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Viewpoints from the frontline of content.

China syndrome

By Josh Selig 25-04-2017

Why go to China? Because you’re in the kids’ business and there are more kids in China than there are people in the US. Not going to China would be, for you, like being in the bagel business and not going to New York City.

Plus, the one-child policy was recently lifted, so there will soon be millions more Chinese toddlers reaching for their first app or plushy. Will it be your app or plushy?

You get it. You understand. But still you are afraid. After all, China is far away, you don’t speak the language and, no matter what you might have accomplished in your glorious career back home, no one in China has ever heard of you.

Where would you even start? Won’t you just be standing on a Beijing street corner looking confused and missing Facebook? No, my friends. Read on and you will learn all you need to know to survive your first journey to China.

In just five years, my own studio, Little Airplane, has gone from being a US indie that was terrified of China to coproducing the only two Chinese series ever to be placed on top US channels: P King Duckling on Disney Junior and Super Wings! on Sprout, which was recently nominated for a 2017 International Emmy – another first for China.

Demand for soft toys in China could be about to rocket

If China is Mount Everest, allow me to be your Sherpa. Go online. Choose a big upcoming Chinese film or TV event. At the moment, I would suggest Mip China in May. Get some business cards printed in both English and Chinese. You don’t need to set up any meetings in advance of your first trip. You just need to show up, smile, and say ‘yes’ to any invitation for coffee, tea or spiky urchin soup.

When you arrive at the event, do not spend all your time gabbing with the other ‘foreigners.’ In China, most Western visitors huddle together like frightened monkeys on a high branch, trying to order margaritas at the bar. When you’re in China, be in China. Talk to any Chinese person you can using gestures, photos, a translator, or by showing some work. The sincerity of your efforts will endear you to your hosts and they will become your allies.

Gradually, you will find your way to other like-minded Chinese companies and individuals. They will be curious about you, just as you are curious about them. Be generous and don’t be in a hurry. Any first business interactions you have in China are not really about work, they’re about your character. Restlessness, in China or anywhere else, is a sign of weakness. And who wants a weak partner?

Stay connected. Westerners come and go all the time in China, but the ones who are remembered are the ones who stay in touch. The best way to do this is on WeChat, the ubiquitous text messaging app that every Chinese person uses constantly. When you exchange WeChat with someone, you are saying, “I’m happy to meet you on your own turf.”

Allow relationships to build over time. The Chinese are very loyal people, but they’re also very cautious. And words don’t matter much in China; they will always look to your actions. The Chinese want to see first-hand how you will behave, from the boardroom to the hotel bar. Finally, they want to see that you’re not only interested in what China can do for you. Are you also willing to help them with their goals outside of China? Reciprocity is key.

On my last trip to sunny Shenzhen, I met a colleague from one of the larger local media companies who often hosts Western visitors. She spoke the Queen’s English and I asked her if she had studied in London. She said she’d actually never been out of Shenzhen but had taught herself English by watching Downton Abbey.

I asked her if she had any advice for new companies who wanted to do business in China and she said: “Westerners talk too much, thinking this will impress us. We just want to get a good look in your eyes so we can see if you’re honest or full of bullshit.”

today's correspondent

Josh Selig Founder and president Little Airplane Productions

Josh Selig is the founder of Little Airplane Productions. He is the creator and executive producer of Wonder Pets! on Nick Jr (winner of the 2009 Japan Prize for Best Television Series), as well as 3rd & Bird and Small Potatoes, both of which aired on CBeebies and Disney Junior.

Josh is executive producer of Super Wings on Sprout and the co-creator and executive producer of P King Duckling, which premiered on Disney Junior US and airs on CCTV in China. Josh has received 11 Emmys in multiple categories.