Interview with Patrick Cranley

Patrick Cranley   LRCCS MA ‘88 Co-founder of AsiaMedia and Historic Shanghai

Patrick Cranley

Co-founder of AsiaMedia and Historic Shanghai

What can you do with an MA from LRCCS? For this interview, we talked to LRCCS alum Patrick Cranley (’88) in Shanghai, co-founder of AsiaMedia. He talks about his time at LRCCS, Jewish ghettos in Shanghai, and the limits of labels like socialism and free markets.

Interview conducted by Eric Couillard

LRCCS: What are you up to right now?

Cranley: I focus on several things. On the business side, I run AsiaMedia – which does marketing, public relations, and communications consulting. We’ve been doing that since 2001. We help companies with their marketing strategies and then help with implementation, using traditional and digital tools.

We’re also involved in lots of community things. My wife and I have always been involved in historic preservation. When we first got to Shanghai we saw all kinds of beautiful old buildings, but when we asked people about them we didn’t get very good answers. So we started a group called Historic Shanghai, which does research, presentations and tours for the local community. It’s become much bigger than we ever envisioned.

LRCCS: Interesting. So are the people you work with for Historic Shanghai mostly foreigners?

Cranley: Historic Shanghai operates primarily in English, so most of our members and participants are English-speaking foreigners. There’s also now a parallel group that operates in Chinese – mostly in Shanghainese, and we have an informal relationship with that group.

LRCCS: How did you end up where you are now?

Cranley: Well, I became interested in Asia in general in college when I took a class comparing the philosophies of the East and West. So that eventually led me to Chinese studies – particularly the 20th century. After undergrad I worked for a bit and decided I wanted to go to business school, so I specifically looked for programs that combined business education with China studies. Back then, there weren’t many places were you could do both. It was basically Harvard, Yale, Michigan, and Berkeley. I chose Michigan.

It was a very good decision. I started in ’84, when the Center for Chinese Studies had assembled a dream team for Chinese politics, history and economics: I studied with Chinese Studies superstars including Ken Lieberthal, Mike Oksenberg, Linda Lim, and Bob Dernberger. It was a wonderful experience.

In the middle of that program, I got a scholarship to go to the Hopkins Nanjing Center, and I became a member of the very first graduating class: 1986-87. It confirmed my interest in combining business and China studies. My goal after graduation was to find a job that would get me back to China as soon as possible. I was hired in Philadelphia, but transferred within a year to the company’s Asia regional operations out of Singapore; so I was working in China shortly after one year of graduating from Michigan. After a number of subsequent transfers, I ended up in Shanghai with the same company. After a few years they said, “Ok, time to come back to the US!” – but my wife and I weren’t really done with Shanghai yet. So we decided to stay and start our own business – that’s how AsiaMedia was conceived.

LRCCS: What was it like starting a business in China back then?

Cranley: This was 2001, and it wasn’t that complicated. I think generally it gets easier to start a foreign-owned business in China every year, though it may become more difficult this year for political reasons. There’s a saying about China: “Everything is possible, but nothing is easy.” For us, establishing our business was reasonably smooth.

LRCCS: Tell us more about Historic Shanghai. What are your main activities?

Cranley: About half of our events are guided tours of different parts of the city. We also host lectures in different venues with authors and specialists in the area. Lynn Pan, Jeff Wasserstrom, Edward Denison, Tess Johnston, Robert Bickers and many others have spoken to Historic Shanghai audiences. Professor Jonathan Kaufman of Northeastern University spoke to us recently about his forthcoming book on the Sassoons, a Sephardic Jewish family who came to Shanghai in the 19th century to trade and became fabulously wealthy. Thousands of Russian Jews arrived here in the early 1900s, and then tens of thousands of European Jews arrived in the late 1930s to escape Nazi persecution. They were all part of the diverse tapestry of peoples who contributed to the flourishing of Shanghai.

LRCCS: That’s fascinating. What happened to the Jews in Shanghai after the Japanese occupied the city during World War II?

Cranley: When European Jews arrived, they were helped to resettle by the Jews who were already here. After the Japanese arrived, they came under pressure from their German allies to “take care” of these European Jews, in the same way they were “taking care” of them back in Europe. But the Japanese had no beef with the Jews – they were just more Westerners as far as they could tell. The Japanese also had been told that the Jewish community was influential in media and financial circles. And remember, this was 1941-42, and the Japanese had been raping and pillaging all over Asia for four years by this point. They didn’t want another public relations disaster.

So they compromised. They simply required the Jews who moved here after 1937 to move into an area of the city that became known as the Jewish ghetto. But they weren’t like the internment camps where British, Americans, Dutch and others were incarcerated during the war; the Ghetto didn’t have walls and barbed wire, but neither did the Japanese feed, clothe and house the Jews. They policed their own area and had to eke out a living any way they could. It was absolutely miserable, but after the war they discovered how lucky they actually had been compared to their relatives in Europe.

LRCCS: Sounds like you’ve kept up your study of history. Are you still engaged in economic research also?

Cranley: I have never lost my interest in the economic topics that I studied at Michigan. It has been fascinating to see the evolution of the Chinese economic system, which is now officially called ‘market-oriented socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ But what is that? It’s hard enough for Chinese to figure out, much less your average American. It’s not easy for people steeped in one system to understand how the other one works. But you may have noticed that the Chinese have caught on pretty quick.

LRCCS: Caught on to capitalism?

Cranley: We do not use the C-word here, my friend!

LRCCS: Oh sorry, I meant “market-oriented socialism.”

Cranley: That’s better! Anyway, the point is that simple labels are not very helpful in understanding complex economic forces. But put simply, the Chinese tried a Soviet-style planned economy, and it did not work; they have spent the last 40 years moving toward a more market-oriented economy, but they don’t want to give up strong government control. They understand that market forces are powerful and productive, but that left unregulated, they will lead to concentrated economic power that does not act in the interests of the vast majority of people.

This seems very theoretical, but it’s directly applicable to things we’re talking about in the United States, like healthcare, education and taxes. But we get caught up in simple labels. I think in order for Americans to have productive conversations about these topics, we need to steer clear of labels like “socialism” and “free markets” and focus on solutions based on what has been learned from all of the economic experiments of the last 100 years, all over the world. Of course, it is much easier to simply shout labels at one’s “opponents.” But we’re not opponents – we’re all in this boat together.