Wolf trumps The Donald?

The Chinese version of ‘The Apprentice’ is the subject of a documentary

Wolf trumps The Donald?

What would Donald Trump make of it? In an Apprentice-style elimination game, two teams have been assigned the task of selling life insurance policies. The only stipulation is that they cannot boost sales by selling to friends, family or contacts. Team B has an idea: it posts an ad on the internet looking to hire top life insurance salesmen. With their help, team B easily outsells Team A and wins the game.

However, Team A cries foul and complains to the judges that these tactics are unethical. It reckons Team B’s six members deserve to get the ‘You’re Fired’ message in true Trump style. After a heated on-air argument, the Chinese judges declare that Team B did nothing wrong. After all, the rules did not expressly forbid the hiring of external salespeople.

The incident occurred in Season One of Win in China, a massively popular television programme shown on business channel CCTV-2. The format is loosely based on Trump’s The Apprentice but with definite Chinese characteristics. However, due to language constraints, most foreigners have never seen it.

Now, thanks to a new documentary, that has been remedied. Venture capitalist Robert Compton has produced the documentary – Win in China: the story of China’s Entrepreneurial Revolution – with filmmaker Ole Schell. The 60 minute film is a fly-on-the-wall look at the making of Win in China, and includes interviews with the personalities involved – among them the show’s first judge, Alibaba’s Jack Ma – and profiles the entrepreneurial contestants who managed to reach the final stages.

Compton made the documentary with a specific agenda. “Most Westerners’ views of China are wildly out of date,” he told the China Daily. “In three decades, China has risen from an impoverished third world country into the third largest economy on Earth. Americans need to wake up and realise just how talented, creative, competitive and ambitious the people of this nation are.” Compton has also created a website (www.wininchinamovie.com) and arranged for the documentary to be aired at US universities. It is well worth watching.

The TV show itself saw 120,000 would-be entrepreneurs apply to compete. This was then whittled down to 36 contestants. By far the most interesting of the group is Zhou Yu, a bra maker from Weifang in Shandong province. He goes by the nickname (a somewhat appropriate one, too) of ‘the Wolf’, and was the one who had the idea of hiring the professional life insurance salesmen.

Zhou dropped out of school early but compensates for a lack of formal education with a flourishing gift of the gab. He also understands how to motivate (for example, in a game where the contestants have to persuade rural children to drink cartons of milk, he organises a race and offers a free fridge to the child that finishes first).

But, as the documentary also makes clear, Zhou’s single-minded approach to success is accompanied by the occasional darker tactic. In one game in which the two teams have to come up with a television commercial for a marketing campaign, ‘the Wolf’ calmly walks into the production area and starts asking junior staff about the creative ideas employed by the rival team. He is then challenged as being a competitor seeking inside information. Nonsense, Zhou replies, claiming instead to work for CCTV.

Still, a little deception didn’t seem to dent his reputation with his adoring fans. Chinese viewers seem to love the 37 year-old and Zhou eventually makes it to the last two and then wins the audience vote – which is polled from text messages.

However, in order to secure first place (and $1.5 million to invest in his business) Zhou must also win the casting votes of two Chinese business legends: Lenovo’s founder, Liu Chuanzhi and Haier’s Zhang Ruimin (both featured in earlier WiC Who’s Hu columns). But both chose to vote for the other finalist – a better educated MBA-type.

That looks like a symbolic selection. Unquestionably, Zhou represents the embodiment of the Chinese entrepreneur who emerged from Deng Xiaoping’s reform era: pragmatic, poorly educated but driven by a boundless spirit and a win-at-all-costs outlook (as well as a highly ‘flexible’ set of values).

Perhaps, as China moves into the next phase of its industrial growth, the two tycoons were indicating by their voting preference that this should no longer be the model to aspire too.

Given that Win in China is watched by around 200 million Chinese, that’s an influential signal to send.

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