Epiphany In Communist China

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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:


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.

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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.  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.

Perry Marshall

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About the Author

Perry Marshall has launched two revolutions in sales and marketing. In Pay-Per-Click advertising, he pioneered best practices and wrote the world's best selling book on Google advertising. And he's driven the 80/20 Principle deeper than any other author, creating a new movement in business.

He is referenced across the Internet and by Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, INC and Forbes Magazine.

23 Comments on “Epiphany In Communist China”

  1. I worked for several “Western” newspapers, and can confirm that the “Liberal-biased” media more and more fits your description of what you saw in China’s media. The stench of the Liberal Bias, is another reason why we in the media get so little respect. People smell a rat.

  2. Hi Perry,

    It’s been said that bad word of mouth travels much faster than good word of mouth…

    I suppose that’s because an unhappy customer is often much more motivated to “even the score” and get back at the company who pissed him off.

    On the other hand, having full transparency and being judged by your customers on the value your product delivers to them can be a good thing.

    That said, if you give ALL of your customers the power of voice, will you get an accurate snapshot of customer satisfaction?

    And then there’s information overload. If you’re trying to sell a product, is it a good thing to have hundreds of customer reviews? I suppose the sum of those reviews will start to reveal a pattern, whether good or bad, about how your product is perceived in the market. If your product is exceptional, that can be a good thing. If not, it might not be a bad idea to LISTEN to your customers and improve your product.

    On a side note, I found it humorous that the notice above this form says “All comments are monitored and we will delete any that we deem inappropriate or unacceptable.” Absolutely necessary mind you, but humorous nonetheless.

    Keep the posts coming!
    Dan Stanley


  4. Hi Perry,

    I visited China 4 years ago and agree with everything you said except – like the USSR previously, the leaders in China are sitting on a powder keg which will explode one day if they don’t bow to the preessure for demoncracy and free speech. I pray that China finds a leader who can lead them out of this without massive bloodshed.

    And big corporations in the west can kill you (or the equivalent) by stressing employees to the point of mental breakdown and creating an environment where virtually every waking hour is to be spent working – or at least available on the mobile phone (hence now also internet). If your life is trashed and there is virtually no waking time outside of work – you’re the equivalent of dead (or should that be a slave?).

    Warm regards
    An escapee (Tony)

  5. Thanks Perry!
    Great post. I lived in China for 2 years previously, teaching English in the countryside. Overall had a great experience, as most do. I had never made the connection before of how communism is like working in a big company – brilliant! I guess that’s why I love being self-employed!

  6. Tim,

    Just remember who is teaching you all that stuff on World & American history…mostly professors who have been brainwashed by the same propaganda machine in which you purport will deem you a terrorist if you call the president a socialist.

    The US aint that bad a place to be pal.

    Best to you,

  7. Thanks Perry and Bryan
    That awaked some of my most pleasant and cherished memories, the time i spent with you in China

  8. I lost a heap of money while I was living in China. Just as well, if I had made money, the lifestyle would have killed me. A typical “successful” Chinese these days is lucky to live until 60. Peasants live much longer.

    The US, in many ways, is much more intrusive into personal life than the Chinese. Some of these are good. For example, while it’s nice not to have to worry about getting arrested for DUI in China, it’s probably not a good policy.

    China is all about money and connections, less about productivity. However, they are moving in the right direction.

    Seems like the US is moving in the money and connections direction. So, you’re right, we have to hustle.

  9. 5 years ago I attended a speech given by former Soviet President Mikhai Gorbachev at a University in Colorado. He strongly suggested that the solution for the people of the world would be the INTERNET for righting many wrongs. I never forgot that. Your article fits right in. (I still dislike the Chinese corrupt production of products that are unsafe and inferior, however.)

  10. Right on Perry. As a former resident of China myself, I am always trying to explain the many half-truths and total lies about China to many people. Sadly, the media machine in the United States is just too strong when it wants to be. Most people don’t want to hear how lovely the people are there or “the other side” of the Tibet story. For such a supposedly “superior” and “enlightened” country, Americans are some of the most misinformed and close-minded people in the world. There are some terrible things about China, but it is mistake to think we Americans don’t live under the same “iron fist” in many ways.

  11. There is great Truth (scary when it has a capital T) in what you say, Perry. I would suggest one tiny/huge important change, because people are people:
    “Corporation” should be “Organization”-
    to include “non-profits” (including Academia with Tenuring and with Multi-Million/ Muti- Billion-Dollar Endowments), NGOs, and most of all, Governments, especially at the National level.
    Powerful as tenure or a high-paying job may be to keep one “bound” in a comfort-but-discomfort-zone,
    Only Governments have the power to use deadly force, so fear is more appropriate.
    Here’s to the freedom of the internet. Pray that it lasts here, unlike China et al.

  12. Fascinating article Perry,

    Situations such as you describe are all around us, not just in China and large corporations.

    It’s wise to have a healthy scepticsim about everything you see, read, or hear these days be it from the media, government, financial institutions, you name it. Ask yourself ” Well, that’s one point of view, but is it my point of view?”

