Telling stories for a better China
Peggy Liu is the founder and chairperson of the Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy (JUCCCE), an organization that is catalyzing change in Chinese urbanization and energy use by educating and collaborating with government and business leaders. She also leads the JUCCCE-sponsored project “China Dream”, which seeks to achieve bottom-up transformation by re-thinking and then transforming Chinese consumer culture itself. SCOPE’s Lisa Meekison spoke with Liu to find out more about this seemingly breathtaking ambition.
LISA MEEKISON: Can you start by describing China Dream and what you’re trying to achieve?
PEGGY LIU: China Dream is really trying to get China on a different lifestyle path than following the American Dream. We call it in English “China Dream” to purposefully contrast it with what has become a model of conspicuous consumption. Everything about the way that Americans live is really unsuitable for the Chinese context. What we’re trying to do is get people on that path by shaping new social norms that are more seductive than what they’ve been seduced by through MTV or advertisements or glitzy soap operas… to change behaviours through these social norms. And we think the easiest way to do that is through reimagining prosperity for the emerging middle class here in China. That’s important because a lot of people here have been searching for a model for personal prosperity, but it keeps changing on them. It keeps shifting underneath their feet. Every single time they think, “Oh, wow, that could be a really good life,” the bar keeps changing. What we want to do is to leverage that trend but control the bar.
When you say the bar keeps changing, could you give me an example of that?
Well, in one of my articles I talk about my housekeeper/nanny, who is about 65, I think. She grew up in the Cultural Revolution, she was sent out to farm the fields though she came from the quote, unquote big city of Shanghai back then. If she had been born today, I keep telling her, she would have been a corporate executive. But instead, she was sort of… trapped with her expectations of what personal prosperity could be, like that whole generation that grew up in the Cultural Revolution.
So the notion is that if a certain level of material comforts becomes normal, people set their aspirations to that. But then they see elsewhere that it’s changing, so they reset their aspirations. Is that where you’re going?
Yeah. And since it’s changing anyway, people sort of view change as a step in the right direction. As progress, because it has been true for the past thirty years. So we might as well show them a different model. This is something that’s been happening in China for the last twenty years as China has actively brought in international best practices, tweaked, and adopted them. Localized them. That’s essentially what we’re doing, but doing with social norms rather than just technologies or best practices.
Interesting. And how did China Dream start?
Well JUCCCE is a six-year-old organization that focuses on the key drivers of energy use and transforming the ecosystems around them. We focus on major transformative ecosystems like the grid, like building cities, like consumption, like light industry. Consumption is the last area that we’ve tackled. The first area was really smart grids. We are the organization that brought the concept of smart grids into China. Again, bringing best practices to the local decision makers so that they can act on them locally.
In terms of the consumption side, we started doing a lot of traditional NGO-ish stuff, focusing on a particular behaviour change — like energy-efficient light bulbs. That was one of our big projects. We actually gave away 130,000 energy-efficient light bulbs by using celebrities. Two different celebrities, seven different cities, two light bulb companies, plus Citibank, etc… We got a lot of press for it, but in the end I realized that it doesn’t really change behaviour. These kinds of events are a drop in the big ocean of China.
What we realized was that to change behaviour we need to move away from campaigns and events. What we need to do is change social norms. And to change social norms, we need to re-imagine prosperity. That’s how the China Dream got started in 2010, and I just kept tweaking and tweaking it.
It’s been a three year journey, but I think what’s unique about China Dream is that nobody has really focused on the storytelling aspect as much as we have. And I think that’s because everybody in the climate and environment space is really worried that people will attack them on the scientific data. And so they’re really focused on being accurate. Their hearts are in the right place, but they wind up getting persecuted based on a sentence here or there that may have been faulty, but overall, it didn’t change the general argument.
Whereas what we’re doing here is really a different tactic, which is seducing people at multiple levels, as a Hollywood actor recently told me.
You moved from the notion of the big event to the idea of reworking social norms to the idea of re-imagining prosperity. Those are arguably pretty big leaps in terms of your goals, and it sounds so seamless, but can you describe how you actually got there, how each of those steps led to the other?
I don’t know. I’d have to really think about that because we just work so quickly. I’d have to take a look at my calendar and I could point to, “I learned this from that event” — but I haven’t really thought about it that way. We just run so quickly here. It’s unbelievable. I don’t really think about the history much. I haven’t got there!
