Born in China, Benjamin Wey came to the U.S. as a teenager on a full scholarship to Oklahoma Baptist University to study business management. Today he is the President of New York Global Group (“NYGG”), a New York and Beijing headquartered investment banking, venture investments and strategic consulting firm which specializes in advising China related projects.
LG: What did you think when you got off the plane in Oklahoma? Was it an enormous culture shock?
BW: It certainly was. I had several impressions. One, there’s so many cars on the streets; nobody was walking. Second, I thought it was so big. Houses are big; air conditioners are big; milk is so cold. Everything was cold. Nothing was cooked, and every time there was a meal on the table it was so big. As a little guy who was experiencing America for the first time everything was big and exciting.
LG: How many years did you spend in Oklahoma?
BW: I actually finished my college degree in about three years. I had a bachelor’s degree in business management, and during that time I started my own importing and exporting business. I imported silk ties from China. I sold 1,000 of those ties to school programs and to wholesalers. I sold sugar from Brazil to the Chinese. I sold fake Levi jeans from China to the Russian markets. Also, before I graduated, I became a consultant at Eaton Corporation. I joined that company with its market entry into China. and I helped them in their joint venture with Tata in their Titan division of their Bangalore hydraulic motor facility. They offered me a job, but I didn’t take it because I thought I was doing great on my own.
LG: Do you look at yourself now as American or Chinese, or do you look at yourself with two brains?
BW: I get asked that question often. I do look at myself as an American citizen. I don’t have a Chinese passport anymore. I changed my name from a Chinese name to Benjamin Wey. I’m Americanized, but when I go to China I’m still allowed into sensitive or governmental meetings. I’m always a Chinese person in their minds, but I’m an American or Chinese-American on Wall Street. I have a language advantage. I speak fluent Chinese, Mandarin Chinese as well, and my business contacts in China are extensive. I’m also executive director of a China investment association, an affiliate of a Chinese government agency. And I’m a visiting professor of finance at Shanghai University of Economics and Finance in China, and China’s University of Petroleum.
NG: What’s one of the most important differences between negotiating with Chinese companies and American companies?
BW: Cultural sensitivity and cultural knowledge of the Chinese state is extremely important. Many people going to China land in Beijing on Monday or Sunday, and they want to wrap up their main target in China within a week. The problem is that they don’t have enough information. It’s extremely difficult just to tap into China from the surface and hope a deal can be done.
NG: Can you give a specific example of cultural knowledge?
BW: Sure. Most people learning about China from newspapers or CNN do not realize China is a very sophisticated society. The New York Times broke a story on Chinese toys that had tainted paint. The reality is that the customer, Mattel, was actually providing the problem. The toys are made by Mattel’s own China factory, with their own employees, their own infrastructure, and their own technology. So China was actually serving only as a manufacturing-base providing labor. It was not China’s problem. It was Mattel’s own problem.
And remember the poison in the pet food? What the people don’t write about is that the same exporters of the counterfeit products got prosecuted and thrown in jail in China. The same products that were sold in the American market were also sold in the Chinese markets. They actually killed animals in China.
LG: I want to ask about the rule of law and stealing of intellectual property in China. Say I come to you and want to establish manufacturing plants to make a product that I’ve developed here. But I’m afraid that the intellectual property could be stolen in China and that I wouldn’t have good legal recourse to go against the people who took my intellectual property.
BW: I would say watch your back. It is a real issue. But it’s also something that any manufacturer going to any emerging market will look at. IP protection in China is weak, but I can also tell you that violators do get punished and the people bringing cases do get judgment all the time. But unlike America, in China there’s no such thing as punitive damages. The most you could get is probably a $20,000 award.
LG: Let’s talk about the two great events in China in 2008, the Olympics and the earthquake. Which will be considered the most significant event for the future of China?
BW: I think the future of China is going to come out of the Olympics. The earthquake happened in a distant but populace province with 100 million people. It is becoming a fantastic PR machine for the Chinese. If you look at what happened before the earthquake, all the talk was the Tibetans, right? Look at what happened. You don’t read that anymore. All we talk about is what to do to help the Chinese.
LG: What about the Olympics?
BW: The Olympics is going to become a very major event. The Chinese government is going to put on a very big PR machine, and make this Olympics a showcase of China. But the Chinese are united in a strong and open society. I’m telling you this Olympics is going to change China’s [image] fundamentally and positively for years to come.
