“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

Trading Places: A photographic journey through China’s former Treaty Ports

Posted: April 2nd, 2020 | No Comments »

ByNicholas Kitto

With a foreword by Professor Robert Bickers

China’s treaty port era extended from the 1840s to 1943, during which time foreigners had a significant presence. This book contains more than 700 photographs of many buildings from this period, most of them commissioned by foreign interests. Many argue that they should never have been built, let alone still be standing. But this book is not concerned with the rights and wrongs of how these buildings came to be. It simply celebrates their existence. A significant number are innately beautiful and all of them embody a history that has clear and present links to our own time and thus remain relevant.

This book was driven by the author’s interest in the history of China’s treaty port era, in which several generations of his family played a part. It is a tribute to the buildings that remain as a reminder of the past, and a guide to where to find them.

More details and ordering here

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Remembering the Hotel du Nord, Peking

Posted: April 1st, 2020 | No Comments »

When talking about the famous hotels of Peking in the first half of the twentieth century we often forget the Hotel du Nord – not the Grand Hotel de Pekin (today’s nice Hotel Nuo bit of the Beijing Hotel) or the Wagons-Lit (which used to be near Chienmen (Qianmen) but was bulldozed long ago, but the Hotel du Nord. It’s rather curiously slipped off the map – though the original buiolding may still be there some think – near to the Chongwenmen subway station. The Nord was the slightly cheaper choice – mostly foreigners and used by visiting salesmen etc….it was apparently the best beer in town…

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Remembering Jack Welch’s China Strategy

Posted: March 31st, 2020 | No Comments »

Jack Welch died recently aged 84. He was chairman and chief executive of GE for twenty years from 1981, leader of one of the most successful industrial companies of the era, one of the super star CEOs of his age. The deluge of obituaries following his death have been universally fulsome in their praise. Welch could be ruthless; he wasn’t called ‘Neutron Jack’ for nought. He never allowed a business to stand still on its merits, which sometimes annoyed his executives. And he delivered for shareholders – by the time Welch retired in 2001 GE shares were worth more than thirty times their 1980 price.

China’s re-emergence as a global economic powerhouse and relatively open market occurred on Welch’s watch at GE. There was no way he was ever going to be able to avoid the country. It’s well known now that the lure and promise of China back in the 1990s was almost impossible to resist and that many a corporate China dream of untold riches died on the beachheads of commercial reality, stifling bureaucracy, and harsh competition. But Jack Welch dodged those bullets and turned China into a success for GE, despite a glitch or two. It may well be that his hard and fast China business rules back then are still worth pinning up on the office noticeboard today.

*

Perhaps the decisions Jack Welch took in the early 1990s seem a little more obvious today. But back then, back when China’s reforms and ‘opening up’ were a lot more novel, when the China business was a fast moving train everyone was crawling over each other trying to jump aboard, when you felt you needed to move quick or lose that sacred ‘first mover advantage’, Welch’s considered approach was a lot less obvious. 

Of course, what dazzled people about China in the 1990s wasn’t the record-breaking skyscrapers or the high-speed trains, the vast shopping malls or gigantic Louis Vuitton flagship stores, the Ferraris on the Beijing ring roads or the new airports opening every week. None of that was there, and you had to be a true visionary to think it ever would be. Back then it was the numbers. And it had been ever thus.

Between the wars American business had fixated on the magic 400,000,000 Chinese. Four hundred million people to sip Cokes, take aspirin, drive Buicks, snap Kodak snaps. Half of them were going to buy razor blades, the other half permanent wave kits. Fortunes would be made. A few were. But mostly the numbers didn’t quite pan out. Most of those four hundred million folks were poor, miles from their nearest Coke machine or gas station, and not overly interested in perming their hair anyway. Then the Bamboo Curtain came down and everyone forgot China. Finally, Mao and Maoism died, Deng cautiously raised the drapes again, and the numbers came surging back to us through the cracks. During Mao’s reign that four hundred million had somehow become a billion and it was China Game On again. This time the numbers super-dazzled – Unilever talked of ‘two billion armpits’, Rupert Murdoch dreamt of ‘two billion eyeballs’. Nike’s Phil Knight went to China in the early 1980s, got back to Oregon and told his assembled executives, “There are two billion feet out there, Go get them!”

By the early 1990s Tiananmen was receding in the rear-view mirror, Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 ‘Southern Tour’ appeared to have cemented the economic reform process, business was slowly picking up. In the wings, about to take power were Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji, and the “Shanghai Gang” known for wanting to accelerate urban development, promote a consumer class, and seemingly welcoming to foreign businesses and expertise with, well if not quite open arms, then at least a cautious nod of acceptance.

