By on May 31, 2009

For more than ten years, every word a certain top executive of Volkswagen uttered in public was pure BS. I wrote his speeches. I wrote articles under his name. I even ghostwrote a book for him. I studied his mannerisms, his way of thinking and talking. He slowly but surely slipped into the role for which I wrote the script. He’s retired now but still a sought-after speaker on the conference circuit.

He liked to live and work on the edge, and I gladly walked him there. We had a strange symbiotic relationship. His trust in me bordered on the obscene. Even before major strategy announcements, his brief for the speech usually amounted to: “You know what to write.” He rarely did read the speech before giving it. He always delivered it with great aplomb and usually to thundering applause. I could put practically any word into his mouth. Power that had to be used wisely.

Twice a year, there was an international conference during which the top brass of VW’s many outposts throughout the world congregated in a European city. My job: write the keynote speech that opened the event. Then write the wrap-up speech for the finish.

The keynote speech could be written at leisure. The wrap-up speech was always written under great duress: I had to make summations of remarks by other executives that they had yet to make. The other execs played their speeches close to their chests and wouldn’t surrender their manuscripts. I finally struck a secret deal with the simultaneous translators: They would trade the classified manuscripts for the supposedly off-the-cuff closing remarks of my guy.

And again, a conference came to an end. I was slap-happy from a lack of sleep. It was his time to give the closing remarks, for which I had pulled an all-nighter, as usual.

He headed for the podium, then stopped and gave me that “come hither” wave.

“We’ve got to change the speech.”

“We’ve got to what?”

“Change the speech. Something came up.”

“Are you nuts? You are going to be up there in 30 seconds. How am I to re-write a speech which you will give in — 25 seconds?”

“Change the speech. Something happened. Something about China.”

“What happened?”

“Gotta run. Showtime. You know what to write.”

And off he went into the varilights.

As usual, I had no idea what he was talking about. I asked around. My spies rolled their eyes. It turned out that during the conference, a silly speaker had used the phrase “You in China.”

This had bothered the two Chinese delegations to no end.

To this day, Volkswagen’s business in China is run by twins who don’t get along.

Volkswagen’s joint venture partner FAW in the North is the bitter enemy of Volkswagen’s joint venture partner SAIC and the SVW venture in the South. There is no “You in China” in the eyes of the Chinese. At least not as far as VW is concerned.

Slipping a changed speech on the fly to my guy was easier than I had thought in my first shock. There was a video segment towards the end, during which a revised manuscript could be swapped with the old one.

I, however, was in a foul mood and wanted revenge.

I sat down and typed away. The printer purred. We were up to 18 point Courier—his eyesight had weakened and he was too vain to wear glasses on stage. The video came. The manuscript was swapped. I even kept my deal with the simultaneous translators and gave them the revised version to be translated into many languages.

End video. Spot on speaker:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we nearly had a diplomatic incident at the conference,” he intoned with his usual gravitas.

“Apparently, someone carelessly referred to China as China.”

That got the interest of the two Chinese delegations. Their ears perked up.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are fully aware of the importance of the One China Principle.”

The Chinese delegations developed a distinct “WTF?” expression on their faces.

“We know, the One China Principle is dear to the heart of our Chinese friends. But . . . ”

Panicked looks from both Chinese factions.

“But this is Volkswagen, and as far as Volkswagen is concerned, the One China Principle does not exist!”

The Chinese delegations, at the time with short cropped hair and with a certain military bearing, because that’s where they had worked before (or were still) suddenly sat ramrod straight in their seats.

“Get it in your heads, there is no ‘One China’ at Volkswagen!”

Some Chinese went pale and gasped. Mouths dropped.

The rest of the audience—not as much in tune with Chinese politics as they were with corporate politics—was mostly oblivious.

“The One China Principle doesn’t exist at Volkswagen. There is FAW-VW in the North, there is SVW in the South. Keep that in mind and keep it apart.”

The Chinese delegations exhaled, looked at each other. One Chinese tried on a sheepish grin and it was returned by the other Chinese. Then they laughed, and finally broke into a roaring applause. The rest of the audience, still oblivious, but polite, joined in.

When the speech was over, both Chinese delegations rushed to the podium, slapped him on the shoulder, pumped his hand, a chorus of “xie xie!” and “heng hao!” ensued, one ebullient and short-cropped Chinese even hugged him.

He took the adulations in stride.

Then he waved me over and whispered:

“What did I say?”

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41 Comments on “Autobiography of BS©: How I Violated the One China Principle...”


  • avatar
    pista

    I’m really starting to take a dislike toward you. It’s the one I used to reserve for Brad Pitt. My life’s not nearly that much fun.

  • avatar
    TonyJZX

    what exactly did the chinese find funny?

    it’s hard for outsiders to get the gist

  • avatar

    TonyJZX:

    Follow the One China Principle link. Or join the oblivious VW managers.

  • avatar
    Matt51

    The real world is so much stranger than any fiction. A great article! I hope you were well paid.

