Doing a Trump

Air-con tycoon Dong Mingzhu stars in Chinese version of The Apprentice


Dong: now has her own TV show

Even though the Chinese economy has rebounded strongly from the worst of the pandemic – seeing an 18.3% rise in GDP in the first quarter of this year – there are still millions of fresh university graduates hunting for employment. A reality show on Mango TV, the streaming platform of Hunan Satellite TV, reckons it can point a few of them in the right direction with interview tips and career advice.

Workplace Newcomers, which began streaming in early April, follows a group of college graduates as they battle for a chance to work for one of biggest names in business.

The series, which is in its second season, features three interns competing to win over hard-charging Gree chairwoman Dong Mingzhu (see WiC65).

Another group of candidates compete for a position at actor Zhang Han’s start-up, Visual Inception, a talent agency.

The first challenge the candidates encounter at Gree is a marketing campaign designed to appeal to younger female consumers. One executive from the company suggests a stratagem: Dong should meet with other female bosses for afternoon tea, where the discussion about entrepreneurship and female empowerment can be streamed online. Dong asks the interns for their opinion and one contestant Zheng Ruxin risks offence when she offers her view that women leaders are “unattractive” to young people.

Meanwhile, at Visual Inception, potential candidates are asked to prepare a presentation for Zhang on how to increase the earnings potential of the celebrities under his management. During the presentation, another contestant openly criticises the company’s current marketing campaign, saying that it feels “outdated”. She also notes that the artists at the agency don’t interact enough with their fans on social media (“Just because you are a serious actor doesn’t mean you don’t have to engage with your fans,” she chides).

The show also features Jiang Changjian, a careers counsellor from Fudan University, as a moderator. He gives professional feedback on contestants’ interview performance. His view is that having the courage to speak up is more important than following the unwritten rules of the workplace – advice that Zheng clearly took to heart in her views about female bosses. He also suggests that to be sought after by companies, candidates need to be able to react quickly to challenges – advice that might strike many as plain common sense.

But no matter, the show has been viewed over 140 million times on Mango TV and it has been a similar hit on social media, with more than 510 million mentions on Sina Weibo.

A major driver of the show’s popularity is 66 year-old Dong, who is one of the best-known businesswomen in China. She has a reputation as an ‘iron lady’ but she generally comes across as kind and understanding with the interns.

She is also eager to share some of her management philosophies. For example, Dong says it is not fair to grade every employee on the same curve because each has their own strengths and weaknesses.

“Some people are ‘clumsy birds that need to fly early’ [a Chinese idiom that means if you are a slower performer you need to get a head start] but they are still willing to work hard. So what if it takes them five hours to complete a task while others take only three? You can’t say that they are stupid,” Dong claims. “I think people who are willing to work longer hours show even more dedication than those who only need three hours. We need be more tolerant of each individual’s ability,” she says.

She also speaks about the value of honesty in the workplace: “A lot of people say they are afraid of me… That’s because they are not confident in their heart. They don’t know if they are doing something correctly or incorrectly. No managers are afraid of you making mistakes, but we are afraid of people not telling the truth,” she adds.

That’s not to say that Dong is an easy-going boss. The show follows the president of China’s largest air-conditioner maker as she tours the staff canteen (to make sure the prices of the food are reasonable). But she also asks tough questions of her subordinates. In one instance, a female employee is seen weeping, to which Dong responds:“Her crying indicates that she’s still not mentally strong enough.”

Workplace Newcomers isn’t without its critics, with many complaining that the show focuses too much on the newcomers and not enough on the workplace. “Unlike other career competition shows like Tencent Video’s An Exciting Offer (see WiC522) about the legal industry and The Shining One on the inner workings of an investment bank, both of which use challenges to discuss real-life issues, Workplace Newcomers focuses too much on the interns’ point of view,’ Tencent Entertainment complains.

There is also little sense of crossover between the two teams on the show: while Gree is an established company, Visual Inception is in the early stages of corporate life. Gree is in manufacturing, while the celebrity agency is focused on show business. The differences between the two sectors are so significant that it is difficult for the audience to judge the performances of the respective teams of interns, some critics have said.

Also jarring is a piece of advice that Dong gives her fellow CEO Zhang that seems to run counter to her workaholic reputation. In one episode, the 36 year-old Zhang says he often needs to work late on set, to which Dong offers the suggestion that he sleep longer the following morning, or at least lie in until he feels more refreshed…

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