A China Film Production Catastrophe: Part 2

In this article, Jonathan Poston finishes the story he started last time about how his kung fu film project collapsed without him ever seeing it coming…

…the lead student (and there is almost always one in every group—the outspoken, respected one) came to my office to let me know that the students felt uncomfortable with the contracts they had signed. Granted they were pages long, covering everything that the attorney said they should for me to feel comfortable that I owned all rights. I told the lead student (whom I’ll call film supervisor) that was managing the other students and coordinating the film team, to just find some other students who were interested, and let anyone go who was disagreeable to the terms of the deal.

Here’s where Chinese culture gets tricky to understand. The leader in any group will vigorously avoid naming and replacing friends and group members, for fear of causing them to “lose face.” Furthermore there was a resistance to move on the contract, period. They wanted me to tear up the contracts and just let them write a single sentence saying I could do anything I wanted with the film. The trust was beginning to erode. And furthermore I was informed that the film director gave me one price for the video if it never became famous, but if it did, I would owe him 100,000k or some other ridiculously high sum. Students said it was best if they met with their attorneys. Parents were calling the school and demanding resolution. The associate dean finally summoned me to his office and ordered that I terminate the whole project.

I was absolutely floored by how quickly everything degenerated. I was having the time of my life and spending my own money to make some great things possible. I wasn’t being uptight about the film quality and hadn’t really even thought about how I could even market a product like this when I returned to the U.S.A. to recoup my money.

I told my students we had to quit the project. The film supervisor was visibly shaken and told me he would just go on without me, which was infuriating, until a colleague explained how “face” worked in that situation too. Like I was told, they didn’t end up continuing with the project. I got a little of the money back from the film school, but lost the rest.

When I left China soon after that, I came away understanding more than I ever thought I would about how Chinese cultural differences in leadership, contracts, team interaction, expectations, communication, etc. could adversely affect any Western business project. Afterwards I opened myself to viewing it all as a hard lesson, which ended up paying off the next time I visited China. Today, I work with Chinese professionals on a number of business fronts, and have always found that first “amateur” experience useful in working with Chinese business people. The Chinese words, 危机 (wei ji), danger and opportunity, are united to mean crises—such symbolism isn’t lost on motivational speakers who frequently use the adage to remind us that there is room to improve and develop amid misfortune, or as we in the U.S. like to say: Make lemonade when life hands you lemons.

Cultural lessons are always challenging, since it typically means embracing compromise much more than one would ever need to do back home. But beyond the difficulties lies great opportunity, cultural enrichments, and lifelong friendships.

Disclosure: Names and places aren’t listed for privacy and security purposes.

Jonathan Poston M.E. is Chief Content Officer at FastPivot and Editor-in-Chief for “Learn Chinese Business” Blog. Mr. Poston also leads cross-cultural and business workshops around the world. Contact him by email (Jonathanposton@gmail.com ) to book a seminar.

16 responses to “A China Film Production Catastrophe: Part 2”

  1. Sean says:

    I would have fired the lead student immediately. From what I have learned about the Chinese is that when someone stands up to the boss on behalf of other workers, he is the sacrificial lamb. They watch what you do to him then act accordingly. If you fired him the rest would have gone back to work as before. At least in theory.

    A friend of mine worked for a foreign company and he told me that they had built the factory, hired the workers and everything was waiting on the final stamp. Then after waiting a while, decided to have a social get together with the Chinese people responsible for the final approval. They were told that they weren’t going to get the stamp. So they told the official that they would go into the company the next day, fire all the Chinese staff(200), dismantle the equipment and ship it all back to Holland, leaving nothing but bare ground. They got their stamp within an hour.

    I dread even thinking of starting a business here in China with Chinese workers. In China 90% is perfect for them but expect 100% from foreigners.

    • Pudding says:

      I would tend to agree with you Sean. The first guy is the guinea pig and if you don’t cut him down, it snowballs. Not to say what the author was doing is correct or not putting contracts on the table and all that. But with what I have seen you have to stand firm. The only problem is that standing firm as a foreigner is probably not a good thing. Unless you have the resources. This gentleman probably didn’t from the sounds of it.

      What probably happened is that they all signed the contracts and were all happy about working with a foreigner on a project. Then they did the work and questions started to get raised. Probably about how they could make money off it. Then they figured that they could sell it, so they wanted out of the contracts. When it didn’t seem that was going to happen, they pulled the guanxi card. Parents, the schools, etc. And there is no way that one foreign guy is going to win, period.

      The author sounds a little naive, but that is only coming from what I know now. Before I came to China perhaps I might of done something like this. But perhaps not. Who’s to know.

      But whatever the case foreigners need to be careful, Chinese to, about what they do here. It’s a dog eat dog world and the biggest dog usually wins. Even if someone had a contract they could easier just not abide by it. To be realistic you have no repercussions as a foreigner in China. That’s just the way it is.