Western business was only talking Asia. Eastern Europe was a mess, Russia looked seriously unstable, Jim O’Neill’s BRICS concept was still almost a decade away. The early- to mid-1990s were all about the South East Asian “Tigers”, and China. South East Asia was, of course, exciting and totally open to business, just about any business – a bit too much as it turned out. China was a hard slog, the last forty years of Maoist-inspired communism, and a rigid state economy not dissimilar to the failed Soviet Union’s, had meant those with actual on-the-ground experience of doing business in China were few and far between. Selling in Shanghai, negotiating in Nanjing, bargaining in Beijing? These were things your grandfather might have done before the Second World War. The West’s collective memory of doing business in China was gone a generation before, and anyway, the crowd in charge now were very different from the ones we’d known back in the thirties. Linguists were in short supply, all China was a hardship posting, a Kafkaesque bureaucracy of paperwork, permissions and long, long meetings that got nowhere while your bladder burst from the endless cups of weak green tea. Hong Kong was still in limbo prior to handover. But, despite all that, those numbers, that magic ‘billion’ – the constant and irresistible siren song of, as the magazine feature writers used to like say back then, the ‘Middle Kingdom’.

*

Of course there was no way Jack Welch wasn’t going to dedicate a fair bit of headspace to China. No shareholders meeting in those days ended without a question about why a company wasn’t doing more to make everyone a fortune in China.

Welch first turned up in 1992, flying in on the GE corporate jet with a bunch of senior executives. They headed straight to Shanghai and a banquet with Communist Party officials on a boat cruising up and down the Huangpu River. Food, wine and baijou as the majestic classical old Shanghai Bund slipped past on one side, and the distinctly underdeveloped Pudong was shrouded in darkness on the other. In 1992 it wasn’t so easy to be dazzled by Pudong. The eastern bank of the Huangpu, that is now a Manhattan-esque mass of skyscrapers, was just about to be officially declared a “New Area”. Construction crews were just about to break ground on what would become the futuristic (ultimately more Jetsons than Bladerunner as it turned out) Pearl Oriental Tower. 

Still Welch liked what he saw. Lots of holes in the ground that, he rightly believed, would become office blocks, factories, shopping malls and high-rise apartment buildings. His outlook was enhanced by recession in Europe and a sluggish US economy. Welch decided to go for it in China. He instructed all his senior executives across the corporations dozen operating divisions to go to China and look for opportunities. GE was going to invest a billion dollars in China.

China’s new and seemingly pro-business leaders couldn’t have been more delighted. Where the famously cautious, stop-and-think-before-you-leap Welch decided to go gangbusters everyone else was going to follow. It’s fair to say that, though he was far from the first to go big CEO to go to China (the aforementioned Phil Knight, GM’s  Jack Smith, AT&T’s Robert Allen, and not forgetting the big French, German and Japanese auto and engineering companies too among others ), Welch’s stellar reputation and his positive comments on the China market were a big fat green light for many businesses.

*

Welch decided to tip GE’s toe in the China waters with a light bulb factory. Not a massive investment for GE, but the business plan asked, how many lightbulbs does China need? The answer: ‘BILLIONS’. So GE got into a joint venture (JV) with a Chinese company, made millions of bulbs, stamped their (admittedly superior quality) brand on them and started selling thinking they’d be in competition with their usual foes in the sector – Siemens, Philips, Osram etc. Then several things happened in short order:

1) nobody in China cared what brand their light bulb was;

2) nobody in China would pay more than a few cents for a light bulb, no matter who made it;

3) the Chinese JV partner made and marketed their own (now slightly better bulbs) at less than 50% the price GE was charging.

Jack Welch got, as they say, his head served to him on a platter. He took note of that. Don’t go up against the Chinese selling cheap, easy-to-reproduce products – elastic bands, paper clips, t-shirts, small cartons of milk….light bulbs. You couldn’t win and the fight would be bloody.

So Welch imposed his long standing US Golden Rule globally – any business plan had to give a minimum 20% return on investment. None of the China business plans on Welch’s desk hit that threshold – none even came close, despite the magic billion customers. Other western firms, GE competitors, made similar mistakes. Maytag, Bosch, Siemens and Whirlpool appliances couldn’t beat the local dishwashers and refrigerators from the likes of Haier and Hisense.

The un-circumventable rule of Welch’s, and the debacle of the light bulb factory, meant his executives had to rethink China. And they did.

 *

Eventually, GE began making investments, approved by Welch, that worked. A hi-tech plastic components factory in Guangdong that could not be easily replicated and serviced GE’s export clients only. A medical equipment and devices company that built scanners that were not only hard to reverse engineer, but also, being GE-branded, were considered far superior to local equipment by China’s new legion of healthcare consumers who didn’t care much who made their lightbulbs, but their MRI scanner or replacement hip joint? That was a different question. Another highly successful venture was GE Capital Aviation Services – arranging leasing of planes to China’s nascent and rapidly expanding civil aircraft sector.