So it wasn’t a big “Aha!” moment.
I have “Aha” moments every day. Every day. And sometimes multiple moments. Literally, the stuff that we’re working on is ground-breaking and inspiring. And it brings in other people who are passionate and inspiring. Every single day it brings in a new person into my life that I learn from. And that’s the most amazing thing that we’re doing. It’s not just what we’re giving to the world. We’re learning so much in the process. So it’s really hard to tell you in a short sound bite, “Here’s how it developed”, because this project is so complex and so broad and every single tentacle I could give you a whole article to write on.
Tell me about consumption in China currently. I know in your article you mention this emerging middle class, which is growing. But tell me who’s consuming, what they’re consuming and, as much as you can, why they’re consuming.
Well, I think the first thing that people need to understand about China is that it’s a land of paradoxes. And this is probably something that people have heard, but they don’t really understand until they get here and live here. I think that the Gini coefficient is like the largest of any country in the world. The poor are so much poorer than the richest of the rich. So what we’re doing for the China Dream project is really focusing on the consuming class. I don’t even say “middle class” because what the heck is the middle class when you have such a wide disparity. But it’s the people who can consume a TV, or more. Those are the people that I want to make sure understand this different path. I’m also not overly concerned with the people who are billionaires and the people who are trying to emigrate from China with their money and buying six Lamborghinis and so on. Those people are long gone. They’ve already decided what path they want to be on.
It’s the people who are still rising up this financial ladder that I want to affect. It’s 475 million people, growing to 800 million by 2025.
And what are they consuming? What are the trends or the passions there that are marking what people currently have been seeing as the aspirational life?
Well, again, I think it’s changing. I tell people that China is a new China every five years. The idea of prosperity really does change that dramatically. I’ve been here for nine years now, so I’ve been through almost two Chinas. When I first got here there were a lot of ads for villas that looked like really large homes in suburban California. Things have changed since then. I think now there’s less of an emphasis on villas and more on the convenience of living in mixed-use, really nice luxury apartments. And of having access to transportation options.
But, again, it really, really varies between the working white-collar middle class and the totally filthy rich son of some government person who’s looking at buying a yacht and multiple sports cars. For most people, having a cell phone, the latest iPhone, a TV, and the ability to go on vacation somewhere like New Zealand, would be amazing.
What kind of roadblocks have you hit so far?
I think the biggest roadblock is as an NGO fundraiser. Because we essentially are a convener and coordinator of many, many different kinds of resources. In-kind resources. So I’m constantly fundraising. But I don’t think that’s different than any other NGO out there. I always feel bad for saying it, but honestly, if we had like, twice as many staff, it would be easier.
How many staff do you have?
Well, it doesn’t really make sense to talk about our entire staff because some of it’s administrative, but I would say… coordinators, it’s about five people. True coordinators of experts and events and whatever.
Pretty tiny for a big project. When you try to overcome that issue, where do you turn? Who do you turn to for funding?
Well, if I had an easy answer to that, I wouldn’t be complaining about it! Right?!
You weren’t complaining, you were just describing.
I think what’s really valuable that we’ve created here is actually consumer insight for brands. So what we’ve started to do now is consult to consumer brand companies and say “Here’s how we can help you incorporate the China Dream into your mainstream marketing campaign.” Which is sort of a win-win because it helps us leverage their marketing platform and channels to activate these new social norms, but it also helps them because they’re building customer loyalty through helping them achieve their own China Dream.
So you’re consulting? That’s really interesting.
Yeah, we’ve been consulting this entire time. Most of our money is from companies — so even though we run ourselves like an NGO, you could really consider us a social enterprise.
Cheryl Hicks from the CSCP [the Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production] says that China Dream is so interesting because it’s got a chance of working when other marketing and advertising efforts to change social norms, I guess globally, haven’t really. Why do you think China Dream is different in this respect?
I think part of it is just my own background. I have a product marketing background, at least in part of my career. I’m very into marketing and user interface and interior design and fashion and all those things. So I think that, unlike a lot of people from the environmental and activism fields, I’m able to talk to the ad agencies and the PR agencies and not feel like I’m selling myself out. Which I think a lot of environmental activists are afraid of. Whereas I get along with them and I’m able to pick out the ones that really want to use their talents to help sustainability.
You’ve said elsewhere that traditional Chinese values are inherently sustainable. How so?
