China and the Strangeness of Civilizations
If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:
I recently finished listening to the book What’s Wrong with China by Paul Midler. Previous to reading this book I knew that the Chinese viewed the world differently than Americans or Europeans, but I was under the impression that these were differences of degree, not of kind. To put it another way, I thought we were all on the same graph, the average Chinese person was just in a different place on the graph, though as they became more globalized and affluent they would gradually move closer to the western norm. (While at the same time we would probably move closer to them.) I imagine this impression is pretty widespread, but after reading the book I’ve realized it was hopelessly naive. China is not merely a foreign country, it is an ancient and entirely different civilization with an almost alien way of thinking. They’re not on the same graph with the western democracies (hereafter just the “West”). They may be on some graph, somewhere, but if they are they probably don’t even use the same coordinate system (probably polar, I always hated polar.)
You may be inclined to argue that even if I’m correct about this, all that it means is that we just need to work harder at understanding them. Maybe, but if Midler is to believed things are actually moving in the opposite direction, and our understanding of Chinese culture is actually getting worse as time goes on.
This makes a certain amount of sense. There was a time when travel to China was a lot more difficult. When someone could write a book called Fifty Years in China (actually three people wrote books with exactly that title) and you knew that those were fifty long years of actually being immersed in China. With the telephone, and air travel, and especially the internet, these days, a year spent in China is very different than a year spent back then, to say nothing of spending 50 years there. Also, these days, we are more likely to minimize differences, not only because people interested in China are predisposed to be favorable to it in the first place. But also because it’s considered borderline racist to say anything negative about another culture. Midler asserts that the combination of all these things is leading to a decline in our actual understanding:
It is curious that books written on China in the 1960s--Dennis Bloodworth’s The Chinese Looking Glass is an example--should read finer than most of what is produced these days, and that even these books pale in comparison to the works of the previous generation. The trend appears to go back quite some time. In the 1930s, Ralph Townsend was convinced that his contemporaries wrote nothing as accurate as that which was produced by Arthur Smith and Abbé Huc. The writer G. F. Hudson, a contemporary of Townsend's, went further by claiming that “China was better known to Europeans in the eighteenth century than in the nineteenth, despite extensions of scholarly inquiry, simply because earlier reports had less cause to misrepresent what they found.”
At this point it’s only natural to ask for examples of the alienness I’m claiming the Chinese possess. Well as someone who’s never been to China, and has only the book to go by, I hardly think I’m qualified to do it justice, but if I don’t provide any examples, it would also severely weaken the point I’m trying to make. So I’ll do what I can.
In America we can imagine buying counterfeit merchandise (say a Prada handbag). And when we imagine it happening we probably picture a slightly shady street vendor, perhaps in New York. But of course you don’t imagine it happening if you walk into the official Prada store on fifth avenue, and yet in China it does. Not because the official store doesn’t sell the genuine article, but because they sell both. The merchant in question has to sell some real merchandise to keep their license, but if they think they can get away with it they’ll sell you the counterfeit version instead, even though they have the real stuff. Midler describes it this way (emphasis original):
This made no sense to me, at least not at the time. How could I be treated fairly while another customer was being taken advantage of in the very same shop? Many of us have a preconceived notion that there are only two kinds of service providers: the good and the bad. You have the reputable mechanic and the dishonest one, the fair attorney and the predatory one.
Chinese business operators instinctively understand how a hybrid model achieves the highest level of economic returns. Businesses that offer a fair deal to everyone leave too much money on the table, but those that cheat indiscriminately risk entirely losing their reputation.
Based on this and other examples I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Chinese don’t really use honesty as a framework for their behavior in anything remotely resembling the way it’s used in the West.
As my second example of the alienness of The Chinese culture, the Chinese are not troubled by mechanical or technological failures, they are troubled by social failures. A couple of quick examples of this:
When a plane or a train crashes in the West (see my last post) there is an enormous inquiry, we want to know what happened and how to keep it from happening again. In China, when one high speed train ran into another which had stopped. The Chinese put very little effort into understanding what had happened. Instead, they immediately moved backhoes in and buried the trains. Under pressure, they eventually did conduct an investigation, but it’s unclear how in-depth it really was. The chief result seemed to be a lot of people getting fired for “official corruption”. According to Midler, the Chinese people were horrified by the accident, but not, perhaps for the reasons you’d expect. Their horror came not because of the systemic failures which allowed it to happen, and not because of the governmental cover-up, and not because of the corruption. They were horrified because the driver of the train that was stopped should have texted the other drivers to let them know. It was the social failure not the mechanical failure which alarmed them.
For the other example, I’ll just quote from the book:
[I was reminded of a story] told to me by an importer from Canada. While he was visiting a supplier, a shop floor worker had lost a finger in a piece of machinery. Holding his injured hand, which was wrapped in a towel and bleeding profusely, the laborer sat on the floor while colleagues went to find the missing digit. The factory boss then rushed over and, after pausing to assess the situation, began hitting the injured employee over the head. “How many times,” he said, while beating the poor worker, “have I told you to keep your damned fingers out of that machine!”
