In China, his famous father is worshipped as the “god of stocks.” Now Peter Buffett has himself become a star in the wealth-focused nation by writing a book with a radical message: Money isn’t everything.
It is — and this is putting it mildly — sometimes difficult to generalize about a nation of 1.3 billion people. But let’s go out on a limb and say there aren’t many who would quibble with the description of China as money-obsessed. This is a nation in which arguably the most important phrase ever attributed to its transformational leader, Deng Xiaoping, was “to get rich is glorious.” In China they call Warren Buffett the “god of stocks,” and whenever he visits, the Chinese media cover his every move and utterance. There have been over 40 books about Warren Buffett translated into Chinese.
Which makes it very interesting that Peter Buffett, Warren’s unassuming 53-year-old son, has recently become a rising star in China in his own right. And it’s not because everyone thinks Warren’s investment acumen has been handed down via DNA. Peter Buffett is a successful musician and a composer, writing scores for television and film (the Dances With Wolves soundtrack is one of his prominent credits) and performing his New Agey music in concert. He played most recently in August at Beijing Tanglewood, a gorgeous new outdoor concert space in the shadow of the Great Wall.
But Beijing isn’t exactly Marin County. In today’s China, New Age music will take you only so far. The reason Buffett has piqued the interest of a lot of Chinese — students and young professionals in particular — is that he has taken to dispensing life advice along with his music. And if part of his core message — in essence, that money isn’t everything — seems rather counterintuitive in China these days, that’s precisely the reason he has struck a chord. Warren Buffett’s rock-star status tells us something about what China is today; Peter’s success might tell us something about where it’s going.
Earlier this year a publisher in Beijing decided to capitalize on the Chinese demand for all things Buffett and translate a book Peter had written in 2010, titled Life Is What You Make It: Find Your Own Path to Fulfillment. It sold modestly in the U.S. and was released in China in March. Carrying the Chinese title Be Yourself, by the end of August the book had sold 320,000 copies — a huge number, even in a country of 1.3 billion. Through much of the spring and summer, says Zhang Haióu, editor-in-chief of New World Press, Buffett’s Chinese publisher, they were selling 1,000 copies a day online. “We obviously had hoped for the best, but honestly, we were stunned,” says Zhang.
Buffett did a four-city promotional tour this past spring in which, as he often does in the States, he paired his music with his message. (“Concert and Conversation,” the events are called.) He did 25 press interviews with the electronic and print media — national and local — including a web chat on what, for students and young professionals, has become the most important media site of them all, Sina.com’s microblog (the Chinese version of Twitter).
It was only his second visit to China. And though he was aware of his father’s status in the country, he hadn’t quite grasped the magnitude of it. Sitting in a Beijing hotel in August, a day before his Great Wall concert, Buffett says he was taken aback by the intensity of the reception. “It wasn’t quite what I was expecting,” he says, laughing. “It was like a presidential campaign or something. There were reporters everywhere.”
You have to remember that while Peter Andrew Buffett may be the second son of the “god of stocks” and the late Susan Buffett — his mother died in 2004 — he is not used to the star treatment. Far from it, in fact. He and his wife, Jennifer, have a place in New York City but spend much of their time in quiet Ulster County, N.Y., 90 miles north of the city. (The couple have no children.) In addition to pursuing his music career, he, like his two older siblings, runs his own charitable foundation, which his father has funded generously with Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) stock. (His sister, Susie, still lives in Omaha and focuses on her philanthropic work; his brother, Howard, owns a farm in Decatur, Ill.) Above all, the key thing about Peter Buffett is that he appears to be absolutely and completely normal. It hardly seems possible, but there it is. Well-grounded, affable, nary a twitch of neurosis or insecurity about him. “Oh, yeah,” he says, “I get that all the time. You’re Warren Buffett’s son, and you’re soooo normal.”
Audiences everywhere are, inevitably, curious as to how exactly that came to be. But in China, the curiosity is off the charts. One of the things Buffett likes to remind audiences of is that when he was growing up — long before Dad became America’s economic oracle, adviser to Presidents and writer of op-eds reassuring a depressed nation that all is not lost — his father was a supremely successful but largely anonymous investor. He was a regular guy who was known and revered only by the kind of folks who go to sleep with a copy of Graham and Dodd under their pillow. And he’s basically the same guy now.