  13. Perry, right on with the article!

    Everything you said about corporate censorship being like a Communist country…really hit home.

    But there’s an interesting parallel between communist countries, corporations, and…well…THE U.S.A.

    Censorship is on the rise here, too.

    Let me reprint what you said in the article…except I’ll replace ‘large company’ with USA:

    Think about it:

    In the USA, is it OK to talk about religion?

    (I know in school its not, and in government, it’s not.)

    In the USA, is it OK to voice politically incorrect views?

    (Answer: NO. You’d be deemed a radical, a racist, an outcast, and in some instances…a terrorist)

    In the USA, is it OK to send emails that say what you REALLY think about the nations’s new product line or CEO (President)?

    (Answer: NO. Thanks to the Patriot Act, your emails are being read and scanned over for anything you say. And if you voice anything in pure disgust against the administration…you better watch you a$$)

    Of course not. There may be…
    …unpleasant consequences for such things. (Jail time, being added to the ‘no fly’ list, being deemed a terrorist…etc)

    So yeah, your article opened my eyes a bit…but they were OPEN for a long time as I studied world history, American history, and the truth about everything.

    By the way, your blog ROCKS!!!

  14. Oh Yes Perry I forgot to say…

    Communism (as we know it) has effectively collapsed. What we see in China is State Capitalism. This means that China is actually one large Corporation intent on maximising profit by providing Products and Service to the World.

    On that basis your comparison bears up well after your visit to your first ‘State Capitalist’ country.

    I look forward to your comment…

  15. Thought provoking…and I like it. However trying to compare Western Corporations with Communist Totaliterian regimes is naive.

    Here is some more to chew on:

    1) If you work for a corporation in the West they can ‘only’ imprison your mind at best. Communist China, Russia, North Korea et al can and do imprison your body.
    2) Corporations in the West tend not to shoot and kill people who protest against them. The only people they can directly affect are those people who work for them i.e. they stop employing them.
    3) The only way western corporations can retaliate against people is by ‘dis-associating’ from those people (sacking them) and promoting the corporate viewpoint.
    4) The entire human race fuctions on communication. Unfortunately the Communist societies that the world has seen so far survive as long as they can by restricting communication.


  16. One caveat on getting ‘the truth’ online from Joe Real Person about satisfaction with a product or service. Check your sources, get as many opinions as you can find, and consider taking the conversation offline.

    Case in point, one of my sons is researching a particular accelerated computer science bachelor’s program. One disgruntled ex-student seems to have most of the bandwidth, leading to bad press.

    It was only in persistent further digging, and then a serendipitous personal introduction, that we found several folks with a completely different (and positive) experience.

    It’s true that a vocal unhappy minority can hurt you more than a silent happy majority.


  17. Aaron – “The only thing that is holding back the naked truth today is not people’s access to information. It is people’s apathy.”
    No. I don’t believe it’s apathy. I think it’s fear. Fear of retaliation. Especially in a corporate situation where your livelihood is at stake. This is what keeps would-be whistleblowers in line.

  18. Good analogy of China. I hope you were tounge in cheek on the statement of China having religous freedom. The Voice of the Martyrs has current info available on Chinas’ religous freedom.

  19. Wonderful Perry – the comparison between corporate and communist will shock many but it throws light on our “free” society in an uncomfortable way. And I guess the gys and gals who are unemployable by corporates are the rebels aka entrepreneurs…

    lots to chew on…

  20. Brilliant way that you weaved this post together. Super Creative. My grandparents escaped the Communists in China and created a new life and raised children in Saigon, Vietnam. There my Dad was born and then me. We then escaped the Communists to be in Canada in ’79. Now we are surrounded by well fed and educated Socialists who pose as humanitarians and well meaning citizens. Your example of living 24hrs like the time you spend at a corporation during work hours is a good start to paint the picture. But, it is far worse than that. China may be nice for the tourists, but not for the people living there.

  21. Perry,

    I just got back from China 3 months ago and had many of the same impressions.

    From where I stood, the people were happy and the girls at the airport gave me a “Hope you have good time” as I passed through the passport check. Compare that to the “hands behind your head, sir” of American customs.

    Anyway, I wrote about the whole 7-day experience on my personal blog in a 2-part series.

    I’m going back soon and am glad to hear you highly recommend China too :)


  22. I was wondering where you were going with this for the first few paragraphs. You dead on about the corporate propaganda. I have a love/hate relationship with our local “Business Journal” because I often flame them for parroting the corporate “news” releases” without any editing or accompanying commentary. They are little more than a mouthpiece and I often blast them for it.

    I also believe that Joe /Jane Sixpack are waking up to this finally and I whole heatedly agree that if you be yourself and speak to them in English you already have a leg up. I have been on you mailing list for a couple of years – it’s time !

  23. Perry, well said. The only thing that is holding back the naked truth today is not people’s access to information. It is people’s apathy. When was the last time you went into a store, got horrible service, and then wrote a blog post about it? If you did, you will be doing everyone a service. Everyone should take some time to inform everyone else out there of their positive and negative experiences in the business world – and make an impact on those businesses forever.

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