Suspect secrets of success

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 August, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 August, 1995, 12:00am

THICK FACE, BLACK HEART Chu Chin-ning, Nicholas Brearley Publishing, $136 THE news leaked out in the 1980s that there really was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow - and the people of Asia-Pacific had found it.

Or at least, that's how the Asian economic miracle must have seemed to business people all over the world.

In the 1960s, Asia was always spoken of in terms of poverty and over-population. Then something mysterious happened. Two decades later, many pockets of Asia had become remarkably rich, and leaders of corporations and countries all over the planet wanted to know what the secret was.

In recent years, many people have claimed to have discovered the secret of Asian business growth and tried to package it. An early big seller was a book called Success Secrets Of Genghis Khan, which, despite its jazzy title, was a rather prosaic book of essays on management style, allegedly inspired by the life history of the Mongolian warrior.

Since then, there have been others, too many and too tiresome to name, particularly the business writers who churn out endless commentaries on Sun Tzu's Art Of War.

Now we have the latest: the curiously titled Thick Face, Black Heart, inspired by obscure ancient Chinese writings. This volume makes no bones about claiming to contain the secret. 'The Asian path to thriving, winning and succeeding', says a headline on the cover.

There is a photograph of writer Chu Chin-ning on the back - a stern-looking, bespectacled Chinese woman - and the blurb-writer boasts that this book 'goes beyond Sun Tzu's Art of War'.

It opens with four pages of quotes from people who recommend it heartily. Pretty impressive, I thought - until I realised that I only recognised one name in the whole four pages.

I read a lot of business books, so I am familiar with many names in this field. So who are all these people? Are they friends of the au-thor? One is described as a 'winemaker', and another is given the title 'innovator of the seedless watermelon'. This is a transparent attempt at hype. No one is going to buy it on the basis that a winemaker and a watermelon expert enjoyed it.

The theory of Thick Face, Black Heart is muddled and depressing. It is a very similar message to that which is expressed rather more succinctly in a book written by some British comedians called How To Be An Utter Bastard.

To be a black-heart practitioner, you have to be single-minded, self-centred, goal-oriented and unemotional, says Ms Chu. You have to be really nasty.

She urges readers not to behave considerately, or think about the needs of others (a bad habit which is ingrained in us by our parents, who don't realise how bad it is). To Ms Chu, the word 'nice' is the worst four-letter word of all. She gives examples of times which she tried to be nice and - horror of horrors - lost money.

I'm not exaggerating about her attitude. In Chapter 9, 'Voyage beyond the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure', she praises Hitler for delivering on his economic promises to his people. She may be entitled to pick out something good to say about Hitler if she wants to, but it is grossly insensitive to then just blithely go on to the next topic, without pointing out that Hitler also did one or two bad things in his life.

Anyone who can name Hitler uncritically as a role model is definitely not committing the sin of being considerate or thoughtful about the feelings of others.

But what makes this book baffling is that the writer often reveals herself to be sentimental and a sufferer of unfocused thinking.

The heading on Page 15 says: 'Phase One: Winning at All Costs.' Yet Page 281 lists as things that one should NOT do: 'Actions solely based on the principle of winning at all cost.' Although the book builds its argument on the fact that it is inspired by ancient Chinese concepts, many of the best anecdotes and examples given are from the West. She quotes the old maxim about Abraham Lincoln - the one that lists all his failures before identifying him as President Lincoln - but she does so without admitting that the paragraph is a quotation.

And here's another inspiring anecdote: 'Recently, I watched an old movie, a story about the courage and love of the early American settlers. It was evident that they understood the sublime state of calm detachment . . . witnessing their warrior-like courage and self-determination moved me many times during the film.' The book doesn't say what she was watching - The Waltons, perhaps, or Far and Away. But surely some editor at Nicholas Brearley Publishing should have told her that telling the readers that she watched a nameless American video which made her cry is too indulgent for what presents itself as the most hard-nosed business book on the market.

Some of the Asian anecdotes are embarrassingly simplistic. 'Once I was reading an Asian classic in which a young man asked his elder: 'How do I endure?' The elder answered: 'You endure by enduring.' This simple statement stayed with me.' I don't think it will stay with many other readers.

But this isn't just an incoherent tract for ruthlessness. It advocates philosophies that are frightening. The business world is a jungle as it is. The last thing it needs is someone to urge business people to be more unpleasant, untrusting and merciless.

For instance, Ms Chu writes: 'A friend of mine once made a very profound statement when he said, 'When people act overly nice, I always wonder about their motives'.' I'm sorry, Ms Chu, but that is not 'a very profound statement'. Compare that cynical, negative little thought, with E .M. Forster's generous and life-enhancing comment on the subject of suspicion: 'I would rather be fooled than be suspicious.' This volume of praise for the killer instinct within us appears designed only to increase the reader's personal wealth by increasing the amount of unhappiness in the world - which is why, I suppose, it is selling depressingly well in Hong Kong.