Ben Franklin Survives Yet Another Facelift

In order to describe China’s different and lower cost perspective, I tell audiences that when Americans come to China and see a 100 RMB bill, they automatically divide by 8, the approximate exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the RMB for most of the time that I have been here, and really see the equivalent of $12.50. However, when Chinese see that same 100 RMB bill, they see something more like $100.

The different way in which Americans and Chinese look at the same 100 RMB bill explains so much about China’s cost structures, pricing and markets that I devote a whole chapter to it in my book, Managing the Dragon. This different cost perspective is so ingrained that I still divide RMB prices by 8, even though I’ve been in China for nearly 20 years. While I might think to myself “what’s 12.5 cents anyway” in discussing price with a local vendor, my Chinese colleagues, no matter how wealthy they may be, will negotiate very hard over every yuan.

To illustrate my point, I always carry around two bills: a 100 RMB bill with a picture of Chairman Mao, and a $100 bill with a picture of Benjamin Franklin. Holding them both up for the audience to see, I point out that the two bills are treated exactly the same way in their respective countries.

“You can’t get a bill larger than $100 in the United States, or a bill larger than a 100 RMB in China,” I explain to audiences. Continuing to make my point, I tell them, “When I go to the Wegman’s supermarket near my farm in New Jersey and pay with this (holding up the $100 bill), the cashier puts it under a light to see if it’s counterfeit. When I go to Pacific Century Plaza across the street from my apartment in Beijing and pay with this (holding up the 100 RMB bill), the cashier will feel it and look at the serial numbers to see if it’s counterfeit.”

And then for the punch line– I hold both bills up, look at each and note that “Chairman Mao even looks a bit like Ben Franklin!”

I like to think that my speeches are informative and entertaining, but I don’t pretend to be a standup comic. Nonetheless, that last line about the likeness between old Ben and the Chairman, as well as my comment about eating “every part of every animal” during my nine months of travel around China in 1993, are always sure to get a laugh.

Given Ben Franklin’s importance to my speeches, you can imagine how horrified I was to read the headline to the Wall Street Journal story, Money Makeover: $100 Bill Gets Facelift to Fight Fakes, and how relieved I was to read that the picture of Ben remains. The $100 bill’s new look puts the finishing touches on its second major redesign. The bill last got a makeover in March 1996.

Needless to say, there was no one more pleased than me to see that Ben Franklin had survived yet another facelift.

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