Most western companies would have been worried about putting a system in place to make the machine safer. On the other hand, in sweatshop style conditions, with no regard for worker safety you can imagine the person being callously fired. But this in between business of yelling and hitting is either extraordinarily cruel, or, and this is my opinion, it’s prioritizing the social over the technological and mechanical. Either way it’s very different from what you might expect.
For my final example of Chinese alienness, I’ll balance things out by choosing something which the Chinese probably does better than the West. As it turns out, the Chinese are somewhat baffled by what they see in Hollywood movies, particularly crime capers, where the full deal is worked out in advance. We’ve all seen a movie where everyone agrees to split things equally, and then of course, inevitably, the deal doesn’t go quite the way they expected and mayhem and violence ensue. The same could be said for business deals, where, in the West, contracts are rigorously hammered out in advance. The Chinese don’t do that, they understand that things look different at the end than they did at the beginning and they are very willing to change the deal as circumstances change:
Chinese partnerships appear to us to be far better coordinated because often they are. Chinese do not so easily constrain themselves to the initial terms of a deal, and they show a willingness to reevaluate at any point along the way. This is not to say that those who are in a position of power do not still take advantage of whatever leverage they hold. But, all else being equal, participants have a higher expectation that their contribution will be rewarded in a more or less accurate way on a flexible scale that is subject to adjustments.
This frequently takes the form of there being an understood percentage for performing certain tasks. If an agent brings a new client to a factory it’s understood he’ll get 3% of the deal. This is the case even if he’s never had any previous contact with the factory, and he definitely doesn’t need to have a contract. If the agent’s relationship with the new client is particularly good, he may be able to get 4%. If it turns out the client can barely stand the agent, and never wants to talk to him again, he’ll still walk away with 2%. So there is some wiggle room, but they’re unlikely to be cut out entirely, a situation I’ve seen all the time in the US.
Midler ascribes this to the Chinese having a finely honed sense of fairness and that therefore most entrepreneurial relationships work better.
The ability of the Chinese to accurately assess the value of a person’s contribution—combined with a confident faith that decision makers will act upon this information—opens up endless opportunities.
Those were just a few examples of large differences between Western culture and Chinese culture, and perhaps you remain unconvinced that the differences are all that profound, and you certainly don’t like using the word “alien” to describe those differences. You are obviously entitled to your opinion, but in reality I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are 31 chapters in the book, each detailing a significant difference between the two cultures. Perhaps they are not all equally consequential, but when you put them all together, the whole is almost certainly greater than the sum of its parts. If nothing else, I would assume that you recognize the increasing importance China plays in the affairs of the world, and that you would, consequently desire a better understanding of them. If so I would definitely recommend Midler’s book, even if you aren’t inclined to agree with this central premise, that there’s something wrong with China.
The book is mostly a collection of anecdotes about Midler’s many, many years in China as a western representative working with Chinese factories. And it would be surprising if any nation couldn’t be the basis of a whole book of stories, but that also wouldn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of global impact. Therefore, the question we really should be addressing is what do all of these behaviors mean for China’s larger role in the world and in particular what do they mean for the relationship between the US and China?
As I mentioned at the beginning, after reading the book, one of my biggest worries is that while Chinese culture is, and always has been very different from Western culture, our ability to notice those differences and make allowances for them is as bad as it’s ever been. Somehow greater globalism has decreased our actual knowledge about China. And insofar as they’re a big player on the world stage, and only getting bigger, that’s not an ideal position to be in. We should be striving to get deeper at the truth, even if it might reflect poorly on China and its people because this is one area where we can’t allow cultural sensitivity to blind us to reality, particularly since one of the things China has proved more than capable of doing is using our cultural sensitivity against us. And if anything in the post thus far has made you uncomfortable that’s exactly what I’m talking about.
We’ve arrived at a point where we all agree China is going to be a major player if not the major player going forward, but where we also strongly suspect that our knowledge of their culture and the actions flowing from that culture may be less than ideal. That’s not a good combination. I know a lot of people expect that the next few decades will be similar to the last few decades, particularly that peace and prosperity will continue. But if we fundamentally misunderstand the motivations of one the major players in that future, than there’s a good chance those expectations are going to be incorrect. So what do the behaviors described in the examples I just gave mean in terms of the future? How does all of this play out at a global scale going forward? Well, for each of the examples I gave above (except for the last) I’ll attempt to scale up the behavior and make some (necessarily) vague predictions about where it might lead.
In the first example I talked about the Chinese behavior of mixing dishonest and honest behavior in a constant search for maximum profit. At first glance this might appear to be greedy, but otherwise unremarkable. But I think if you dig a little deeper you’ll see that it’s an example of something far more important, the difference between culture and ideology. In the West we have a culture (though it’s hard to imagine a time when it’s been less influential) but for the last century, with Western Culture ascendent, and therefore largely taken for granted, our focus has moved onto ideology. This was most evident during the Cold War which was entirely a conflict of ideology. So then what’s the difference between culture and ideology? Ideology get’s exported and promoted, culture does not.
