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Yuan to know who's hot?

Published by Forbes on 1998-05-18

Li Nan, a graduate of China's prestigious Norman Bethune University of Medical Sciences, hasn't practiced medicine for the last ten years. He's been too busy becoming one of China's most popular TV personalities. But the 34-year-old Li is neither an entertainer nor a sports commentator. His beat is business, and he has an audience estimated to be in the tens of millions. He produces and presents on prime-time TV once a week a 30-minute show, in Mandarin and English, called China Business Guide. His program, broadcast by China Central TV, is sent by satellite to more than 100 countries throughout Europe and Asia, as well as the U.S. and Canada.

Until six years ago Li was a researcher in molecular virology and genetic engineering at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences. Foreign investment was increasing rapidly because of the liberalization policies promoted by Deng Xiaoping, and foreign businessmen were packing hotels in major cities, looking for opportunities to tap into a market of 1.2 billion people. At the same time, entrepreneurial energy was being unleashed across this huge country. "There was a healthy chaos in China," Li recalls, "and I started to wonder whether we Chinese knew enough about the secrets of successful entrepreneurs elsewhere."

In October 1991 Li made a fateful decision: He would give up medicine and become a television journalist. His parents, both engineers, were shocked, but Li's excellent English quickly won him a job as a translator and editor at Chinese National Television. On a visit to southern China in 1992, Deng announced that China's doors would open wider for overseas investment. "That was when I floated the idea of a TV program that would help Chinese people understand capitalism better," Li says. "Here was a unique form of capitalism getting started in the world's most ancient nation, so shouldn't we be better prepared for the new era?"

Li's first venture was a ten-minute program featuring interviews with Chinese political leaders, top bureaucrats and technocrats. The program was a quick success, and it was soon expanded to its present format, and broadcast in English as well as Mandarin. Why English in a country where so few understand the language? "Because I wanted to reach out to foreign audiences -- to educate them about China and to learn from them about how to do business better here," Li says.

Li was soon taking his TV crew to such places as Toronto, Bangkok, London, Grand Rapids, Mich., Finland, Nepal and Mongolia, and bringing back to China business-success stories from other countries.

Mao Zedong would spin in his mausoleum at some of the ideas Li is broadcasting. Of the U.S., Li says: "It's not just a rich country -- it's a country with strong ethical values in business; there's transparency and accountability, and there's little corruption. We in China need to learn how important it is to pay more attention to research and development, to invest in developing ideas and intellectual content, so that business can benefit in the long term."

He adds: "I respect the Americans because they live in both the present and the future -- they aren't bogged down by their past."

One Li program featured Eugene and Paul Rasch, a father-son team who own and operate Great Lakes Fruit & Produce, Inc. in Michigan. Li's feature focused on such things as inventory control and distribution. "I thought it was important to understand the distribution because there are so many bottlenecks in China," Li says. The Rasches have opened an apple juice company in China's Tianjin and have experienced problems in supply, transport and distribution. When Li interviewed them, he asked that they be candid about their China experiences -- and they were.

This surprising openness to foreign ideas in this once-closed society helps account for China's huge success in attracting foreign investment. Last year alone, China enticed $ 45 billion in foreign funds -- representing almost 40% of all foreign direct investment into newly industrializing nations. The once-reviled yang guizi -- foreign devils -- have become almost role models, at least in business.

Li says there is a subtext to his program -- attracting more foreign investment to China. "We show what it is like doing business in China -- warts, hopes and all. It's not that I gloss over economic and social conditions in my country," he says. "But I frequently emphasize our political stability and the fact that our infrastructure and communications have improved tremendously."

Besides featuring foreign success stories, Li also uses local ones, showing entrepreneurs at work: in their homes, in social situations. "Business life is a 24-hour vocation," Li says, speaking in well-modulated English. "Up-and-coming business-men in China need to learn the nuances and subtleties of business life -- how schmoozing can be effective, why networking is essential."

Networking took Li to the World Economic Forum's recent China Business Summit in Beijing, where he diligently sought out overseas financial mandarins as potential guests.

When talking to foreigners, Li emphasizes the value of patience while doing business in China and of observing local customs such as speaking politely and deferring to senior officials. "You don't need to shout in order to get things done in China," he says. "Many foreigners fail to appreciate the value of good manners."

When Chinese President Jiang Zemin traveled to Washington last fall for a meeting with Bill Clinton, he brought along a documentary on China's transformation from a sleeping giant into an economic power. The film was produced by Li Nan.

That's how far China has come on the road to capitalism. The government TV network features a program presenting entrepreneurs as heroes and business as a socially valuable occupation. Says Li: "This is a whole new ballgame that we're in -- the capitalist game. We need to better understand the rules of this game so that we can become more effective players."


Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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