US-China Today sat down with Brett Sheehan to learn more about his latest book and how tracing the development of business in China has also revealed countless insights about the nation itself.
While completing his Ph.D. at the University of California-Berkeley, Brett Sheehan came across the catalyst for his second book, Industrial Eden. By chance, his wife met Roberta Sung, the second youngest daughter of Chinese entrepreneur Song FeiQing, a fascinating figure in business and politics. Years passed before Sheehan finally broke bread with Sung, but upon hearing her speak sentimentally about her father’s struggle to make money after the revolution in China he launched 15 years of extensive research, eventually publishing his book. Though Sheehan started his career as a commercial banker, he always had an interest in Chinese business, and the story of the Song family was a perfect fit for his book. The book contains historical narratives that portray the struggles of the Song family’s business through five different government bodies in China since the early part of the 20th century. US-China Today sat down with Sheehan to learn more about his book and how tracing the development of business in China has also revealed countless insights about the nation itself.
The storyline of Industrial Eden extends through five different Chinese governments. If the story were to center on one time, which period do you think the Song family would be most successful in?
The Song family business did best during the first five years of WWII, when China was under Japanese occupation. They also did good during 1933 to 1936. However, one of my points in the book is that none of these regimes are particularly good for businesses; each of them has its own downsides. I believe there is no ideal capitalism and there will always be a compromise between businesses and the government when there is pressure from the government present.
Do you think businesses struggle with the government in the same way today? Or has doing business changed dramatically since the Chinese have increasingly embraced mechanisms of capitalism?
Although China is under the ruling of another authoritarian government, it is very different than what it was in the 1950s. Now as a developing state, the government is utilizing businesses as means for growth. Furthermore, China has a different place in the world now and the products are also different.
Back then, in the period between 1956-1979, there were no private businesses. When there were, businesses had a lot more power than today. Businesses now are more willing to make compromises with the government than before.
During the construction of Industrial Eden, how much did you allow your own voice to come through?
It is impossible to eliminate your own voice when writing a book. It is also crucial to understand that historical sources are always incomplete. What I did was I choose a particular framework which centers around capitalism and authoritarian regimes. When I interacted with my sources, I let them guide me.
I also had to decide what is more important and select the sources that were most relevant to my framework. I did not want to replicate the standard history that was already told about the Song family. The last chapter of the book was about how his story was told through various narratives. I conducted my research without any preoccupied notion or notions about what should or should not be true. I did not avoid government authorized documents. I read them all, most in their draft forms. However, I did not accept them as they were.
Have you visited any of the cities that the Song family lived in or any places that still have the remains of the fallen governments and the fallen family businesses? What do these sites tell you today?
I was in Tianjin multiple times since the year 2000. The longest time was for about six months, but that was only one trip. I spent several weeks in Tokyo, and used archives or libraries in Nanjing, Jinan, Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, London, Aloa Scotland, Paris, Berkeley and Stanford, California. I was in each of those places anywhere from a few days to a few weeks depending on how much there was to see. In addition, there were no documents to collect, but I visited Qingzhou in Shandong province and spent a day in the Song Family Village outside of Qingzhou. The latter, especially, was helpful laying the background for the emergence of the Songs.
The documents I collected were mostly in Chinese, Japanese, French and English. I collected thousands of primary source documents over 15 years of work. As such the cities didn’t tell me all that much. I am of course very familiar with Tianjin since I lived there in the mid-1990s doing my dissertation research and that was helpful to understanding how the city works. I also spent a lot of time at the Dongya factory in Tianjin and that helped with both documents and with getting a feel for daily life on the factory grounds.
In the conclusion, you emphasized four phenomena that you have demonstrated throughout the book. How much do these four phenomena still hold true now?
My first argument is about the nature of Chinese business practices. I argue that they are not culturally limited and I think this still holds true today.
My second argument is about China’s place in the world of modern imperialism. Since imperialism is already gone, this is not an appropriate fit anymore.
My third argument is about the way people talked about businesses and the way people constructed narratives of capitalism. During the 1930-40s, businesses were moralized. The way people talked about businesses was not about profit or size, but about helping the society. I am not saying businesses were not aiming to make profits, but more importantly how people talked about them. As through researching this book, I became interested in this topic and will explore more in my new book to see if the moral idea is carried through today. Back then, Song’s narrative was used as a means to create a political voice in society. The way he got newspapers to talk about his business was to align with how he positioned himself in the society. This includes how he named his brand [which can be directly translated into “against western”]. Song and his people were attached to the moral idea. There were various works that retold the story of this factory in a fictionalized form to create a narrative for political purposes. My major focus on the new book is to explore businesses in fiction and film since the Qing Dynasty until today. Thus I do not know if the idea still holds true today and i will have to do research for my new book and see.
My fourth and last argument is about the nature of capitalism and authoritarianism. I argue that they can cooperate sometimes but not always, which I think is still true today.
If you were to meet Song Feiqing, what advice would you give to him at the time when he formed Dongya Corporation?
I think he did an amazing job. His failure was largely due to the time he was in. I do not think I have any particular good advice for him apart from that to find more stable place to do his business. Hong Kong was also not stable at that time and he did fail in Hong Kong. What he did was crisis management and tried to adapt to the environment and did pretty well in that sense.
Based on the Song family’s struggles with the government, do you see any parallels with American businesses’ relationship with the US government?
Unfortunately, my focus was on Chinese businesses. The major similarity I think would be that people always function within the structure and that businesses are always embedded within the society. I think that people generally have false understanding of what capitalism is. There is no free market. Business is always embedded in society, in political, social context.
Do you think the Song family would survive, thrive or fade out in today’s China and how would Song FeiQing’s father [Song Chuandian] export experience to the U.S. be different?
Song Chuandian’s business model was not dissimilar from a lot of the Chinese businesses in the 1980 and 1990s. They used cheap Chinese labor to make handicapped goods to exported to the developed world, which I think fits very well today. On the other hand, Song FeiQing’s model of “local import substitution” is what a lot of today’s Chinese businesses are trying to do now and that fits pretty well too.