  2. Great conclusion to the story – I think you (the author rather than the blogger) probably went over board issuing contracts in the first place. Given that contracts are pretty much ignored most of the time anyway.

    Lessons learned are always the best way to approach business overseas – I find it sad that people need to denigrate the Chinese (they aren’t alone in having strange business cultures) and I was glad to see that in this article you didn’t. Thanks for sharing.

  3. C. Custer says:

    Nice piece. FYI, though, the Crisis = danger + opportunity is just an urban legend. 机会 means opportunity but the 机 in 危机 doesn’t. See: http://www.pinyin.info/chinese/crisis.html

  4. Gregorian canto says:

    Thats quite condensed. I dont know what you learned since, but i’d like to know if your experience has shifted you from that early impression that stuff like contracts and promises dont matter in their mysterious world.

  5. Lorin Yochim says:

    The comments about the nature of contracts in China (i.e., they are always subject to renegotiation) have been adequately made. I would, however, like to offer a slightly different explanation for this. Apart from reflecting cultural tendencies and/or the state of contract law in China today, this approach to employer/employee relations also reflects a traditional of radical activism. This is something that is often misunderstood by foreign commenters on China, who tend to mistake the presence of an authoritarian government for passivity in regular Chinese folk. China is a world leader in both super-exploitation and, not coincidentally, incidents of protest. Many if not most of these protests result from worker exploitation That Jon sees his business practices as sound does not make this situation any less potentially exploitative. He certainly used the bases of his power (knowledge, access to a free lawyer) to his advantage. We ought not to malign these unpaid workers for recognizing the inequity and acting upon that realization.

    I also wonder why this being a business course/project would prevent the use of a potentially much better model for the enterprise. Why not make it a cooperative in which Jon injects the very small amount of a capital and others the sweat equity? It seems to me that, despite Jon’s implication that he is the one putting himself at risk, it is others who have put a lot of their personal resources on the line here. It looks to me that Jon’s part in this does not put his livelihood at risk. Some, including the professionals working on the project have.

  6. staff29501 says:


    Note that the “professionals” in the project were paid based on their rates. Students volunteered, as an extra credit assignment. They stood to gain in experience, and I in the possibility that I would leave China with a souvenir amateur-made video that I could later potentially sell to recoup my loses. Highly unlikely I would ever gain–If you know anything about retail, people don’t get rich or even “make” a dime like that (you might have had a case if I were having them dig ditches for a gold mine, but that wasn’t the case). And even then, perhaps some universities do make them dig for free, as long as it’s relevant to their study. How else will they learn? And believe me, when you’re teaching someone to do something, they don’t “add value” to the company…business lose money to take on interns (in exchange for other unseen value, like the perception of giving back to the community, early identification of good employees).

    Also consider the current higher ed. apprenticeship models out there…i.e. many students going into nursing programs,etc. have to volunteer countless hours just to be consider for programs, not to mention what they’ll pay for tuition and in more volunteer hours during their internships. Etc. etc.

    The cooperative model is a nice idea, in a perfect world. I like the idea, but who really wants to manage these projects beyond semester end when profit is virtually unheard of? “Hey, students I’ll put some money down on this, and one of you take charge of managing it for the foreseeable future.” Come on now.

    And let’s flip that scenario: Many of my students’ families had unbelievable amounts of money (arms dealers, communication moguls, etc.). Perhaps they could fund projects like this and pay an adjunct what they’re really worth. I, on my return from China, was applying for jobs as a pizza delivery driver, burger flipper, etc. (at the height of the crises) because absolutely nothing else was available. And that didn’t even work out. Thankfully, I did end up getting another adjunct position before finding a real “full time” job, but it only paid $1200 for an entire semester. Do you know how much work goes into teaching a class (and ironically a business class)? So, I think adjuncts are making around $2 an hour in the U.S.A. I would appreciate it if you could protest on some higher education forums.

    Before I say, “Please. Go rant somewhere else,” I’d like to get off my own soapbox and remind myself that it’s important to speak your mind, and to champion labor issues. There is major exploitation happening out there that needs to be corrected. And I’ll definitely think twice before entering this kind of grey area again. In fact, I dare say I’ll never do it again. But I learned a lot, as did the students, and I believe that though it ended this way, it was more beneficial to us all in the long run.

    I guess I should post this on Part I as well, since I noticed similar sentiments there.


    • Lorin Yochim says:

      @Jonathan, I think you can probably sense a tentativeness in my comments. That is because I recognize the dubious possibility of profits in the project for you, as well as some of the other factors you mention, including the background of your students. Yes, I do recognize how much work goes into teaching courses. As an adjunct (sessional instructor), I’m fully aware of pay rates. Such pay rates speak poorly of the contemporary university. They justify my seeking work elsewhere, but do not erase ethical questions related to my seeking profit (notwithstanding the unlikelihood of profit in your particular example) by employing my own students and offering them credit for doing so. I would not be long for my poorly paying job if I engaged in such an activity. Envy of my students bank accounts would not fly as justification in, for example, the US or Canada. The uproar caused by this one demonstrate why. On the cooperatives, again, my tentative suggestion is that it might be a practical solution to the pursuit of the altruistic aims implied in your posts. If valuable experience is the aim, why build in the profit motive? It seemed to me that this is precisely the seed of destruction of the project. Isn’t part of running a business project raising capital? In retrospect, would you involve students in that part of the project? Beyond all of this, my question about the business focus was a genuine one. Does this being a business course mean that enterprises structured around personal profit are the only option?

