Johan Bjorksten

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 April, 2010, 12:00am

RED DREAMS It was originally some kind of Viking urge - a search for the exotic along with wanting to get as far away from Sweden as possible. China was developing rapidly and was the cradle of north Asian civilisation so I thought, why not go to the horse's mouth? I had the very immature idea of becoming an entrepreneur here, though I didn't know what I was going to do. But that was after I had been [here] a number of times. In Sweden, we had had to do mandatory military service and my job had been to study to be a Russian translator; I was later recruited by agencies to work as a tour guide and would spend my vacations earning and travelling for free. I then studied Chinese for a year and went to Chinese tour agencies, who also took me on.

China back in 1986 was a very different place: there were no high-rises, there wasn't a single bar in Beijing and only one cafe, in the Beijing Hotel. But as I travelled around with a more senior tour guide and a local guide, my impression, even back then, was that China was so much more of a consumer-friendly society [than Russia]: there was good food to be had, there were some little restaurants. It wasn't as rich as Russia and there were no cars or private telephones but I found it friendlier and the service was better compared [with that] in Eastern Europe.

DORM DAYS [Peking] University was a lot of fun, though very different back in those days: very basic. There were basic dormitories where Chinese students were eight to a room and we were two to a room; you weren't, and I believe still aren't, allowed to share mixed dorms. Even then the university was a melting pot from all around China and was an attractive place to study; lots of smart students and the theoretical education in chemistry was very good, though the lab equipment was not so advanced.

Food has been a recurring theme throughout my stay here. I really fell in love with it, and early. My dad would take us to Chinese restaurants in Sweden and he would say, you have to eat with chopsticks now, you're on Chinese territory. As a seven- or eight-year-old I would bring them to school and show them off to my friends. Then, when I finally had the chance to use them for real, I discovered such a variety of food. I even did a TV cooking show here in Chinese: I love Western Food, it was called. It showed how to cook European dishes but also how to eat with a knife and fork and what different glasses were for.

MOGUL HOARD I 'VJed' for a TV programme about Western music for a while. I had been on the air at Beijing Music Radio with a show about Scandinavian music; it was after a conversation in which a friend who worked there found out that all these bands she liked weren't American or English, but Swedish: Roxette, Ace of Base, the Cardigans and so on. Beijing Television came and said [it wanted] a foreigner who knows about foreign music and who can speak in Chinese for a kind of MTV-style show. I then ended up working with Sweden's largest record company, too. We released about 30 records here and they signed a Chinese new-age synthesiser group called eMao: a Buddhist chant kind of thing. That was not a huge business success but it was a lot of fun to travel around China and be a record mogul for a few years.

BONDS AND BARRIERS I enjoy Europe but China is the most exciting place on Earth for me. You put down roots, which you find harder and harder to move. I'm fortunate to have the language; when I talk to people on the phone they don't realise I'm a foreigner so that barrier becomes smaller, perhaps. As a manager at Eastwei [Relations, his PR company], I do brief [foreign] senior management on how things work here but the most important thing is bringing a perspective to my Chinese colleagues. PR can be a very glitzy, superficial profession but for me it's about guanxi, or personal relationships.

You have to decide on your ethical guidelines. This is ... really the 'Wild East': you have to be aware of the fact that there are a lot of ways to go wrong and you have to make decisions about how you want to behave. Should we pay media? First of all it's illegal - every year there are cases of journalists [being punished] for taking money for coverage. Also now, in a market-driven media environment, there's strong pressure on editors to produce material that's really interesting to the readers. We decided we would instead work in a way that would make it interesting for the media. Plus we're now seeing Chinese newspapers with policies which will not allow you to pay for their [journalists'] fare or dinner. They're liberalising but also becoming more professional.

CONFUSED ABOUT CONFUCIUS My latest book came about because my co-authors and I felt there was so much miscommunication in management and in negotiations here [that] comes from a misunderstanding of cultural concepts like loyalty and faith. I'm frustrated and worried by Chinese stereotyping. Chinese people may not have a deep understanding of Western society but at least ... a liberally educated Chinese person has studied some Plato and Shakespeare or other symbols of Western culture. If I talk to a well-educated Swede in Asia with wide interests and ask them, 'Have you heard of A Dream of Red Mansions?' No? Well, it's only the greatest novel ever written! They've heard of Confucius but don't really know what his philosophy was about. I even wrote a book in Swedish - In the Middle Kingdom - as a sort of replacement for the high-school course on China we never had.

The great drama playing out in the 21st century is [that] of China meets the world; China is taking back its rightful position as a world power. When you're building a business relationship over borders and the other party doesn't feel that you have even a basic understanding of where they come from, it becomes very difficult.

Johan Bjorksten will give the talk 'Promoting foreign brands in nationalistic China' at a Foreign Correspondents' Club lunch tomorrow. Tickets cost HK$150 for members and HK$180 for non-members. For bookings, call 2521 1511 or e-mail