Friday, August 12, 2011

American Wheels, Chinese Roads: a review

For several months I have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Michael J. Dunne's new book, American Wheels, Chinese Roads: The Story of General Motors in China (Singapore: John Wiley & Sons Asia, 2011).


If you have read any news stories covering China's auto industry over the past decade, you have almost certainly read quotes from Mike Dunne. Until recently he was in charge of J.D. Power's China unit, and now he runs his own consulting company.

There are few people more qualified than Mike Dunne to write about China's auto industry. He grew up in Detroit, worked at GM, and earned his MBA from the University of Michigan. He has also spent over two decades of his life living and working in China.

American Wheels, Chinese Roads is a more-or-less chronological telling of the experience of General Motors in China, but at appropriate points, Dunne interjects relevant stories about other auto companies and their experiences in China.
And it is a pretty quick read because the story is so entertainingly told.

The stories are all fascinating because many reveal lessons that GM learned along the way and often contain fly-on-the-wall details about negotiations between Chinese and foreign automakers. Dunne makes these stories even more interesting (and demonstrates his China credentials) by weaving in little Chinese language lessons and references to Chinese philosophers and historical figures. He doesn't just lay the lessons on us; he often delves deeper into why things are the way they are in China.

At a few points, GM is portrayed almost as a naive victim, caught off guard by the machinations of the government or GM's competitors. For example, when GM inked its deal with Shanghai Auto (SAIC), it was promised a monopoly in the luxury vehicle segment only to be surprised a few months later that Shanghai Auto's other partner, Volkswagen was being allowed to introduce a competing vehicle.

Dunne also retells the story about how Chery Auto managed to beat GM to market with the QQ, a copy of the Chevrolet Spark, adding new details that I had not seen elsewhere.

GM's curious sale of one percent of its joint venture to Shanghai Auto in 2009 is also covered here, though little is said about the possible motivation of SAIC. (But you will be able to find SAIC's side of the story in my forthcoming book on China's auto industry.)

In the penultimate chapter, Dunne sums up the experiences, not only of GM, but most foreign companies attempting to succeed in China:

While placing their bets, companies must never forget that to be dealt a hand in the game of electric cars -- or almost any business in China -- you will need to get approval for a license.

And get a partner.

Once those are secured, you will begin to compete with both the house and the player. The ones making the rules are also playing the game -- and they're determined to triumph.
This nicely sums up much of my own research on China's auto industry. Getting into China is hard, and once there, you will only be there as long as the Chinese find you useful.

In terms of the details, I was very pleased to find that Dunne's take on China's auto industry largely agrees with my own -- not that it has to, but having spent several years researching this industry in which Dunne is an expert, I am happy to note that my own research was not off-base. This is not always the case when two writers tackle the same topic in relation to China: it often depends on which part of the elephant one is touching.

As enjoyable as this book was to read (it is truly a page-turner!), as a researcher, I often wished to see footnotes to support certain quotes, figures or other claims. For some reason, the non-academic world has an aversion to footnotes. From the point-of-view of a researcher, footnotes make a particular work more attractive as a documentary source, and ensures that the book is cited more frequently. More citations will very likely translate into more sales. (And if you're the kind of reader who hates footnotes, you may also be happy that the book comes in a Kindle edition.)

My sense in this case is that many of the quotes come from Dunne's first-hand experience, although I would not have minded his saying so in the text. There seems to be a trend toward increasing acceptable use of the first person in non-fiction nowadays, a trend that I fully support: if you did the work, conducted the interview, etc., I think you should feel free to say so.

But this minimal criticism only reflects my personal preference, and in no way does it detract from this book as both an entertaining work of non-fiction and a source of wise advice on the pleasures and pitfalls of doing business in China.

In the conclusion, Dunne leaves no doubt as to where he stands in his own assessment of the business environment for foreigners in China. His parting shot takes the form of a fictitious memo from a foreign auto executive in China to the US Auto Task Force. His final recommendations aren't delivered in anger; they are a matter-of-fact assessment of a playing field on which foreign businesses have been forced to face down the entire Chinese government all on their own for far too long.