Sold on a Stereotype
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
SHANGHAI -- Showcased in bookstores between biographies of Andrew Carnegie and the newest treatise by China's president are stacks of works built on a stereotype.
One promises "The Eight Most Valuable Business Secrets of the Jewish."
Another title teases readers with "The Legend of Jewish Wealth." A third provides a look at "Jewish People and Business: The Bible of How to Live Their Lives."
In the United States, where making broad generalizations about races, cultures or religions has become unacceptable in most circles, the titles of some of these books might make people cringe. Throughout history and around the world, even outwardly innocuous and broadly accepted characterizations of Jews have sometimes formed the basis for eventual campaigns of violent anti-Semitism.
In Shanghai, which prides itself on having provided a safe haven for Jewish refugees fleeing Europe since the 1930s, some members of the city's small Jewish community are uneasy about the books' message.
These Jewish success books are "very dangerous," said Audrie Ohana, 30, who works at her family's import-export company and attended China's prestigious Fudan University. "What they say -- it's not true. In our community, it's not everybody that succeeds. We're like everyone else. Some are rich, but there are others that are very, very poor."
Nonetheless, in China, a country where glossy pictures of new billionaires have become as common as images of Mao Zedong, aspiring Chinese entrepreneurs are obsessed with getting their hands on anything they think can help them get an edge on the competition.
In the past few years, sales of "success" books have skyrocketed, publishers say, and now make up nearly a third of the works published in China, and perhaps no type of success book has been as well marketed or well received as those that purport to unveil the secrets of Jewish entrepreneurs. Many of these tomes sell upward of 30,000 copies a year and are thought of in the same inspirational way as many Americans view the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series.
Among this booming genre's most popular books is William Hampton's "Jewish Entrepreneurial Experience and Business Wisdom." It comes packaged in a red-and-gold cover, and a banner along the top brags that it was a "gold list" bestseller in the United States. Among Hampton's credentials, according to his biography: "Business Week editor," part of the "pioneer batch of Harvard DBAs," "professor in business strategy and philosophy" with "many years of experience in Jewish studies."
More on that set of claims in a moment.
China is the fastest-growing book market in the world, with 130,000 new titles published in 2005. Sales that year reached $8.3 billion, a 50 percent jump from 2003, according to China National Publications Import and Export's data research arm.
The business success books provide idealized notions of what Chinese people should strive to become and serve as templates for teaching people who have been working at communist, state-owned enterprises for a generation how to transform themselves as capitalists.