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Q&A

Drinking with China’s lonely tycoons

How does business get done in Chengdu? John Osburg got a rare glimpse.

Nightclubs, like this one in Guangdong, are key to China’s back-room business culture.

Magnum Photos

Nightclubs, like this one in Guangdong, are key to China’s back-room business culture.

John Osburg was an anthropology graduate student with no Mandarin language skills when he had an ambitious idea for a way to look at the rising power of China: to spend time behind the scenes with the country’s nouveau riche. He began studying the language and making connections through his job as the cohost of a Chinese television program in Chengdu, currying favor with executives whose firms advertised on the show. From his producer, the St. Louis native learned a key set of skills for elite entertaining in China: how to toast, how to drink, and how to flatter.

Osburg ended up staying in Chengdu for three years, and found himself taken into the confidence of powerful businessmen and gangsters, shadowing them night after night as they courted clients and government officials at karaoke clubs, saunas, and massage parlors. Osburg got access to the elite social networks that increasingly rule China but that outsiders almost never see. He found a deeply male world driven entirely by relationships, where police collaborated with organized crime to manage the underground economy. Mistresses and second and third girlfriends were standard, as were bottles of top-shelf liquor and Louis Vuitton wallets.

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Over time, many of his research informants became friends and divulged secrets and anxieties about materialism, loss of trust, and corruption in post-Mao society. They sought out a foreigner’s perspective and at times, requested awkward favors of Osburg. Among other things, he was asked to pose as a Canadian doctor, a Mexican diplomat, and the fiancé of a Chinese businesswoman.

Osburg, now a 38-year-old professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester in New York, turned his fieldwork into his doctoral dissertation research and has two articles about his experiences coming out this fall. He recently published a book with Stanford University Press, “Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich.” To this day, he says, his Chinese informants don’t get Osburg’s fixation with academia and believe he will eventually seek his fortune and return to China. “They don’t understand why I wouldn’t pursue a more lucrative career,” Osburg said. “It seems irrational to them.”

He spoke to Ideas by phone from Rochester.

Ideas: Why were powerful businessmen willing to let a strange American student hang out with them all the time?

OSBURG: The joke that I tell my Chinese friends is that I was a “peijiuyuan”—a designated drinker. I would help them if they had a friend or a client or government officials they needed to wine and dine. They would call me up and say, “You’ve got to come out.” They would tell this person, “I have this foreign friend who speaks Chinese and knows how to drink.” They thought my presence would be enough to lure a reluctant client or reluctant government official out to dinner.

Ideas: How was your presence an attraction?

Osburg: Even in the early 2000s, in Chengdu, a Chinese-speaking foreigner was a bit of a novelty. Most couldn’t speak much English. Some felt they gained a bit of prestige in an entourage. This was especially the case when one of my research informants turned out to be a member of this mafia-like organization. He got this idea that I could become the personal assistant to an individual he referred to as the godfather.

Ideas: Were you a big drinker before you went to China?

Osburg: In China, I maybe discovered that I was able to hold my liquor reasonably well. But it was nothing superhuman or heroic by any means. There are Chinese spirits and most non-Chinese people find them disgusting. I kind of had a taste for them.

Ideas: Where did you spend most of your time with them?

Osburg: A lot of my time with them was in the evenings—it was dinner and in nightclubs. These nightclubs are not like in the US with a big open dance floor. The ones my research informants went to had their own private room with a TV where they could sing karaoke. There was lots of shiny metal, mirrors, and leather. The rooms had couches, flashing lights, and some had their own bathrooms. Sometimes they turn down the lights and get up and dance—there was usually an attendant who would operate the karaoke controls. And other times it’s nothing but drinking games and talk.

Ideas: From your book, I get a sense of profound loneliness at these clubs.

Osburg: Definitely. One guy I talk about, he goes to the clubs mostly by himself and surrounds himself with sometimes one or two, sometimes as many as 10 paid hostesses and spends the evening drinking with them. His other relationships with his friends and business associates are so complicated, and there is so much he has to think about and calculate, that it’s almost simpler for him to be surrounded by people who are paid to flatter him and serve him in some way.

Ideas: You suggest that China’s increasing market competition has made social connections more important. Why?

Osburg: There is so much competition for patronage from important officials that sometimes a gift or a bribe in and of itself is not enough....You need to find a way to develop a bond with an individual, which is why entertaining and getting them to like you on a personal level is so important.

Ideas: What did you think of the paid sex services that are a standard part of this elite socializing?

Osburg: That was the most uncomfortable aspect of the fieldwork. Initially they would offer me this or egg me on to participate. And I had to work to try to refuse in the beginning without offending them in some way. Once I successfully refused initially, they wouldn’t pressure me again.

Ideas: Where were the wives of these businessmen?

Osburg: They would play mahjong, go traveling, or do a lot of shopping. Many of them no doubt had their own lovers on the side. It’s hard for me to say for sure. I didn’t have a lot of interaction. There is a strong separation from the outside world of business and entertaining and their home lives.

Ideas: How do female entrepreneurs get by?

Osburg: Karaoke clubs and hostess clubs are designed for men to be entertained. Certain women entrepreneurs who are entertaining clients are expected to show up for a few drinks and leave and let the men enjoy themselves but still be expected to pay the bill in the end. There is a challenge in participating in these highly gendered activities of drinking and going to nightclubs. The other challenge is that they face these accusations that their success and wealth is not a product of talent and ability but of having either slept their way to the top or relied on a powerful man.

Ideas: What do you see when you look at the trial of Bo Xilai, once a rising star in China’s Communist Party, who is charged with taking bribes, corruption, and abuse of power?

Osburg: It shows that no one’s hands are clean and that the informal networks I talk about in the book permeate all levels of government in China. And I think that part of the reason the trial has taken so long is that Bo Xilai probably knows about the dealings of lead families in China, and I’m sure he’s threatened to reveal aspects of their dealings if he is treated too harshly. This is what makes dealing with corruption so difficult in China.

Ideas: Why is it important for an American to understand how this world works?

Osburg: Looking more closely at how business and politics operate in China, you start to see a lot of the fragile foundations of many aspects of China’s dramatic growth. A day of reckoning for China’s economic growth is going to come sooner or later, and the global economy is no doubt going to take a hit because of it.

Ideas: Do these elite networks help or hurt China’s development?

Osburg: Ultimately it hurts China’s development. There are young people with college degrees and rising expectations flooding Beijing and Shanghai who are not able to find work commensurate with their status. These young people all say the same thing: There are these people who have these connections and they have monopolized all the opportunities.

Ideas: Any good anecdotes that didn’t make it into the book?

Osburg: Some things I was asked to do but refused: exporting dried rose petals to the US and smuggling Viagra.

Jenn Abelson is an investigative reporter with the Globe’s Spotlight team. She can be reached at abelson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jennabelson.
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