Well, there are things like frugality. Another way to say that is we’re freakin’ stingy. But that’s a good thing, right? We’ll use the same plastic bag to death, until it has holes in it. We’ll mend clothes until we really just can’t do it anymore. So frugality is one. Two is this whole balance with nature. Traditional Chinese medicine is very much about balancing the body. Balancing your energy. So balancing man and nature is really… that is sustainability, right? Those are a couple of examples.
With that being the case, how is it that current levels of consumption have gone so off track? What’s happened that’s disrupted a more organic sort of outgrowth from those traditional values?
Really, the influx of American media and advertising and fast food.
So if that sort of globalization hadn’t happened, China might be on a very different path right now?
Yeah. And I think you should note that I was born and raised in America, so I’m American. But obesity, diabetes… it’s all because of fast food. The introduction of milk, dairy products, coffee, sugar… all that stuff came from the West. It didn’t exist in China just fifteen years ago. Even when I first arrived here, coffee was really unusual. And milk! Most of us are lactose intolerant, so I mean…!
What drove the great appetite for those products?
Well, advertising. The seduction of American marketing.
Were there any particular promises that appealed to the audiences at the time?
I would say the obvious ones. So fast food is about convenience…
All the same stuff we’d get here.
Yeah. I don’t think it’s different in the Chinese context. The same things that lure you and seduce you about conspicuous consumption are being brought here.
You have mentioned that you’re really interested in storytelling, and the mythic aspect of that. I wonder if you can describe any traditional references, myths, or beliefs that you’re drawing on as you create the China Dream? For example, when I think about what it might look like in the US context – and this is a bit of a leap – there’s that whole mythos of the pioneer, the person who goes it alone, and can make do with very little, and so on. That would be one reference I could imagine in a US context. So are there any Chinese myths or beliefs that you’re deploying or activating now?
Well, we have done some research on Chinese idioms that relate to sustainability. I don’t think they would really relate to a foreign audience because they’re in a different language. But they’re the old sayings that encourage you to do things that are inherently sustainable. They don’t call themselves sustainable, they don’t use the word “green”, but they are.
What about any archetypal Chinese characters who have been around forever and who are motivating? Again in the American mythos, it might be the cowboy or the entrepreneur… these kinds of characters who carry so much symbolic weight.
Not really. It’s something that people have mentioned before, but it’s not yet an area that we’ve leveraged for storytelling. Our approach is really to just start from scratch and use modern heroes and villains that younger people would relate to. So our tactic is that we’re trying to get a TV drama funded that we would embed these new social norms into. If you were to do a Chinese Friends – actually, I think they already did a Chinese Friends, so it wouldn’t be that. But instead of meeting at Central Perk coffee shop, you’d meet at some sort of eco-vegetarian restaurant.
I’ve been talking with brand companies who may sponsor it, to ad agencies who do dramas for a living, to Hollywood producers who have advised me to just license existing popular shows and remake them for the Chinese context, to an actor/China’s top supermodel/face of Louis Vuitton as a potential star. So what we’re doing is sort of scoping out… instead of product placement within a TV show, how do you do social norm placement?
What other kinds of tactics besides TV?
Well another one is that you have to have both hard power and soft power at the same time. What I’ve been talking a lot about is soft power, which is really reshaping social norms. But guidance through government policy is also really important. We’ve been teaching government officials what the China Dream is and doing research on consumer-facing policies.
If I were a fly on the wall in one of the meetings where you’re describing what you might do, and how you might reshape social norms, what sort of things would I see and hear?
Well, it really depends on who it is that we’re meeting. If we’re talking to Chinese government officials, it’s… more conservative, more about inspiring them to build China Dream communities. We’re actually talking to a couple of cities about building whole cities that are China Dream showcases. So there it’s really about urban planning, it’s about international recognition, it’s about industry and local job creation. It’s about economic development.
For ad agencies and consumer brands and things like that, it’s about how you can accelerate your growth beyond GDP. It’s… how do you increase customer loyalty? It’s how do you sneak in sustainability by building in an aspect of the China Dream that’s appropriate to your mainstream marketing campaign?
If you’re thinking about policies, then we bring in a lot of academics and policy influencers, people like that. If you’re talking about celebrities, then it’s about how this can help your career, how can this transition you, how this is a showcase for you — but not in a green-washing way. Students… we have a lot of students and professors that work with us, and there it’s about building the new generation of sustainable leaders. It’s more inspirational.
