China was my first “communist country.”
One typically associates the word “communist” with gloomy, despairing scenes in the former Soviet Union or East Germany – people standing in long lines holding ration cards, and workers laboring under cruel, despotic tyranny.
China is, in fact, a beautiful place, and I certainly did not leave with that dreary impression. Everyone was polite and hospitable. The scenery was exotic and the food was delightful. It was an unforgettable experience, and I highly recommend China as a place to visit.
But make no mistake: China is not a democracy. There are “official views” on certain things, which shall be held by everyone.
Tiananmen Square? A tiny band of fringe student radicals in Beijing attacked innocent soldiers and police in a crazed attempt to overthrow the government. They were brought under control.
Chairman Mao? A hero of his countrymen.
The Cultural Revolution? The whole unfortunate mess was the idea of Chairman Mao’s wife. And fortunately, she was punished for this.
Religious freedom? Let us be thankful to our hard-working government officials that everybody has been enjoying that for some time now.
Tibet? China liberated the small backwards country, bringing it out of poverty and feudalism into 20th-century prosperity. Now you’ll be delighted to see motor scooters buzzing all over Lhasa.
Those protesters in Beijing who ignited themselves with gasoline during Chinese New Year? Brainwashed by a cult who encourages mass suicide.
Then I picked up the English newspaper, The China People’s Daily. Some random headlines included: “Mutual Contact Thrives” – the President of China meets a North Korean official and is delighted to see the “substantial economic development, national reunification and progressive foreign affairs.”
(No mention of the starving North Korean population or the disputes over nuclear weapons.)
“Bodies of 58 suffocated stowaways return home” – an unfortunate story of what might happen if Chinese citizens try to escape to England.
As the Chinese say, “In the newspapers, the only thing you can be sure is true is the date.”
Anyway, this was my epiphany:
I suddenly realized, THIS PROPAGANDA NEWSPAPER READS EXACTLY LIKE A TYPICAL PILE OF PRESS RELEASES FROM AMERICAN CORPORATIONS.
And people take both just about as seriously.
In America, if you wonder why the press is so cynical, it’s simply because they know that none of their information sources are trustworthy.
On the long flight, I’d been reading two things that added perspective to this epiphany. The first was a 70-page article in Wired Magazine called, “The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But The Truth.”
It was an insider’s report on the Microsoft vs. Department Of Justice trial, including Microsoft’s threats to stop selling Windows to PC vendors who dared to install Netscape instead of Internet Explorer, and Microsoft’s arrogance and doublespeak in court.
On the same day I was reading the headlines in the Chinese newspaper, I was also reading a new book called “The Cluetrain Manifesto,” which was describing how the Internet had decentralized business and made corporate propaganda ever less effective, as people on forums and email openly discuss the naked truth about problem solving, products, and politics.
The name of the game in a communist government is information control, yet it is no different in a big corporation.
Think about it:
At a large company, is it OK to talk about religion?
At a large company, is it OK to voice politically incorrect views?
At a large company, is it OK to send emails that say what you REALLY think about the company’s new product line or CEO?
Of course not. There may be…
…unpleasant consequences for such things.
So if you ever wanted to know what it’s like to live in a communist country, you may already be working for one – except only 8 hours a day.
Extend it to 24 hours a day and you get the picture.
“The Cluetrain Manifesto” was a paradigm-shifting book at the time, because it clarified what all of us intuitively know to be true: Email and the Internet are, above all, about real human beings having real conversations with each other.
No company or government can truly prevent this from happening (although there is the “Great Firewall of China” and you’ll need to watch what you send and receive if you live there). Information is truly “out of the bag” permanently.
Because people can talk to each other freely on the Internet — because they can go check out conversations about products and services — they have more sources of information than just the “party line.” And they have little trust for what the company itself has to say.
I’m a real human being telling you a real story about a real experience. Much more believable than anyone’s brochure or corporate website.
The implications for marketers are huge. Please think about this: Ten years ago, companies could actually control information.Â Now they can’t.
If people out there are mad or dissatisfied with a company, the rest of the world is going to find out about it. The problems will be discussed in the conversation that’s going on out there, and curious consumers can effortlessly eavesdrop on the conversation. There is nothing anyone can do to prevent it.
This has an upside too.
It means that if you come out from behind your desk and speak to people in plain English, people will gather “˜round and listen. They’ll look forward to hearing from you every day.
It means that if you have honest conversations with real people and if you deliver a product that people rave about, nobody will be able to stop your customers from telling other people how good you are.
Oh, and one last thing:
If you work for a large company, is anyone holding a gun to your head, forcing you to stay there?
Is there a secret police force stopping you from pursuing your own vision?
I didn’t think so. None of us are living in a communist country.
If you’ve got a vision, don’t delay. Pursue it now.
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