The China Phenomenon

In chapter 1 I made the case that world history has been recounted principally by Europeans (or people of European descent) and is primarily concerned with the history of Europe and, to a lesser extent, with that of the Near East. In this context Europe (more recently including the United States) has been depicted as the center of the world stage, not only as the political center of gravity but also as the engine room of scientific, commercial, military, and cultural activity. From the era of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, the rest of the world was, in Western eyes, peripheral.

Of course, this was not the case. I also mentioned in the first chapter that China, for most of recorded history, was the most populous, influential, inventive, and technically advanced country in the world.

Europe, in no uncertain terms, was a latecomer. We know that Rome boasted about 350,000 inhabitants in A.D. 200. China, at the same time, had a population of at least 60 million. The most important city in the world (in European or Middle Eastern eyes) at the beginning of the first millennium (birth of Christ) was Alexandria. At the beginning of the second millennium it was Cordoba—intrinsically a Moorish capital—with wonderful architecture, science, scholarship, and cultural brilliance. Europe was emerging on center stage (thanks largely to the Arabs), but Xian, the illustrious capital of China at that time, had more than one million inhabitants in A.D. 800. By 1750 China’s population had grown to 200 million and progressed to 530 million by 1950, one billion by 1981, and (as we all know) 1.3 billion by the end of the second millennium. Weight of numbers is only one thing, however; ancient China had other attributes, not the least of which were scientific and cultural eminence. For the sake of historical context, it is worth listing some of China’s illustrious achievements, commencing at the very dawn of recorded history.

China s Achievements

8000 B.C.: Agriculture and Sailing Vessels. The earliest known cultivation of land was in the basins of the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, thus facilitating the emergence of the world’s oldest civilization. These great river floodplains were conducive to a settled agricultural economy. This, combined with the acquisition of techniques of animal husbandry, led to the systematic growing of cereal crops, which resulted in a remarkably rapid increase in population—both a cause and consequence of a more settled lifestyle. Around this same time, the Chinese learned the principles of the dugout boat to make junks, which were not dissimilar from those we see today.

7900 B.C.: Pottery. The oldest known piece of pottery found in China dates back to this date. These early pots were made by pressing clay piece by piece into molds and then leaving them to bake slowly in the sun.

3200 B.C.: Silk. The Chinese were the first people to make silk. Their detailed knowledge of silkworm biology, selective breeding, and a diet of the best mulberry leaves for the worms eventually led, many centuries later, to a thriving trade with the Middle East and Europe via the famous Silk Road traveled by Marco Polo.

2500 B.C.: Weaving, Ink. The Chinese invented a foot-powered treadle in the third century B.C., which enabled them to make intricate damask twills. Another invention at about the same time was ink, made from lampblack—a fine black soot ground up with glue.

2400 B.C.: Canals. The Chinese devised several schemes for the construction of canals beginning about this time. In 700 B.C. they started to build the ambitious thousand-mile Grand Canal from Hangchow to Beijing. It was completed nearly 2,500 years later (in A.D. 1780) and still exists as the oldest artificial waterway in the world.

1000 B.C.: Armor. By the beginning of the last millennium B.C., Chinese warriors began wearing armor made from four to seven layers of rhinoceros hide.

320 B.C.: Umbrella.

A.D. 100 to 200: Paper, Wheelbarrow, Abacus. One of the world’s greatest and most significant inventions was paper, in A.D. 105. The wheelbarrow was invented in China in 118 to transport heavy loads for the Chinese army. In A.D. 190 the abacus, the ancestor of the calculator, was developed. (N.B. In 1980 China developed an electronic abacus, which proved no faster than the original one.)

500: Block Printing. This form of printing—centuries before its invention in Europe—was particularly suited to the Chinese pictographic writing system.

868: Books. The Chinese Diamond Sutra is generally regarded as the world’s first printed book and is among the oldest surviving ones from the ninth century.

850: Porcelain. Porcelain made its first appearance in China at this time. Although Europeans imitated Chinese porcelain for hundreds of years, they did not produce a satisfactory match until after 1700.

1000: Gunpowder. Gunpowder was invented during the Tang Dynasty by Taoist alchemists who stumbled across its potential while studying its medical qualities!