So it just depends on who we’re meeting with.
It sounds like you’re always looking to find, not just the benefit to the China Dream vision, but also to the participants themselves.
Oh yeah! That’s sort of obvious. It’s all about win-win.
Although you make it sound inevitable, I wonder if it’s really the case that NGOs follow this principle very often.
No, I don’t think most people do it very often. I can tell you just a couple of… Well, I won’t. But there are plenty of instances where I’m like, “You’re just not thinking out of the box enough in terms of how you could help each other, versus creating barriers to each other succeeding — and then the whole ecosystem doesn’t succeed.”
One of the things about JUCCCE is that I founded it [to be] a ten-year organization. So this is a platform, for a fixed time, that can help showcase our partners and multiply their resources if they work together with us and with each other, as compared with everybody working alone. I say this over and over and over again. We’re just a platform for our partners. It’s a neutral, convenor-type of ethos. And that encourages people to work with JUCCCE, versus, at least in most cases, in outright competition with us. Because we’re not doing anything that we would not invite someone to work with us who wanted to work with us. I mean, assuming they were productive contributors.
So there are two questions that I’m sure you’re asked a lot, and I can’t resist asking them either. The first is how do you negotiate what seems like an inherent tension between the job of ad agencies and with the fact that their job seems contrary to the notion of sustainability?
I think that the brands can help create aspects of the China Dream — not every aspect, and it’s not necessarily that they’re green products, or green services per se, but they can create an experience that helps their customers achieve an aspect of the China Dream. So, for example, we want to push [land developers] towards developments that are convenient, mixed-use, on top of public transportation, and have great access to social spaces. That’s part of the China Dream. So it’s how do you help each brand see what aspect of the China Dream they can participate in and get excited about?
So really, to some degree, we have to re-imagine what’s typically painted as a polarity between conservation and consumption. And to re-imagine what growth really is.
Exactly! That’s exactly it. For example, why is it that we have to buy ten Birkin bags; why can’t we buy an experience that lives with us for life? A shared experience, like doing an eco-, I don’t know, Indian hut thingamajig with ten girlfriends.
The second question that I have is whether you get any pushback on the fact that you’re so upfront that your goal is to reshape social norms? Do people critique that as social engineering?
You know, it’s all in the context. I live in China where we’re social engineering every single day, and have been for years. What do you think this “Harmonious Society” slogan is, or any anti-corruption campaign? It’s all social engineering. What do you think our propaganda banners are, all over the place, in the communities, those red banners with Chinese wording? I mean, in the China context, no, I do not. However, we’ve also used the Dream in a Box to now launch the UK Dream. We just did the first World Economic Forum event on sustainable lifestyles in India based on the Dream in a Box methodology. So my guess is that it probably depends on the individual culture which you’re looking at. The UK is obviously very, very different than the US and China. But, if you read [Jonah Sachs’] Winning the Story Wars, you’ll see that advertising agencies essentially are socially engineering us every day.
So this is arguably then about making some of that engineering explicit and having consensus around it?
Right. It’s actually about coordinating the message of the social norms in a very explicit, co-created manner.
Last question. If you had told your 19-year-old self that one day you’d be leading a project to change the culture of one of the… the oldest civilization on the planet, what do you think your 19-year-old self would have said?
Well, I don’t think it helps anybody to think about their work in such grandiose terms. Once in a while, I get comments like, “What is it like to be so successful at such a young age?” But I don’t think of myself that way because it’s not helpful. And there are so many peers that are so much more successful and working on equally or more challenging things. For me, I think happiness is all about setting expectations, so when you set the bar too high, it means it’s very hard to be happy. My husband and I are very humble, non-materialistic, very minimalistic people. We don’t collect art. We don’t collect anything actually.
My husband always says I’m very easily pleased. So I would never tell my 19-year-old self, much less myself now, that… well, I would not describe the China Dream in those terms. I was telling the people in Minnesota when I was speaking there, that I would never call myself an environmentalist either. I always tell my kids I’m a housekeeper. I clean the air. And I just sort of take things day by day. I do know that I have specific talents that are maybe more sharpened than other people’s and, put together, they’re specifically helpful to implement a project like the China Dream. But really [it’s having] the right person to execute the right idea at the right time with the right partners.