The curiosity in China is fed by the fact that when Peter’s father announced he was giving away his considerable wealth to a foundation run by another supremely rich guy, Bill Gates, a lot of folks there had a single thought: “Why would he do that to his kids?” Mostly lost in translation was the fact that the elder Buffett was acting in accordance with his long-articulated position that he would give his kids “enough money so that they would feel they could do anything — but not so much that they could do nothing.”
But curiosity alone wouldn’t have resulted in the sale of 320,000 books. Something about Buffett’s message “is definitely resonating with many young Chinese,” says Zhang, his editor. That message is inextricable from Peter’s biography. He tells audiences that from the time he can remember he always loved music. “My mother said I sang before I spoke,” he told an interviewer for CCTV last spring. (His dad has been known to play a little ukulele.) A good student, he got into Stanford University, but was not particularly career-focused or interested in Graham and Dodd. For the first year and a half of college, he says, “I took everything that ended in 101 or -ology.”
Then — and here is where a young Chinese audience leans in, not quite believing what they are hearing — he dropped out. He decided that he wanted to pursue a career in music. “It was right in front of my nose my whole life,” he says. So he took a “small inheritance from my grandfather, bought an apartment in San Francisco, and tried to make a go of it.” And his parents, he tells mostly stunned audiences, were fine with it. “They were encouraging but also made it clear that if you blow it — well, good luck,” says Buffett. Within two years he was confident he’d made the right choice: “By then I knew I could make a living in music.”
The point, Buffett repeats in all his appearances in China, is that by quitting Stanford and trying to make a go of it in music, he was doing the same thing his father did. “My father knew early on what he loved to do, and he did it, and he’s doing it to this day,” he says. “So I tell audiences [in China] that my father and I do, in fact, do the same thing for a living. We both do what we love.”
To American ears, this can sound trite. The cynic says, “Okay, c’mon, it’s a lot easier to do whatever it is you want to do if Warren Buffett is your dad.” But that’s not how most Chinese audiences react. Most audiences in China are gobsmacked — and for reasons that are perfectly understandable. The outside world sees China as a rising economic power, a nation with seemingly irreversible economic momentum. That may be true enough. But for all its gaudy economic statistics, on the inside the country is also an economic pressure cooker. Children with aspirations for college put in 14 to 18 hours a day studying, desperate to get accepted to a good university. If they get in, they have to pick a major early. They’re on an up escalator — which, true enough, is better than not being on one — and they can’t get off. If a student graduates and lands a desirable job, he or she often doesn’t get paid particularly well and has to put in long hours. To top it off, many of today’s younger workers are children of China’s one-child policy, which means that they alone are responsible for taking care of their parents when they retire. In short, says, Edward Bell, an executive at Ogilvy & Mather in Shanghai who has studied the twentysomething Chinese in depth, “this is a generation that has to sprint just to stay even. I call it Generation Stress.”
It’s precisely that angst that Peter Buffett taps into. That’s why Tian Li Feng, like a lot of Chinese young professionals, isn’t particularly surprised by its success. He graduated from business school a year ago in Beijing, a finance major who now works for the Bank of Communications in China, a large state-owned bank. A big fan of Peter’s father — “I think I’ve read all the books about him,” he says — he went to see Peter Buffett speak this past spring, not quite knowing what to expect. “I was touched,” he says. “Particularly when he spoke about leaving Stanford to pursue his music.” Shaking his head, he adds, “Such a prestigious school.”
Buffett understands that the experiences he writes about, and the impulses that drove his career, are uniquely American. He also is self-effacing and secure enough to acknowledge that if his name were Smith or Jones, no one in China would be interested. But China novice or not, when he says that “it seems as if this place is moving at such light speed that a lot of young people don’t get a chance to have a second thought,” he’s right.
“I don’t think my parents would ever let me do [what he did],” says Tian, the banker. “But maybe someday,” he adds softly, “my own child can have that choice.” If so, Peter might leave as rich a legacy in China as his dad.
This article is from the October 17, 2011 issue of Fortune.
Video courtesy of Beside Records