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Manuela Zoninsein: China-Israel business connection–interview with Saul Singer

Published on Apr 23 2012 // Columnists

February 2012–Saul Singer is the co-author, with Dan Senor, of the best-selling book Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. He is a former Editorial Page Editor and columnist at the Jerusalem Post. Several weeks ago, he was in China on a media tour sponsored by The Israel Project. His book was first published in Chinese in September 2010, and has since been re-printed 14 times.

1.     How was your book received in China?

The book is doing very well in China – it’s #1 on Amazon China now in the World Economy section, and in the top 100 in [both] the Economics and Finance, and Management categories. We got a lot of press.

2.     Who did you meet? Who were you most impressed by?

I had a very interesting meeting with the Communist Party Secretary in Nanjing [in Jiangsu Province], [Tang Weize]. He recommended the book [to the Provincial Communist Party], that led to a lot of sales in China. Most of our sales in China are in Jiangsu Province and the Nanjing city area.

I also had good meetings with some students in Beijing, in Chongqing, and in Shanghai. And I had an interesting meeting with Gang Lu, the high-tech blogger [known for his Technode blog].

3.     What was your impression of China? Of China’s impression of Israel?

One thing that was impressive was how serious Chinese people and Chinese officials are about wanting to build an innovation economy. The strong interest in the book is clearly a reflection of that. It’s inspiring to see how a country like China, which is so far away and so different from Israel, sees Israel as a source of inspiration for becoming more innovative.

4.     In terms of innovation in China, are you seeing the same trends and characteristics you see in Israel?

Chinese people are very entrepreneurial, even though there are issues with entrepreneurship – that’s in terms of peopling having trouble taking the risk, though that’s true in most countries, and is not special to China. Even in Israel most people don’t want to be entrepreneurs. Only a minority in any country is willing to take the risk to be an entrepreneur.

So, to me what’s one of the most striking things about China is the Chinese miracle. We talk about the Israeli miracle, but the Chinese miracle is much bigger – there has never been any place or time in history when so many people have risen out of poverty. It’s an amazing accomplishment, and is still going strong. It says something about what China’s capable of.

5.     Do Intellectual Property Rights play an important role?

No, actually I’m saying that one of the key questions in China now is: what can we do to protect people [from risk], because a lot of start-ups fail. How can that become a safe thing to do, given how risky it is [to be an entrepreneur]? It’s not about IP, just about the general risk of being an entrepreneur, which is true everywhere.

6.     What do you think about the relationship between China and Israel?

I actually think that there’s a great potential synergy both between big Chinese companies and Israel, and Chinese start-ups and Israel. Big companies have the opportunity to do as American companies have done, like IBM, Google and now Apple, which will open an R&D center in Israel. All big American tech companies are doing very important work in Israel. There’s no reason why Chinese companies can’t do that kind of thing: come to Israel, open R&D centers, and buy start-ups like American companies are doing. That will help them [the Chinese companies] become more innovative, simply because big companies tend to have trouble being innovative. Big companies are good at scaling up, but not at innovation; vice versa is true for start-ups. With good relationships, China can take advantage of that in Israel.

The other synergy is between Chinese start-ups and Israeli start-ups. Chinese start-ups are amazing, doing amazing things. But Israeli start-ups and entrepreneurs are more experienced, and they have better access to the Western technology eco-system. On the other hand, Israeli start-ups have a problem: they are far from markets, and they don’t understand big markets like China. It’s a good partnership to combine what Israelis need and Chinese need and do start-ups together.

7.     What misunderstandings or blind-spots do Israelis have about Chinese?

China is such a big country, with such a different culture, and unless you’ve been there and spent some time there – and I don’t consider myself as having spent enough time to understand it – most Israelis don’t even know what China’s like.

8.     Vice versa?

Many Chinese have misperceptions, like that Israel is unsafe to go to, and I tried to explain that when I was there. The book is helping to make people aware that Israel is strong in high-tech, so that awareness is increasing. But when Chinese people think about maybe coming to Israel, the first thing they think about is security, and they have an impression that it’s an unsafe place to visit. Which is strange; maybe they’re not aware that all these foreign companies–American companies–are there. If they knew [about all these foreign companies in Israel], there would be no way that it is not safe enough for Chinese companies.

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