Catalyst for Change: Chinese Business in Asia

Catalyst for Change

Author(s): Thomas Menkhoff, Chay Yue Wah, Hans-Dieter Evers and Hoon Chang Yau, (eds.)

ISBN:          9814452416

Publisher: World Scientific

Year:          2013

Price:         $75.00

Reviewed by  John Walsh, D.Phil, Assistant Professor, Marketing and Communication, Shinawatra International University MBA Program

here have been a number of studies of ethnic Chinese business firms and networks in Asia and beyond and the subject is such a large and multifaceted one that another such book is to be welcomed. This collection of papers ranges far and wide across the subject, touching upon issues such as ethnicity and identity, management and case studies of individual businesses and a few others placed together because they do not fit into any other category. This diversity of styles and subjects is welcome from various perspectives but it is not a systematic study of a closely defined subject. It is a book that will be of great interest to scholars interested in the issues involved rather than one to be recommended to students of a particular course or subject. There is a focus on Singapore, with around half the 18 papers (plus an introduction) concerning the city state, with others ranging from Malaysia and Indonesia to mainland China and the Chettiars of southern India. Most use the discourse of management studies to report on research previously conducted.

When looking at ethnic Chinese business activities, it soon becomes evident that it is necessary to think of networks of related actors which develop over often extended periods of time. These networks can link together people in a variety of different circumstances. It is well-established that Chinese migrants to Southeast Asia have ranged from individuals undergoing indentured labour to well-resourced merchant groups with the ability to establish transnational commercial activities in many different trading sectors. In the first paper, Jessia Ching takes a geographical perspective on how these networks are formed and develop over time. She considers emigration from Fujian province over the centuries through the metaphor of the sea as paddy. In doing so, she outlines Fujianese transnationalism as being a practice of creating forward and backward linkages across different seas that is much more complex than a model of migration that sees people moving from poorer places to richer ones. This paper is mirrored thematically by the final paper, by Hinrich Voss, which concerns the internationalization of mainland Chinese businesses. This is described in terms of private sector firms acting with agency to transform themselves into internationalized or regionalized entities as part of a rational business strategy. The role of the state in helping such organizations obtain international experience and opportunities might have been stressed a little more. Nevertheless, these two papers show some distinctive ways in which Chinese people have sought to project themselves on to the world.

The actual modes of business organization and management are addressed in half a dozen papers grouped together under the section heading of “The Management of Business Networks and Change.” Within this, a paper by Thomas Menkhoff and Chalmer E. Labig, entitled “Trading Networks of Chinese Entrepreneurs in Singapore,” is particularly interesting for having used a small survey to explore the practicalities of guanxi-based relationship-building. Distinctions are drawn between consanguineal and affinal kinship ties, fictive ties, friendship ties and relationships with outsiders. The authors make the important point that too much emphasis in the literature and in the popular media on a comparatively small number of success stories, while the failure rate of commercial ventures is just as high as it is in other parts of the world. Guanxi, in other words, is not a guarantee of success and a bad business idea – or one which just suffers from poor timing – will not survive because of it. Meanwhile, Lai Si Tsui-Auch and Dawn Chow Yi Lin, in “Ethnic Chinese Family-Controlled Firms in Singapore: Continuity and Change in Corporate Governance,” show how the firms considered have sought to resist the modernization of corporate governance long neoliberal lines promoted by the country’s government in the wake of the 1997 financial crisis by adapting to requirements to a certain extent and avoiding others which seemed unattractive. The result is, of course, companies with Chinese characteristics.

Other papers take a comparative perspective, seeking to contrast for example Chinese and Malay conceptions of space and change management among Chinese-educated and English language-educated Chinese Singaporean entrepreneurs. There are also attempts to be more specific about identity than just to say “Chinese,” since there are so many possible permutations of an ethnicity so broad and complex. Altogether, the combination of papers works together about as well as could be hoped for such a wide range of issues. Some of the papers would have benefited from having been updated but most are well enough written and edited as to be enjoyable to read, although the assumptions and methods are slightly repetitive. Presumably, most copies of this book will end up being dipped into rather than read from start to finish and so the internal editing is particularly important. The text and the diagrams are easy to read and well-designed. Most if not all university libraries or business schools would benefit from having this book and scholars of the subject will find much to interest them here.

Suggested citation:

John Walsh (2014), Review of “Catalyst for Change: Chinese Business in Asia”, by Thomas Menkhoff, Chay Yue Wah, Hans-Dieter Evers and Hoon Chang Yau, (eds.), East Asian Integration Studies. Vol 8, no. 6.