Saturday, March 05, 2011

The UFC and the Future of the Mongolian Wolf

The UFC might have just found their Yao Ming.

Since entering the Chinese market in 2009 with its initial broadcasting deal, the UFC has found the Chinese market tricky but full of potential in its future plans.

About a week ago when looking through my google news feed, I saw that a Chinese guy had just won a quick victory in the UFC. (video) Since then there has been an increasing amount of coverage in online and tv media on the "Mongolian Wolf," Tie Quan Zhang. The idea of a rugged Chinese guy beating up on the best fighters in the world really makes for good TV in China (just watch the movie 叶问2 that recently came out). He really might have the potential to be that spark that blows up the China market for the UFC.

Chinese people love their heroes and winners. In a country that only really cares about gold medals and being number 1 (theres even a mineral water brand thats the Chinese pronunciation of the English, "number one"), anyone who has the potential to be among the best in the world stage is quickly embraced and looked up to.

Yao Ming is famous by competing with Shaq in the NBA, Liu Xiang won the 1st gold medal for men in Olympic track & field, and Li-Ning built an entire global brand around his gymnastics exploits. Although Li Na and Zheng Jie are building the reputation for women's tennis, China really loves its male heroes. Thats the only explanation for the Chinese men's soccer team getting soo much funding.

This phenomenon this is a symptom of the Opium War/"century of shame" and Chinese male masculinity/identity issues. These issues influence society to the core - including current trends in growing male grooming products market. Chinese people believe that China has not re-assumed its rightful place in the world stage so any conquering hero that can assume this position (no matter how brief) is idolized. 

Not only can the Mongolian Wolf grow the UFC market access in China, his future potential for stardom and fame is greater than both Yao Ming and Liu Xiang. If he dominates in the ring in hand to hand combat, it will outshine winning any race or dunking on any player. Zhang Tie Quan is what the Chinese have been waiting for. And with a nick-name like Mongolian Wolf, how could he fail?

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Soft Power and the Future of China's World PR

During the Hu Jintao summit in the US about a month ago, I was lucky enough to see firsthand the 60-second “Pro China” advertisement broadcasted both in NYC’s Times Square and the Chinatown area in Washington DC.

Promoted as a well-received commercial that better let Americans understand China by the Chinese media, this ad sparked a lot of debate in both countries. While it might have passed on positive feelings to some Americans, more than a few online commentators referred to it as China giving the US "the finger." While I agree that the ad might not had the effect intended by the Chinese gov't when it was originally designed, the actual act of making the ad forecasts a strong step forward in China's pursuit of soft power.

China has had a PR problem for some time now. I first noticed it in the Spring of 2009 on a week-long trip to Ghana. My mother was analyzing China's investment and influence in Africa with Ghana as a case study with a fellow professor who was from Ghana. I tagged along as it was a great opportunity to go better understand Africa.

During our visit to the Chinese consulate, we talked to 3 officers who discussed the threats and opportunities of Chinese companies in Ghana. While trading companies were booming in importing a lot of consumer goods from China to Ghana (much from Shenzhen), Chinese companies had made very little headway in the mining and coco industries. These were all dominated by European companies who had been here for a long time.

Most of Chinese business interaction in Ghana was in the form of loan-for-buildings. We visited sites all over Ghana that featured completed buildings and structures built by the Chinese. This included the national theater and the monument for the 1st Ghana president in Accra, a soccer stadium and a bridge near Tamale in the north.

We were also fortunate enough to visit a hydro-electric dam currently under construction a couple of hours outside of Kumasi - in the central part of Ghana.

In all of our visits and conversations with both local Ghanaians and Chinese workers and managers, there seemed like a communication disconnect between the two groups. Locals often complained about the bad practices of Chinese companies. The Chinese complained about the laziness of the locals and their not appreciating what the Chinese were doing for them.

As stated from the Chinese perspective, whenever there were any disagreements or individual problems with workers, those isolated people would immediately be given to the media and then pieced together to show how bad and manipulative the Chinese were. The people at the consulate felt that they were being portrayed unfairly and tried to do their best in better publicizing their investments and contributions to the local community in their newly established press office. Needless to say short articles stuck in the local news section of the newspaper didn't have much effect on the problem.

After my Ghana trip, I realized a few things:

  1. the PR industry in China will only grow in the future
  2. anytime a report on how bad Chinese investors are in Africa, S. America and other parts of the world shows up, it has a good likelihood of being created from the already established political discourse on China. (see this video from CNBC for more)
  3. any real progress in soft power will happen from efforts of individual companies and people - not from a coordinated central government agenda

The Chinese government has really tried make a coordinated effort to improve soft power in the world. Even before the NYC Times Square ad, China has tried to rebrand itself.  In the past few years, it has promoted Confucius Institutes in the world, established a CNN-style news network (creating it out of CCTV-9), created a Reuters/AP type organization within CCTV to sell comprehensive English reports to news outlets all over the world (my mom's college friend is a editor there), and even rolled out a Confucius statue in Tiananmen Square.

However, all of these government measures hasnt changed the fact that any mention of the Dali Lama will go directly to China's bad human right's record, and any event on Tiananmen Square will mention the riots of 1989. These government initiatives dont work as well as the indirect effects of individual companies. My friend in Beijing has tried to market Chinese indie films all around the world for the past few years. Her efforts to show a foreign audience an alternative side of China is an example of how small companies are contributing to Chinese soft power in various culture fields.

The best recent example of an ad that (I believe) is great is an Li-ning shoes commercial in the US. It came out around the same time as the NYC Times Square video, but definitely hits it out of the park in helping create a new understanding of China and Chinese people to the American audience. Only with commercials like these over a long period of time will any real soft power be created.