LG: Some people believe that after the Olympics China will have a hangover, that there will be a recession, and the boom will finally soften up. Do you think there is anything to that?
BW: No, I do not think that at all for a very simple reason. China’s economy is very much linked to the world right now. Everything is made in China. That manufacturing base is not going to go away with or without the Olympics. Second, the Olympics takes place in Beijing. Beijing is one city. There are 670 cities across China. Like here, China has different pockets of economic growth. Florida is not good for real estate, but New York City is not bad at all.
NG: How many people speak English in China?
BW: 200-250 million Chinese, or 20- to 25 percent speak English. China actually has the largest English speaking population in the world
NG: How often do you speak Chinese during the day?
BW: During the day here in New York I speak English, and evenings I speak Chinese. We have customers as well as friends coming into New York all the time. We also have people going to China every week. I’ve got to twist my brain.
LG: Would there be a big opportunity for smart American young people to go to Shanghai or Hong Kong or Beijing to make money and have a good career?
BW: There are a lot of foreigners in China already looking for the gold. In Beijing we have three Americans working for my company. Finding good paying jobs in China is not easy. It’s highly competitive but a lot of people love China culturally. They go to China and live a great life.
LG: Do they need people who can guide them through the maze?
BW: Yes, they do, but a problem is some of those people don’t have deep roots in China. They really need a guy like me.
LG: Why would they need a guy like you?
BW: If you have a problem, we solve the problem. Government regulations, licenses, how to pay someone a bribe – we do it. We get over the hurdles. We know who to go to. We have eight offices in China. We’ve been there since 1998 and we are the largest U.S. middle market banking firm in China.
LG: How many people do you have in Beijing?
BW: 82 today. Lehman Brothers has seven people in Beijing. Merrill Lynch has around 20.
NG: Do you think it’s fair that people in other countries criticize China for human rights violations?
BW: This is my personal view. When people are hungry, they worry about what it takes to fill their stomachs. When they fill their stomachs, they think about what it takes to live better – they worry about where to live, or having a car. When the basic standard of living gets increased over time as the country of China gets wealthier, people start thinking about political change. Look where China was 30 years ago and look where China is today. People have absolutely no problem voicing their concerns, telling their friends, “Hey, we do not like the leadership or certain policies in China.” It took the U.S. over 200 years to become what we are. Give China a chance. I am very impressed by the progress in China every single time I’m there.
NG: What’s your opinion on Tibet becoming independent of China?
BW: People don’t realize Tibet is 20 percent of China’s total size geographically. Can you imagine China tolerating anybody breaking 20 percent of its total territory away to become an independent country? Since the 1500s Tibet has been part of the Chinese government. It’s not as if Tibet was an independent country 100, 200, even 300 years ago. The United States has only 200 years of history. Please tell Hawaii to go independent. Tell California to go independent. And economically Tibet’s livelihood depends heavily on China because Tibet itself is a very barren land. Well, it has certain wheat products, and they raise bison, but it’s not a very ideal living place for human beings. It has a high altitude, the region is extremely cold, even oxygen is not [always] sufficient.
LG: Let’s talk about Taiwan.
BW: Taiwan itself has always been part of China. They were always under the jurisdiction of the Fujian Province. But Taiwan was nobody until communist China took over and kicked out the previous administration.
NG: Do they identify themselves as Chinese?
BW: They call themselves the “Republic of China.” They don’t call themselves the “People’s Republic of China.” If you look at the green colored passport the Taiwanese hold it actually says the Republic of China. Taiwan wants to become independent. There’s no way. They don’t have a seat on the United Nations. It’s a bit of an odd place, more like a territorial type of place.
LG: Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, are they becoming much closer now or is it still a big rivalry?
BW: They’re very close. The new Taiwanese president is a Harvard graduate. He understands very much that if mainland China says, “Okay, guys, no more Taiwan,” meaning I’m confiscating the assets of the Taiwanese business people, Taiwan’s economy is dead in a day.
The Taiwanese are in the semi-conductor business. The high-tech industries are pretty much the ones supporting Taiwan’s economy. Guess where the raw materials come from? Mainland China. Guess where they are manufacturing the parts? China. China thinks that over time they can culturally overtake Taiwan, and the two will merge into one. I think that will happen in the next 50 years.
LG: If there is one thing that you could tell us about your experience in China that Americans would be completely shocked by, what would it be?
BW: Americans would be completely shocked by Communist China, which is communist in name, but has capitalism in the blood.
LG: Thank you so much Benjamin.