Don’t (Mis)Quote Me (On Black And White Cats)

Related entries: Business Issues, General, Risk & Law

Never one to knowingly miss a good speaker (or lunch), I attended a China Association event last week at the rather grand National Liberal Club in London. James Kynge, former FT writer and author of the excellent China Shakes the World was the speaker.

As readers of China Law Blog and Peking Duck will already know, the book is a highly-recommended read – as it is very readable, raises big questions, provides insightful comment and lots of excellent anecdotes.

As well as repeating his warnings of international protectionism as a response to China’s rise (and much more besides), Kynge gave some useful (recent) historical perspective on how quickly China is changing. His first trip to China as a student was in 1982 (which is not all that long ago) in Jinan, Shandong. At that time there was no international phone access at the university, no foreign cigarettes, and no coffee anywhere. How times change!

But (as seems to be a trend these days) he also spoke about Deng Xiaoping, and specifically his “black and white cat” speech (“it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice”). A visit to Deng’s home-village museum led him to a copy of the famous speech’s original text. On close inspection he found that Deng’s actual words were about black or yellow cats, not black or white ones.

So, while the accurate quote may be: “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or yellow, so long as it catches mice”, the latest incarnation that is making the rounds in China, with a tongue-in-cheek reference to the competition between local and central governments, is:

    “It doesn’t matter if a mouse is black or white as long as it avoids the cat”.

Whatever colour the mouse is, it has a lot to lose if and when the cat catches up with it!

Investors in China would be wise to recognise the fact that local and central governments often play this cat-and-mouse game – and that businesses can get caught up in the middle (with illegal, “locally approved” special economic zones and all the rest). Keeping a weather eye on Beijing and its policy developments is generally a good idea…

For China Shakes the World, and other good China reads, see my list of favorites here.

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