The World: Following the Chinese dream toward prosperity

China's economic revolution is creating a vast and fertile marketplace. Andrew Lok asks how brands can tame the dragon.

From now on, if I'm eating meat in China, I'll try to make sure I can see its face. I recently watched a report on Beijing TV about how cardboard boxes are recycled by soaking them in caustic soda until pulp is formed, which is then mixed with fatty pork and stuffed into steamed buns.

Every moment I spend here, I come across new horrors like that. I love it.

Pore over the news and you'll find hundreds of stories each week relating to the chaos and lack of civil society in China, but they are merely the birth pangs of what could be the most interesting experiment of the 21st century. Put simply, after a long tryst with socialism, 1.3 billion Chinese are being allowed to do what the Chinese do best: make money.

And they are making it by the bucketload. In the two decades since Deng Xiaoping declared it was OK for some in China to "get rich first", private enterprise and foreign investment have lifted more people out of poverty than at any other time in human history.

Sure, the enormous disparity between the "haves" and "have-nots" is deplorable. But rewind to the early days of two great modern nations, Great Britain and the US, and you'll find parallels. Friedrich Engels' description of Manchester during the Industrial Revolution talks of a city bedevilled by "filth, ruin, and uninhabitableness".

Yet consider this, Engels: on the backs of these cotton workers, and with a little help from the cannons of her navy, Britain built her empire. And while it's true that America then was already on its way to becoming a powerful nation, the flood of hardworking immigrants in the late 19th century, doing whatever it took to survive and prosper, accelerated the US's ascendancy to superpower status.

China today echoes these two examples. Barring the occasional reprehensible case of slavery (as I'm writing this, an internet news alert tells me that "a Chinese court today sentenced a man to death and jailed another 28 people for their roles in a slave labour scandal at brick factories in the northern province of Shanxi"), local and multinational factories in China - which make most of the things we use in our daily lives - are responsible for creating thousands of jobs a day for an exponentially expanding population. Meanwhile, they are making China an economic force to be reckoned with. It ain't pretty, but it works.

On a similar note, when you take a close look at the great contrast between the gleaming towers of cities such as Shanghai and the poverty among China's rural denizens (about 80 per cent of the total population), you might start to wonder if the "China miracle" is largely hype. But one has only to see the ambition and hunger in the eyes of the tens of thousands of people arriving daily to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou from inefficient farms and closed-down state enterprises to realise how eager they are to better their lives and prove their mettle by any means necessary.

And while dramatic social inequalities and grave lapses in ethics are prevalent in China, they are issues that will only be resolved in time.

Meanwhile, how can brands stand out positively among all this flux? First, they must be clear about what they stand for. In the ethical vacuum of a Chinese society concerned primarily with material acquisition, more and more consumers are hungry for a coherent set of values. Most find it in a mixture of rediscovering Chinese culture and embracing imported Western liberalism. Where is your brand's stake in this virgin ground?

Brands must be accountable. Chinese consumers are hungry to listen to what you have to say - it's all news to them. But the moment you don't walk the walk, they'll abandon you, without a thought, for one of the plethora of other brands, local and foreign, clamouring for their attention.

Brands must be mindful of their power. Believe it or not, over here, you can actually change the world. The products a Chinese consumer champions will have a rippling effect across the globe owing to the great size of this market. Will these brands be made and marketed with socially desirable values, such as those around climate change?

Finally, you must ask yourself: does your brand encourage a trust-driven business environment by advocating product quality and integrity, and then meeting these promises? Your brand must embrace causes that rally communities, or demonstrate how a modern society can balance the satisfaction of individual wants with the establishment of a common good within a rules-based system.

While writing this article in an airport lounge, I took a break and picked up the China Daily. Here's what I read: "A TV report that showed softened chopped cardboard as the main ingredient in steamed buns has been dismissed as false news. Investigations had found a (TV worker) fabricated the sensational programme for higher audience ratings."

Just another Chinaman doing whatever it takes to get ahead. The fact he got caught crossing the line is just one of many signs that things are getting better. I'm an eternal optimist. Steamed buns, anybody?

- Andrew Lok is the executive creative director at Ogilvy Greater China.