Interview with Ole Schell

A while back we ran a review of the film Win in China, a documentary about Chinese entrepreneurship directed by Ole Schell, son of famed China scholar Orville Schell. We were offered a chance to interview Ole, and jumped at the chance.

ChinaGeeks: Which came first, the idea of making a documentary about “Win in China” the TV show or the idea of making a documentary about China’s economic growth? Can you talk a little bit about how the film came together in terms of where the concept came from?

I have a Chinese stepmother and my father is a journalist who specializes in China. I grew up with Chinese culture always in my life. My dad would often bring me back cool trinkets like cricket cages from Beijing or swords from Tibet so I was always aware of China as a sort of mystical place.

Many years later the production team putting together the show, Win In China, (including cctv2 and sponsors such as yahoo china and China Unicom) were interested in getting a westerner’s perspective on the show through a documentary.

I was approached by Wang Li Fen, a well known Chinese TV personality and the host and executive producer of Win In China, to make a film about its creation. I agreed with the caveat that we could historically contextualize what Win meant in relation to the progress of China. She agreed and we ended up having a whole chapter on Chinese youth culture-including Chinese rappers, punk rockers, Ferrari salesmen and artists-to give people a sense of what the environment is really like over there and how in could produce a show like Win.

ChinaGeeks: Who is the film meant for? You’ve got both an “education edition” and a “home” edition DVD but your website gives the impression it’s mostly an educational endeavor. Why is that?

The film’s target audience consists of American business leaders, business schools, entrepreneurs and economists. The goal of the film is to educate Americans on the incredible growth in China and what this means for the U.S. as a player in the global economy.

The educational version of the DVD comes with extra features such as extended interviews with legendary Chinese internet Tycoon, Jack Ma, who served as a Judge on Win, and NASDAQ CEO Robert Greifeld, as well as a professor of entrepreneurship at Tsinghua University, Professor Chen.

ChinaGeeks: In the film, you’ve got James Fallows and Orville Schell, among other China experts. Were there reasons you chose them specifically? Were they familiar with the TV show already or was that something you had to show them?

Jim Fallows was living in China for two years to write for the Atlantic monthly. While he was there became a fan of the show. He was at the finale and even wrote about it for the Atlantic. So he was really well versed in the ins and outs of the show despite speaking imperfect Chinese. Since he was there to observe and comment on China as it modernizes he was the perfect interviewee. Jim is a great guy and certainly astute when it comes to issues of China and Asia at large.

Orville Schell is my father and had little choice but to be interviewed by me. That being said he certainly knows a lot about modern China and was certainly aware of the show. He filled in some of the historical areas in the film such as Deng Xiao Ping going to Shenzhen, then a special economic zone, to show that economic reform would continue after the events in June of 1989.

The question we wanted to ask was: how could a country that was ostensibly communist and might have locked someone up went into private enterprise only a few years earlier create a show that so blatantly embodied capitalism.

ChinaGeeks: You’ve got some behind-the-scenes stuff from the TV show as well; what was working with the show’s creators like?

I went to China about twelve times over the course of a little over a year. Working with the host Wang Lifen was great. She and the rest of the team were very busy and hands off giving me complete freedom. I also took trips to the head quarters of Alibaba and Yahoo China in Hangzhou to interview Jack Ma in his office. He has an incredible story and is treated like a rock star by the youth of China

ChinaGeeks: Your film, even in terms of the marketing and packaging, is obviously playing against the “China is communist” stereotype. Have you found that a lot of people watching the film are surprised that a competition like this could happen in China? Obviously, the film takes the viewer through a bit of the background on exactly how that came to be possible, but are you finding people surprised or are they mostly already aware that entrepreneurship and capitalism are alive and well in China?

In my experience it’s mostly seasoned China watchers who are aware of the true extent of reforms effects on not only business but on youth culture as well. We screened to some people from Soros whose job it was to follow trends in China and even they were surprised by a lot of the underground happenings over there…

In many ways the art, music and nightlife scenes are way more exciting than in the States.

It’s a quickly expanding and developing culture and economy with so many opportunities and makes a place like New York, where spend a lot of my time, feel much more stagnant.

I chose to show the rappers, punk rockers, Ferraris and nightlife stuff to shed light on that newly developing paradigm.

ChinaGeeks: How is the film being received? Presumably, you’ve read some reviews, but are you also hearing from regular people and perhaps schools? What do they think of it?

