Chinese Whispers – Ben Chu demystifies China

This post is part of a series of blog posts reviewing our list of top non-fiction titles. These are the books that are being read by large groups in The Pigeonhole’s Company Book Clubs (click for more information). Our carefully curated list includes titles on technology, wellness, politics, geopolitics, the workplace and the economy. Expect a new post showcasing our ever expanding list twice a month.

Chinese Whispers by Ben Chu

Published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pp. 288. Buy here.

The Relevance

Alongside artificial intelligence, workplace well-being, and innovation, the rise and rise of China is one of the most popular themes in The Pigeonhole’s Company Book Club. The traditional western superpowers now have to think about their irrepressible competitors in the east, and in particular the most populous country on the planet; a phoenix that has risen from the ashes of Mao’s disastrous ‘Great Leap Forward’ to become one of the most industrialised and productive economies in the world.

There are some great new books on China, but our pick of the bunch is Ben Chu’s Chinese Whispers. In seven bite-sized ‘whispers’ he breaks down the core truisms and mistruths that have proliferated since … well, since forever. These myths have infiltrated not only popular culture, including music, theatre, television, and the arts, but the behaviour of politicians too – with Henry Kissinger’s soundbites frequently popping up in Chinese Whispers as an example of an outsider who has formed very strong, if not entirely accurate, views of Chinese culture.

Any company with operations in China, or those considering expanding into this market, must take steps to understand the operating environment and the psychology of the businesses and individuals they will be dealing with. What Ben Chu demonstrates is that this supposedly unique nation is, in many ways, similar to its new economic contemporaries, especially in the dreams and aspirations of the youngest generations.

The Story

No punches are pulled in this frank demystification of everything that China has come to stand for in the 21st century: a gargantuan country whose culture is deep-rooted in communism, with a population that loves to work so hard it barely spares a thought for its own civil liberties while maintaining a strong distrust for foreigners. This insanely driven nation are running rings around lackadaisical western education systems and it is a matter of when not if they become the world’s number 1 superpower.

These are a selection of the legends that Chu inspects during the course of his succinct yet detailed national profile. Each chapter follows a familiar pattern. First, Chu traces the roots and the supporting evidence of each whisper about China, pulling apart the strands of how and why these beliefs have become so widespread. Once we are all sitting comfortably, reassured by the weight of evidence mustered to support the view that China is, say, an inherently racist nation, Chu pulls the carpet from under our feet and shows us the whole picture.

The answers are always revealing and sometimes shocking, but more often than not they are levelling, and let us know that this supposedly unknowable nation have a lot in common with their western counterparts. Rather than force-feeding the reader his own rhetoric on what China is and is not, Chu lays out the facts and challenges us to come to our own conclusions. That’s just one of the reasons it is such a great book for discussion within companies.

The Creator

Ben Chu has produced a fiendishly well-research book from a position of good authority, and we are delighted to be hosting a live private Q&A with him and one of our company book groups later this month. Born to a Chinese mother and a Scottish father, Ben was brought up in Manchester and went on to study modern history at Jesus College, Oxford. He has written for the Independent since 2000 and has been the paper’s economics editor since August 2011. Before that he was the newspaper’s chief lead writer and assistant comment editor. He has reported from China, Taiwan, Germany, France and Switzerland and Ireland. Other positions Ben has held at the paper include editing the letters page and writing for the personal finance section. You can find him tweeting on the economy and other things right here.

Ben still has family living in the Guangdong province of China and this, his first book, Chinese Whispers: why everything you’ve heard about China is wrong, is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Purchase it here.

If you would like use The Pigeonhole’s Company Book Club service, please click here for more information or email laurence@thepigeonhole.com .