      • staff29501 says:

        Good points, Loren. And I see where the catch point here is, and it’s not with students doing work for free in exchange for learning something new, but the possibility that one teacher outside of the oversight of the organization can put students to work for self-gain, and leverage that relationship on many unethical levels for their own benefit. And in retrospect I can see merit in that concern, even though at the time I saw it only as an opportunity for students, and myself to get involved in something “real” outside of the classroom. To justify the expenditures, probably more to myself than anything, I felt I needed to “own rights,” but this was fallacious thinking because what did I own rights to anyway? Nothing. Who did I employ? No one. No one had to do anything. It was all volunteer, walk away anytime. But your point about the profit motive being “precisely the seed of destruction of the project,” is a good reminder why I would never do such a thing again. Coop or not, it’s just not worth it. Ideally schools would have real-life simulations set place for students to sense a stronger return on their investment in a business education, but I took it upon myself to create something, where nothing really existed. And in doing that, I exposed myself to a number of challenges, not the least of which is what we’re discussing here.

        Furthermore, the opportunity for coercion and exploitation exists in a number of ways in the traditional classroom alone. Standardizing everything to reduce liability and risk is one way to eliminate it, but there’s always a question as to what extent academic freedom (of teaching) is imposed upon. (At the community college level here in the USA I’ve taught courses where I was expected to teach and test from the book, period…what do students get from this, and why even bother to have a teacher at all?).

        The project was fully disclosed to all students/staff/admin, and even when it failed, I was asked directly whether students who dropped would be punished, even if the project was just extra credit. For the ones who remained in the class after a mass exodus (not related to this project, but probably over 90% of my 100 plus students dropped because of a class research paper they couldn’t or didn’t want to put the time into completing, but that’s yet another China story that deals with plagiarism, lack of appropriate English level, etc.—I learned from this ordeal as well, and as a result had much better retention the next semester), I believe those made As.

        But I could see where something like this occurring under the cloak of darkness might be leveraged to exploit others, just as profs. who date their students run into major ethical issues. So, creating policies to limit such is most likely critical, thus I wouldn’t advocate my approach…but I thought it was worth sharing, and thank Tom for taking the time to publish.

        But, I’ll tell you this, after this discussion, I’m certainly glad I didn’t report any profits!

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        And thanks for the effort in responding. I think this really is an interesting story. I wish it had been a little more fleshed out, maybe in more parts. I totally appreciate the difficulty of doing something quite unique as a foreigner in China. I also appreciate that you didn’t use this singular experience to attempt of every social problem China faces.

  7. staff29501 says:

    Everyone: Glad the article proved interesting, and I in turn have learned quite a bit from your comments. Thank you.

  8. Chip says:

    Lorin, do you feel unpaid internships are exploitative? I certainly didn’t sense any kind of coersion on the author’s part.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      @Chip, I wasn’t suggesting that this project or internships are particularly exploitative. Some unpaid internships are, and others are not. Rather, mine is more of Marxian point, i.e., that employer-employee relations of this kind are by nature exploitative. I’m not suggesting above that a cooperative scheme would be more productive or efficient in terms of profitability. Rather, I was speculating that the aims of mutual benefit might be better served in such a model. RE your question of coercion, I think there is a valid question to be asked of projects like this in educational institutions, if not of this project in general. Speaking generally of my own university, this project would not exist, full stop. The primary problem is the provision of profit for a person in a position of power vis a vis the future of the students, and the provision of extra credit for students who participate. There is either coercion or exclusion inherent in the structure of the project, unless, of course, such projects are a requirement of and available to all students. I’m not suggesting that Jonathan is being dishonest or deliberately exploiting these people.

      • Chip says:

        It’s 2012 and people are still bringing up “Marxian points”?

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Yes, @Chip. There are whole worlds of social science and political economy founded on Marx’s work. Some of them agree with his normative/political programme, others don’t, but all familiar know his influence. If you’re interested, I cold explain to you the difference between the words “Marxian” and “Marxist.” Had I said “anti-gobalization” instead of “Marxian,” as is the current fashion, would you have been more receptive? Given that the party in power of the country we are discussing here still makes strong claims to a communist ideology, it’s a good idea to know a little bit about this ideology.

  9. Ander says:

    Fascinating piece, thank you!

    The pretext of “losing face” as a rationale for becoming overly emotional – dare I say, irrational – is still hard for me to deal with.

    But, I’m getting there~

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