    Tony – At one time, the US recognized the allied Chinese who hid out in Taiwan, after the communists defeated them. China insisted the US in particular, recognize there was one China, with its capital as Beijing, and that Taiwan was part of China (Nixon did this). So when the speech started talking about there was no one China, the Chinese in the audience would have thought the speaker was declaring Taiwan independent from China. This would have been an unthinkable insult to them, so they would be stunned in their chairs! Then the relief, when they realized the no one China the speaker was talking about was between the two VW’s. So a good joke they could laugh at!

  • avatar
    Martin B

    Good thing he didn’t decide to cut the speech a little short.

  • avatar
    Detroit-X

    Very nice story. And a nice example of self-inflated, undeserving, ego-clown, auto-execs.

  • avatar

    Dear BS:

    I’m certainly no expert, but keeping up with the news lends a certain minimal understanding to the Chinese way of thinking, and also their style of Gov’t.

    Let me say this: DAMN that took balls! A poke at the Chinese Gov’t while simultaneously giving props to VDubs 2 Chinese partners. *Very* nice!

    I would have loved to have been there to see it!

  • avatar
    mpresley

    This funny story shows quick and clever thinking on the part of the author, and tells a lot about the Chinese. There is a certain Chinese love for the “motherland” that most Americans have forgotten, and really couldn’t care less about in our weird age of multiculturalism and open borders. The Chinese are mostly a homogeneous people, are Chinese, first and foremost, and, are very sensitive about Taiwan (or any “province” issue, such at Tibet).

    Also, while free in many aspects, certain political dogmas cannot be avoided. I’m reminded of a story during the Cultural Revolution: a couple of students were sent to the country to learn farming–part of the re-education “reforms.” During a community get together, one student began playing his violin. The village chief asked him the name of the tune–not recognizing it as being indigenous Chinese, and thus suspect. The student, forgetting himself, replied, “It’s Mozart.” His friend realized the error and, like Mr. Schmitt, thought both quickly and cleverly, adding: It’s “Mozart’s Thinking about Mao.” The chief understood, and wryly quipped: “Everyone’s thinking about Mao.”

  • avatar
    Billy Bobb 2

    How many of his kids look like you?

  • avatar
    menno

    Hilarious! Thanks for sharing.

    My life is kind of dull in comparison, but I like it anyway…

  • avatar
    bobpink

    Beautiful.

    My wife is Taiwanese so I have come to very much understand how the parties feel about the One China Principal. And the importance of “face” when dealing with others.

  • avatar
    George B

    Great story. I enjoy annoying the Chinese by pointing out the FACT that Taiwan is an independent country and a successful one.

    The Taiwan democracy developed an innovative solution to the problem of elderly career politicians that won’t go away. Actual physical floor fights.

  • avatar

    just some thoughts, don’t take it personally…

    it’s “hen hao” btw.

    disrepect in the Middle Kingdom is looked at very harshly, not the wisest thing to do.

    although interesting in a way, feel you somewhat betrayed your employer. you were paid to do a job, not talk out of school.

  • avatar
    Martin B

    Did you mention Running Dogs (Greyhound Bus Lines) and the Gang of Four (Toyota, Honda, Suzuki and Mitsubishi) as well?

  • avatar
    Richard Chen

    Well played, sir.

  • avatar

    The Chinese are mostly a homogeneous people, are Chinese, first and foremost, and, are very sensitive about Taiwan (or any “province” issue, such at Tibet).

    While the Han are the majority, I don’t think you can describe the Chinese as homogeneous. Japan has fewer minority groups than China.

  • avatar
    mpresley

    Ronnie Schreiber : While the Han are the majority…

    You are right. Of course I was speaking using the US as a reference. Compared to post-1965 immigration act US, China is pretty much univocal.

  • avatar
    ConejoZing

    “I’m really starting to take a dislike toward you. It’s the one I used to reserve for Brad Pitt. ”

    Ah yes, Brad Pitt. The secret is out on that also. I mean, you know that Fight Club predicted 9/11 and is full of clues? Now check this out
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ypICPNG5fQ

    Obama is related to Vlad the Impaler? How about those Trilaterals and CFR members throughout his cabinet?!

  • avatar
    tsofting

    @bobpink:
    ” One China Principal”

    “Principal” – you got a Chinese principal, or don’t you know the difference between “principle” an “principal”?

  • avatar
    dolo54

    That’s a brilliant story. Corporate politics, while usually unbearable to deal with, can be the source of great humor. And that was right on the razor edge of grounds for dismissal or promotion depending on the mood of the intended audience (and perhaps the barometer, stars and falling of I Ching coins). Well played indeed.

  • avatar

    Ha, you think that’s a story? Well, just the other day I put salmon-colored paper in the copy machine at work and didn’t take it out when I was done making salmon-colored copies! You better believe people were pretty shocked when their copies came out salmon-colored.

    Ah, the excitement of high-powered business life.

  • avatar
    "scarey"

    Mr. S, has anyone approached you about running the Department of State ?

  • avatar
    ZoomZoom

    I have some questions about ghost writing books.

