s Art of War – have become required reading at business schools (see Sino-File, page 17). But even the most cursory review reveals a host of other thinkers, usually alpha males, who have also been press-ganged into a few chapters of business after-thought.

How about The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, for instance, for what probably includes counter-intuitive approaches to stakeholder management. Or if you prefer something a little more contemporary, look no further than Tony Soprano on Management: Leadership Lessons Inspired by America’s Favourite Mobster.

The point, presumably, is that the struggle for mastery is always going to exist, even if – for many of us – it won’t extend much beyond trying to get an office desk nearer the window.

Lurk seems to have tapped into something similarly primeval. According to state media, the viewing public is riveted by lead character Yu Zecheng’s efforts to curry favour, exploit division and sow discord – all to advance his own interests at the expense of others.

Back in the real world, saleswoman Yu Hongtold tells how her boss has made it required viewing: “He told us to observe our rivals, clients and environment, and to note details like a spy. He says the business world is like a battlefield.”

In fact, many of Lurk’s lessons are old chestnuts. Avoid gossip, never complain to your boss about your work, never show off, try to avoid siding with one group against another (unless your boss is in that group, in which case you must do so emphatically), disguise your ambition, in fact work at appearing low key and even weak in certain circumstances.

What is perhaps more interesting is the specifically Chinese dimension to some of the discussion. In particular, many contributors are wondering if the art of good guanxi (the fostering of connections or relationships for personal benefit) is being lost amongst the younger generation. They postulate that Lurk can help to revive interest in a tried-and-tested art form.

This is a deep and complex debate, and leads to all sorts of questions about whether younger people really are paying less attention to the “skill” of maintaining effective human relationships. Then again, if the practice of old-school guanxi really is on the wane, is that such a bad thing?

Everyone has to adapt to the times, after all. Even Tony and Attila.

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