People almost universally say they had no idea of the extent of the pace over there. They expect something much dryer-something more business related. That was a challenge I took head on and tried to incorporate as much of the outrageous landscape of Beijing Shanghai, and some of the smoky second tier cities like Weifang and Hefei that we visited to get to know several of the contestants. My favorite contestant was an aspiring lingerie baron nicknamed “The Wolf” for his predatory business style.

The historical section was a way to get the viewer up to speed on the Recent Chinese history that led to the show. Some of that communist imagery from the beginning of the film is a great juxtaposition to the hyper capitalist game show and really get to the heart of the film and modern China.

ChinaGeeks: What’s next for you? Another China-related project or is it on to something different?

I have another film about the world of high-fashion modeling coming out in different countries at different times.

ChinaGeeks: How was the film funded? From your website, you’re clearly affiliated with the documentary 2 Million Minutes, but did funding come from proceeds from that or somewhere else?

The production was a co-production between the Win In China show on CCTV2 and its sponsors like China Yahoo and China Unicom in China and then Robert Compton’s film company True South Studios on Memphis. Bob is a businessman with investments in China and a keen interest in its current entrepreneurial revolution so he was a perfect partner on this project.

ChinaGeeks: Thus far, China seems to be weathering the economic crisis fairly well. Do you see that continuing or not, and why?

That’s funny I recently wrote a piece for the Cnn business site on just this. It can now be found on the Anderson Cooper Ac360 website. Have a look.

ChinaGeeks: What, if any, effect do you expect government and international regulations to have on Chinese businesses going forward? Obviously recently there have been some trade disputes between China and the US, etc., and as I understand it at this point China’s trade with the world at large is mostly through exporting things manufactured in China, but do you expect other sectors (especially technology) to start becoming a bigger percentage of the Chinese market (and the international market)?

Of course China’s trade with the world is based primarily on supplying foreign demand for goods. That being said there is a whole consumer class which is rapidly growing in China as more and more peasants and workers strive to join the middle class. The government has undertaken massive efforts such as Win In China and small business incubators on Universities such as Tsinghua to create jobs for this emerging demographic. Also Jack Ma, a Judge on Win, has a new venture to reverse the flow of goods by setting up a b2b that hooks up American suppliers with buyers of goods in China. This is a further sign that China is maturing as an economy. China also has such a massive population and burgeoning middle class that they are becoming more self sustaining as an economy and beginning to purchase their own goods.

ChinaGeeks: More information on Win in China?

Win In China is now touring the country going to universities, business leadership groups and think tanks.

In the last couple of months we screened at the Asia Society in New York City, the Council on Foreign Relations in Dc, University of Chicago and to business-leaders in Indianapolis to name a few.

December 2nd at 7pm, we will be having a screening co-sponsored by the National Committee on US Chinese relations, the Washington DC Asia Society and featuring a conversation with Orville Schell and Journalist James Fallows. It will be at the Sidwell Friends School where the president’s kids are enrolled.

We also have screening with Center for Entrepreneur Studies at the Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall University in early February.

Here are some links that might be helpful for you:

A radio piece I produced on the Lingerie Baron from the film for the world program on the BBC and PRI.

A segment of my remarks before screening at the Council on foreign Relations with John Pomfret two weeks ago.

Our website

Many thanks to Ole Schell for the interview.

0 thoughts on “Interview with Ole Schell”

  1. “I chose to show the rappers, punk rockers, Ferraris and nightlife stuff to shed light on that newly developing paradigm.”

    Yeah, it is all just punk rockers, rappers and Fabulously Successful entrepreneurs here. The streets are just full of Ferraris; there is hardly room to walk.


  2. “I chose to show the rappers, punk rockers, Ferraris and nightlife stuff to shed light on that newly developing paradigm.”

    I guess the younger Mr. Schell is, Khun-like, onto a paradigm shift. I did not realize that China was all about entrepreneurship, expensive Italian sports cars and trendy “lifestyles.” I had thought that things here were about a development model based on massive subsidies for SOEs and “National Champions” in the form of an overvalued currency, low wage growth, and a banking system that lends freely and at low rates to the large and connected but pays out little on household deposits. I thought it was about political legitimacy based on a narrative of the party restoring the nation to its rightful esteemed place in the world after a century of national humiliation, and how the growth of the economy played a central and symbolic role in this process.

    Maybe things are changing and it is all really becoming a cut-throat entrepreneurial, luxury and lifestyle consumption Harmonious Society after all.


  3. Jim is a great guy and certainly astute when it comes to issues of China and Asia at large.

    No one is astute when it comes to “Asia at large” just like how no one is astute when it comes to “Caucafrica” at large.


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