1092: Mechanical Clock. Invented by a Chinese monk, the world’s first mechanical clock was driven by a waterwheel.

1493: Toothbrush. Just a bit too late for Columbus’ men.

China s Decline from Preeminence

Which cultural factors led to these many outstanding achievements during the centuries when Europe struggled to raise its living standards and began to aspire to higher goals? The teaching of Confucius with its emphasis on the work ethic, conscientiousness, discipline, patience, and learning surely all played a part after 500 B.C. Earlier, the huge Chinese lead in the cultivation of land 10,000 years ago resulted in a quantum leap in population. Many heads are wiser than a few, and sheer numbers undoubtedly contributed to invention on a larger scale than elsewhere. These factors, allied to the innate Chinese penchant toward entrepreneurialism and intense competition engendered by numbers, led to a cohesive form of collective behavior that served the country well.

When European urbanization began its steady growth from 1450 onward, China’s population was approximately the same as Europe’s. Well into the fifteenth century, China was still ahead of Europe in science and technology and was proud of its centralized decision making, extensive state bureaucracy, developed internal communications, and unified financial system. Early technical advances, together with the country’s population—estimated at 380 million in 1820, compared with 170 million in Europe— made China the world’s biggest economy—until it was overtaken by the United States in the 1890s. But if truth be told, China had already begun to slide from its pinnacle by this time. So why did Europe take off and not China? Why did China slip into an extraordinary decline, in absolute terms at least, from 1820 until 1952?

The answers to these questions probably lie in the perennially inward-looking nature of Chinese governments and most of its people. Opportunities for expansion and leadership were many. The Chinese had in fact matched early European voyages of discovery and had made informative and lucrative voyages in the Indian Ocean and off the east coast of Africa. Cheng Ho commanded fleets of over three hundred ships. Yet they soon lost interest in further exploration. Historically, China had also failed to develop military technology in the way that enabled Europeans to turn exploration into domination and conquest. Why should this be so?

One explanation for China’s disinterest in development and power is that the Chinese authorities throughout the ages saw their own country as the only one that mattered. As mentioned earlier, the Chinese call their country “Chung Kuo” (“the Middle Kingdom”), which implies that other nations are peripheral.

The Chinese, historically, have shown little interest in, and even less liking for, nationals of other countries, whom they habitually refer to as “foreign devils.” Like pre-1860 Japan, China for centuries did its best to shut out foreign influence, ideas, and pressure. Unlike in Japan, however, its rulers were bureaucrats whose highly centralized rule systematically prevented the rise of a merchant or entrepreneurial class. Whereas Japan reacted favorably to increasing Western technological and economic superiority in the mid-nineteenth century, China kept foreigners at bay, and those who favored opening to the outside world were overruled.

Another major reason for China’s unwillingness to expand was its fear of losing control of its own vast territory, which had been a very real threat throughout its history. Consolidation of internal security has always been—and still is—a priority in the eyes of Chinese rulers. The Opium War and the various depredations and exploitation of colonial activity did nothing to lessen China’s dis- trust of and distaste for Europeans and Americans.

The Chinese dislike of foreigners and its belief in the Middle Kingdom as literally the center of the earth was not simply a notion that has been perpetrated by its leaders. Even the peasants toiling in the fields have believed this. When I toured China toward the end of the twentieth century, I started up a number of conversations with land workers. They are a special breed of human being, conditioned by many centuries of unremitting toil. These men and women who farm the land are entirely focused on rice cultivation and live in hermetic ignorance of the outside world. Most Chinese peasants spend their entire lives within one or two miles of their home, their hands and feet underwater for a large portion of the day. They have rarely, if ever, heard a language other than Chinese, never seen a Western face, never ridden in a private car. As I started to talk to them, they still bent over their tasks. The more curious among them would raise their heads to look at us for a minute or two, mumble a couple of sentences in a friendly enough but hardly enthusiastic tone, then bend again and ignore us. This is what one means by inward-looking. We had come from the other end of the world, but they weren’t interested in us. There was little we had to tell them. Their field was in China—the Middle Kingdom—and they were at the center of things. This was where it was all happening. We had come from afar, we acted and looked strange, and we were temporarily sharing the five-thousand-year-old Chinese experience.