Perhaps now the notions of not competing in China at the low end, looking to use China’s lower production costs to service existing global clients at advantageous prices, using brand reputation to win the new middle class consumer, and using foreign capital to support newly emerging sectors, all seem obvious. They’re all part of the business school emerging market MBA syllabus. But back in the early-90s these China business truths were not held to be self-evident and plenty of big names got burned. Welch included with those cheap light bulbs. But he learnt the lesson and eventually succeeded in China. Jack Welch’s China journey is one still worth remembering.

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My Review of Robert Bickers’s China Bound – the story of Swire…

Posted: March 29th, 2020 | No Comments »

I reviewed China Bound, Robert Bickers’s new book about John Swire and the history of the venerable Hong in the South China Morning Post….click here….

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1948 Alien Resident’s Certificate for China

Posted: March 27th, 2020 | No Comments »

An Alien Resident Certificate issued by Nationalist China in 1948 – won’t get you into China this week I’m afraid but with a dove of peace!…..

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RAS Shanghai History Club 26 March: Paul French discusses Murders of Old China

Posted: March 25th, 2020 | 2 Comments »

I’m back on Zoom again in China – this time with the Royal Asiatic Society’s Shanghai branch…

Revenge, Passion, Greed, Racism, Corruption … 12 unsolved murders. All reinvestigated. Startling new evidence revealed a century later … Why did a remote police station, built to combat pirates, find itself at the centre of a murder-suicide after a constable went on the rampage? How did Chinese gangsters avoid conviction after serving a deadly dinner to Frenchtown’s elite? And why is the Foreign Office still withholding a key document to solving a murder that took place in the Gobi desert in 1935?
By delving deep into 12 of China’s most fascinating murder cases, Murders of Old China delivers a fast-paced journey through China’s early 20th-century history – including its criminal underbelly.
Uncovering previously unknown connections and exposing the lies, Paul French queries the verdict of some of China’s most controversial cases, interweaving true crime with China’s chaotic and complicated history of foreign occupation and Chinese rival factions.
This Audible Original is downloadable in China and available HERE. Audible subscribers can use a credit. Non-subscribers can sign up with Audible and get this book free, along with a one-month free trial period (your subscription is cancellable any time after the trial).
This event will be held on the Zoom online platform. Registered participants will receive the connection link 24 hours before the event

If you have any problems signing up online, just send us an email at bookings@royalasiaticsociety.org.cnand we will add you to the list.

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Remembering Martha Sawyers and her images of China….

Posted: March 23rd, 2020 | No Comments »

I wrote a long form piece for the South China Morning Post magazine on the American artist Martha Sawyers, who specialised in portraits of Asian peoples but, during World War Two, produced some amazing propaganda art works that both dignified and respected China’s struggle against Japan while also raising awarenes and support in the USA….click here

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The Awkward Position of Missionaries in Chinese History A Special Online Talk and Discussion with Jermiah Jenne

Posted: March 23rd, 2020 | No Comments »

A lot of online talks and debates going on in China as we pass through what would now be the literary festivals season with, well, no literary festivals. Here’s one for you with the always interesting Qing historian Jeremiah Jenne…

The Awkward Position of Missionaries in Chinese History
A Special Online Talk and Discussion

Date: Thursday, March 26th
Time: 8:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Cost: Free

Plague? Disaster? Sorcery? Rumors? Geopolitics?

You’re invited to join history teacher and The Hutong’s history guy Jeremiah Jenne for a special online talk about missionaries, medicine, witchcraft, and the Tianjin Massacre of 1870. We’ll be using zoom and all registrants will be sent the meeting information and link by email before the meeting.

From the time of Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit missions of the 16th century, missionaries have played an important role in Chinese history. By the 19th century, the missionary promised both new forms of educational and hygienic modernity while also being seen by the people as a possible threat to the established order in this world and beyond. How did the people of late imperial China perceive missionaries?

In 1870, tales of kidnapping and sorcery swirled around the city of Tianjin. The local magistrate wants to investigate the charges of witchcraft being made against a group of Catholic nuns. The French consul insists the missionaries are protected from prosecution by treaties signed with the Chinese government. In the middle is a hapless Manchu official unable to keep the peace. On June 21, 1870, the city of Tianjin exploded into a day of rage and violence which shocked the world and revealed the perilous position of missionaries in 19th century China.

Jeremiah Jenne is a writer and history teacher based in Beijing since 2002. He taught Late Imperial and Modern Chinese History for over 13 years and has written extensively on China for The Economist, South China Morning Post, Journal of Asian Studies, Asia Society/China File, Los Angeles Review of BooksRadii China, The Beijinger, and the World of Chinese. His work can be found in the anthologies China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, The Insider’s Guide to Beijing, and the 2015 collection While We’re Here: China Stories from a Writer’s Colony. Jeremiah is frequently asked to speak or lead workshops on Chinese history, culture, and cultural adaptation for students, embassies, organizations, and company groups from around the world and is the proprietor of Beijing by Foot, which organizes educational programs and historic walking tours of Beijing’s most famous sites and hidden by-ways. You can follow him on Twitter @jeremiahjenne or online at jeremiahjenne.com.

More details on how to book here….

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