THE BLOG
08/13/2010 10:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tang Jun's Drama: A Chinese Business Tragedy

After his academic credentials were exposed as fraudulent, Tang Jun, heretofore one of China's most esteemed business executive and role models, has emerged as the star in a quintessentially Chinese dramatic tragedy. His reputation endured further pummeling when, two weeks after the news of his doctored California Institute of Technology PhD emerged, another scandal broke regarding misallocation of $30 million related to a Jiangsu real estate deal. In response to the hubbub, Tang Jun, without a shred of remorse, exclaimed, "Losers cheat some people and get caught. Winners cheat the whole world all the time."

Is Tang Jun China's Bernie Madoff? Did he betray the good will of the Chinese people? Most admired his transformation from small potato to master and commander, a rare bi-cultural breed who leveraged stints at Microsoft and Shanda, China's largest on-line gaming company, to represent the face of modern Chinese business. In the process, he became the nation's highest paid executive, earning a billion renmenbi per year at New Huadu group, the conglomerate owned by Fujian native Chen Fashu, the "Warren Buffet of China."

Is Tang Jun without moral scruples? To westerners, the answer is, of course, yes. He built his reputation on, at best, half truths and, at worse, outright deceit. Further, former colleagues at Microsoft and Shanda describe Mr. Tang as a pseudo-leader, perpetually detached, more interested in managing his image amongst foreign bosses and investors than generating lasting shareholder value.

Interestingly, however, the post-scandal reaction of many ordinary Chinese was far more ambiguous, and sometimes sympathetic. Although this case unleashed a tidal wave of schadenfreude, the masses were more titillated than up in arms. According to one 35-year-old professional, "He was only doing what anyone in his position would do." And another: "Tang Jun got caught. He pushed it too far. But, today, it's so competitive. We have no choice but to play the damn game. Face is everything."

In China, an ambitious, anti-individualistic and morally relativistic society, integrity is often perceived as a luxury. Despite the brutality of the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square, Mao is still considered a great leader because he unified -- i.e., stabilized -- the nation. Even Mencius, who regarded benevolence as innate, focused his philosophical energies on harnessing the power of goodness to reinforce a well-ordered social structure. Such moral utilitarianism is felt everywhere in the Middle Kingdom. From tolerance of corruption to wide availability of commercialized sex, Chinese are no-nonsense pragmatists. (Am I saying people are "immoral"? No. But, in the PRC, a non-monotheistic culture sans God or Heaven, ends justify means. Corruption lubricates business relationships. Prostitutes are less threatening to family cohesion than mistresses. )

In this respect, can-do "winners" -- people who start, forge and build things -- are infinitely more respected than guai guai "good guys." "Face," something Tang Jun was desperate to acquire, plays an important role in amassing the interpersonal "capital" to get things done. Face, public endorsement "reinvested" for future gain, is social currency. On the dog-eat-dog business battlefield, face is blood. It lubricates all interactions, personal and financial, and requires constant replenishment. When it dries up, a man not only moves backwards, he disappears into a sea of anonymity.

Tang Jun, 46, had a master plan. By writing books such as My Success Can Be Replicated, he wanted to become an icon. By appearing on television shows and glossy magazine covers, he hoped to achieve guru status, a weapon he could wield on his trek to the top of Mount Glory.

However, even in a status-obsessed country such as China, substance counts. The practical Chinese revere results. They worship engineers, technocratic leaders with a master plan. They love concrete things, "infrastructure" that lifts all boats. Throughout his career, Tang Jun ignored this truth. He cultivated his image but, in the end, no one knew the man, his beliefs or his vision. I have interacted with Tang Jun in different circumstances, in both jazz bars and conference rooms. He is an almost preternatural shape shifter, projecting radically differ persona depending on his audience. Deferential to Chinese bosses and foreign boards, he is a shark with subordinates. Rarely have I met an individual capable of unleashing both yin and yang with equal vigor and, yes, aplomb.

Sadly, Tang Jun's fabrications and moral ambiguity came to light before he could demonstrate tangibly irrefutable value as a business leader. Substantial accomplishments were not self-evident. Had he not billed himself as the incarnation of Chinese capitalism or publicized his outrageous salary, his transgressions would certainly have been forgiven and probably ignored. But this son of China flew too close to the sun. His crash to Earth was ordained.

With his image shattered, possibly for good, what will become of Tang Jun? He is currently in the United States, far from Shanghai's wagging tongues and barking bloggers. He may simply fade away. Hopefully, however, he will do some soul searching and realize external validation never trumps genuine self-possession. In hyperkinetic, brashly materialistic boom times, the Middle Kingdom needs a real role model who extols-- and perhaps even profits from -- this timeless truth.