As with most things there’s some ambiguity in the middle there, particularly in the West where culture and ideology have been cross-pollinating for quite awhile. But even so, it’s notable how reluctant we are to export or advocate for anything that’s explicitly cultural, while we go to great lengths to promote and export our ideology (think democratic elections, free trade, intellectual property protection, etc.) What are the Chinese ideological exports? I’m having a hard time thinking of any. Certainly, to return to the example, I see no evidence that they’re trying to export an ideology of maximizing profits through a balance of honest and dishonest behavior. We have an ideology of honesty and respect for the law. And we think it’s something everyone should be doing. They see their mixed behavior as a cultural advantage, an advantage they want to preserve as they clash with other cultures and civilizations. This is actually a large subject, which is why I’m going to leave off here, and return to it next week.
The second example was about a Chinese focus on social failures rather than mechanical failures. Once again this may not seem like that big of a deal, but I think it speaks to a cultural difference between the West and China which has existed for a very, very long time. It used to be said that China invented gunpowder, but Europeans invented the gun. That China invented paper, but Europe invented the printing press. I don’t think you’re supposed to point this out anymore. But that is more or less what happened, and while there are many reasons why, one of them is a Western focus on systems over people. Whereas China has had a focus on people over systems (as indicated in the example). Now there are probably some ways in which this focus is better, but when we examine the advance of science and technology, and why the world of 2018 looks different from the world of 1018, it’s in large part due to prioritizing systems over people.
Another example of this is the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Despite the fact that the plane was destined for China, and that 64% of the people on board were Chinese nationals, and that China has a GDP 39x that of Malaysia, the Chinese government only covered 10% of the search cost. Australia, which really had no stake in things except to be nearby, and has a GDP 1/9th that of China, covered 32% of the cost of the search and took charge of it as well. How much of that is due to Australia being culturally western?
My worry is basically this, and it’s entirely possible it’s overblown, but a focus on systems ends up being synonymous with a focus on science and engineering, and despite what you may think, science and invention and academic rigor do not come naturally to humans. It’s all more fragile than we think. If Midler is right (and the examples do seem to back him up) and Chinese culture is less focused on systems, then as they begin to take a larger role in the world there is a good chance that the world as a whole will be less focused on these things. You might offer, as a counterpoint the recent news that China has overtaken America as the largest producer of scientific articles, unfortunately this is less encouraging than you might think. First it’s easy to find plenty of other articles talking about the enormous level of scientific misconduct, fraud, and actual fake research in China. Second, China has a habit of artificially inflating statistics which they feel correspond to having a more developed country. For example Midler, claims (and other sources back him up) that:
Beijing central planners understand that an economy can be considered “advanced” once a certain percentage of its population resides in an urban environment, and so it has chosen to forcibly move people from the countryside into the cities.
Given all the problems with Chinese research I imagine something similar might be happening with scientific articles.
The final Chinese cultural difference I want to cover is their focus on dynastic thinking. In short, while we in the West expect that progress will march on more or less forever, in China their view of how the world works is far more cyclical. The West, particularly if you include America, has only been on top once, but they continue to be on top. China has been on top multiple times, and they’ve also bottomed out multiple times as well, and according to Midler there’s a rush to accomplish as much as possible before the current dynastic cycle ends:
Beijing appears to be in a hurry, but for what?
...When the United States voiced it’s concern over reclamation activity in the South China Sea, Beijing did not respond by cooling down related activity. Quite the opposite, project crews began working around the clock…
In moving fast, Beijing was guaranteeing that the international community would apply greater pressure. But by its own calculations, the window of opportunity was going to close one way or another anyway, so why not put as many points on the board before it did so?
...No, this foolish rush is about something else, something simpler. It’s about ringing the bell. It’s about seeing just how far China can take things before that great window of opportunity shuts.
I suspect they’re right that the window of opportunity will be closing soon, if for no other reason than that’s what they believe will happen. And it should go without saying that a future where China continues to progress at the same rate they have been is very different from a future where China has collapsed. And while the Chinese belief that it will happen makes it more likely, it’s possible that our ignorance of this belief isn’t helping anything either.
It’s possible Midler is wrong about the extent to which Chinese culture is different from Western culture. Obviously there have to be some differences, but I suppose someone might argue that the differences are small; or they’re large, but ultimately inconsequential; or that the Chinese culture is being replaced by a universal culture, and in a few years it won’t matter. As I said you could make these arguments, but I wouldn’t. In fact I’m going to spend the next post making that exact opposite argument. That while ideology has recently been more important than culture, this state of affairs is not going to continue. The world is made up of many different civilizations, each with its own distinct culture. They are not going away and the future is going to be dominated by the clash of civilizations.
Whatever the truth of Chinese profit maximization through a risk of behaviors, I obviously have none of that, and keep trying the same behavior over and over again, If my straightforwardness appeals to you at all, consider donating.