Yifei Li: a Chinese businesswoman and MTV in China

December 5, 2003
Copyright 2003 Xinhua News Agency

BEIJING - No one knows she was once a Chinese martial arts champion and a supporting actor in China's first action movie. But no one will miss her name whenever people mention MTV in China.

Yifei Li, 39, the managing director of MTV China and one of Fortune's 25 global rising business stars in 2001, now brings Britney Spears, Eminem and Jay Zhou to millions of Chinese youngsters at the same time as their peers around the world.

"A 15-year-old boy in Beijing communicates more easily with a boy his age in New York than with his own 45-year-old father," said Li, adding that her dream and the mission of Viacom she serves is to "narrow the cultural divide."

A surprising number of young urban elite in this country are crazy about R&B and street dancing. Even in remote counties, young people have become used to congratulating others through ordering a music video on local TV network.

Such a job of feeding the minds of millions not only enabled Li to become a well-known figure in business and entertainment circles but also presented her the rare opportunity to bridge two sharply different cultures.

In the past years, Li managed to sell programs to over 300 cities all over the country and persuaded CCTV, the nationally televised network with millions of viewers, to co-produce China's version of the MTV awards.

Thanks to her persuasive skills, Viacom got the approval of landing rights for MTV in prosperous Guangdong, a thriving region adjacent to Hong Kong.

"It's a two-way exchange and win-win solution. We helped CCTV Channel 9 to access posh hotels in ten major US cities, and sponsored a 100-member national symphony orchestra on a US tour," said Li.

"I strongly believe that different cultures can have effective dialogue as long as we have tolerance. It's a matter of attitude."

Li's route to MTV, not an easy one in all the culturally jarring twists, typifies a generation who found their way in a fast-globalized China.

Li was born in Beijing in 1964 when China had just suffered a serious economic setback. In 1977, the then young girl won a national martial arts championship for Rainbow Sword and played a role in China's first martial arts movie after the ten-year cultural revolution. Upon graduation from an elite diplomacy school in 1985, she went to Waco, Texas, where she studied political science at Baylor University.

Then followed a whole decade in the United States. An assistant in the United Nations and New York law firms, Li melted in American society, "from the upper class to the common people."

In 1995, she came back to Beijing to work for Burson Marstteller, a public relations company, for four years. In 1999, MTV named her head of its fledgling China operation.

Sumner Redstone, the top boss of Viacom, chose her for three Cs -- character, competence and commitment. Li adds one more C -- Chinese. "We believe localization is of importance," she said. "But without US education and working experience, I wouldn't have made it."

She attributed MTV China's success in large part to its experience in market segmentation and the global financial system.

In charge of a company introducing international fashion and fads to this 5,000-year old country, Li, a mother of two, still insist on raising them in a Chinese context.

Her nine-year old daughter attends a local Chinese school instead of the international school where the Chinese management of multinationals usually send their kids. Her two-year-old son call her "Ma-Ma" in Chinese, not "Mummy", when he wants her hug.

"I couldn't stand it if they couldn't speak good Chinese and didn't understand this country," said Li. "All these years, China has provided me emotional comforts while the US gave me my professional skills."

One of her British neighbors, who thought she was Americanized to her toes, witnessed Li's cultural complexity one morning when he found she was having her porridge and pickled cucumber. He said with a smile, "Li, you are still a Chinese."