    1. How is the pay?
    2. Is it worth the headaches?
    3. Do you make the “author” read his book before it goes to the editor or to press?
    4. Do you get any credit at all? If not, how would you reference your experience to prospective new clients? Is there an “inside industry” way of getting a credit, for example… an “as told to” byline or maybe a code-worded “thank you” on in the introduction or at the back of the book?

  • avatar
    bobpink

    @tsofting

    Was in a bit of a hurry. Yes, it is Principle. And I am supposed to be helping my wife with her English…

  • avatar
    ZoomZoom

    Unless you consider her your “principal other”.

  • avatar
    carlisimo

    Hilarious!

    (I’m Taiwanese, so I got the joke. I’m glad the Chinese execs enjoyed it.)

  • avatar

    ZoomZoom:

    1. How is the pay? Good, especially if you can charge a consultant’s per diem instead of getting paid by the word or page.
    2. Is it worth the headaches? Refer to 1
    3. Do you make the “author” read his book before it goes to the editor or to press? As the “author” prefers.
    4. Do you get any credit at all? If not, how would you reference your experience to prospective new clients? Tricky. There are a many ways, from a straight “with” on the cover to more stealthy methods, to nada. In the corporate world, you typically take the money and hide. In my case, as “editor” on the copyright page. Prospectives? The whole company usually knows that he didn’t write it, he’s an exec, supposed to lead, not to write. Trust the power of the grapevine.

  • avatar

    General remarks:

    Would the Chinese amongst you please help me assuage Buickman’s concerns that the Chinese may not have any humor?

    As for China being univocal …. if univocal is supposed to mean “speak with one voice or language” (which is doesn’t, despite the fact that it’s coming from Latin uni vocus, it generally means “having one meaning, unambiguous”) then I can assure you, it’s not the case. The number of languages listed for China is 236. Languages, not dialects. I’m told that even the dialect spoken in one village can be incomprehensible in the next. The 236 languages span six totally different linguistic families. There are 15 totally different alphabets and scripts. Which doesn’t diminish the common national pride of the Chinese at all. Should “univocal” have been used in its true meaning of “unambiguous,” then I can assure you, wrong again. China is Ambiguity Central. “Let me think about it” is as close to a “No” you usually get. “There probably won’t be any problems, but we shall see” usually means that your application has been approved – or not. And as far as “disrespect” goes – there are times in – usually very gracious and highly ambiguous – Chinese business negotiations where both parties heartily insult each other, preferably in front of subaltern witnesses. A good come-back is “insults are a sign of weakness, and you don’t want to appear weak in front of people you are supposed to lead.” When it has come to that, you typically look for the exit, and another business partner.

  • avatar

    Great story, Schmitty!!!

    -Although, you are beginning to mildly scare me. I’m thinking you probably read “The Prince” a few too many times.

  • avatar
    Brett Woods

    A bitter sweet story with the ring of truth. This is one reason why I read TTAC. Facinating.

  • avatar

    Willmann: Never heard of “The Prince” – should I?

  • avatar
    paykan GT

    Bertel Schmitt: I think you’ll find that the author inspired the term ‘Machiavellian’

    /cypticism.

  • avatar

    Ah, Il Principe – How To Stay In Power For Dummies …

  • avatar

    Thanks, Bertel for a great read. TTAC doesn’t get much better than this, and it’s nice to know the wizard behind the BS curtain…

  • avatar
    megaduck

    Bertel Schmitt: I’m not native Chinese, but I currently live and work in Beijing. Does that count?

    I’ll back you up. In my experience Chinese officials are far from humorless robots, even in regards to the Taiwan situation. Your joke was actually pretty great, showing off an understanding of Chinese pressure points without actually insulting anybody. Any kudos were probably sincere. At the very least, you probably undid some of the damage from your clumsy colleague.

    I’m curious about something, though. From what I’ve seen, it’s hard to run a joint venture in China without your partner robbing you blind. How on earth does VW wrangle with two?

  • avatar
    Stingray

    Ah, Il Principe – How To Stay In Power For Dummies …

    Cazzo, that was EPIC!!!

  • avatar

    Megaduck:

    So do I. Say the word and I’ll buy you a drink.

  • avatar
    sutski

    Great story!

  • avatar
    wsn

    I spent the first 17 years of my life in mainland China, so I can understand the context here.

    China was never all that united and homogeneous in the past. Dynasties typically spanned 200~300 years. At the end of every dynasty, there was a large scale civil war. The war can last as long as 100 years. The entire China can be divided to two to ten smaller states during the wars (who didn’t want to be a king?)

    Even though Han people account for more than 90% of the population, they were completely conquered by foreign tribes twice in the past 500 years. Once by the Mongolians and once by the Manchurian.

    The last pure blooded Chinese die about 3000 years ago. When Dynasty Shang was conquered.

  • avatar

    Herr Schmitt,

    I would like to have you ghost-write the story of my life, except for the sex stuff, which I’ll be writing myself in the styles of Henry Miller and the early von Lustbader.

    Brilliant story.


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