The peasant does not, basically, feel inferior to us, in spite of our nice clothes and our Western ways. We revolve round China, not the other way around. After all, they invented paper in the second century, when Northern Europeans were still wiping their bottoms clean with sycamore leaves. Who are the isolated, provincial ones? Of course the Chinese acknowledge and envy our current technology, but technical know-how can, of course, be transferred. What about culture? We met some Chinese Canadians in Shanghai. “The culture is all here,” they told us. “All Westerners have is money.”

If Chinese complacency vis--vis their own self-sufficiency (including food supply) has been a major cause of their ignoring others, their geographical location has been another. China was and still is to some degree essentially an isolated country, cut off from other peoples by a vast ocean to the east, jungles to the south, towering mountain ranges to the west, and freezing steppes to the north. Even in this age of air travel, it is a long way from Europe and the former centers of early civilization in Babylon, Egypt, and Rome. Why go so far to meet barbarians who had so little to teach the Chinese, anyway? Besides, the great extent of their own territory and the frequent eruptions of an unruly populace lent risk to Chinese rulers who ventured far from home. The Mongols were daring raiders and were a threat for many centuries.

Finally, there was the barrier of language. While historically many Europeans and Middle Easterners have enjoyed a certain multilingualism, the Chinese have always had difficulty communicating with foreigners. Though some East Asian cultures have adopted the Chinese writing system (Korea and Japan), their languages are structurally different from Chinese. For Westerners, Chinese is one of the most difficult of all languages to learn. Knowledge of foreign languages in China was confined to scholars. This language curtain (which can in some ways be compared with a similar one in modern Japan) inevitably discouraged the Chinese from traveling afar and for centuries diminished their voice in international affairs. Again, there is a parallel with the Japanese, who, though successful international traders, have not punched their weight in world politics.

Overpopulation is often cited as another cause of current Chinese backwardness. So what if there are well over one billion people in China and they are overcrowded? So are the Dutch and the Japanese, two of the most developed countries on earth. The population density of China is 127 people per square kilometer. In Japan it is 331, in the Netherlands, 380, and even in the United Kingdom it is 239! Large parts of China are uninhabitable, you say, but so is most of Japan.

The Political Handicap

Although China remained economically strong until the middle of the nineteenth century, the political situation worsened rapidly in the ensuing years. The Opium War with the British weakened her, and they took out a hundred-year lease on Hong Kong in 1897. Prime districts in Shanghai were taken over by British, American, French, and Russian “colonists,” among others. The fall of the last dynasty and the rise of warlords led to a deteriorating situation culminating in the Manchurian Incident and the establishment of the Japanese puppet state, Manchukuo. China slipped into anarchy in the 1920s and was plagued by further Japanese incursions in the 1930s, which developed into all-out war. The Japanese, intent on creating a “Greater Asian Co-prosperity Sphere,” occupied most of eastern China and drove the Chinese government to relocate its wartime capital as far west as Zhengzhou (Cheng-chou). Chiang Kai-shek rallied with Allied help, but his ultimate victory was short-lived, ending in Mao Zedong’s triumph in 1949.

Another recent explanation of China’s uneven development is the legacy of an unfortunate political period from 1949 to the advent of Deng Xiaoping.

Cognizant of the unrivaled durability, resilience, and opulence of Chinese civilization as well as the accumulated wisdom and composure of its people, I was nevertheless intensely curious to see for myself what actually happened on the ground. In 1985 China was in a particularly acute stage of transition (there have been many in her past). When Mao triumphed in 1949 and the “foreign devils” were forced to abandon all enclaves on Chinese soil save Hong Kong, the new leader imposed on China a political, ideological, and economic structure (Maoist Communism), which seemed to fly in the face of all that China stood for. The emperors had gone, it was true, but the hierarchical mentality of the Chinese, embedded since Confucius (551–479 B.C.), could not evaporate in a sudden change of dogma. Nobody in the Middle Kingdom had believed in equality of society for 2,000 years, and very few do today. Social discipline (essential in a sprawling, multiethnic country like China) was based on inequality—a comforting, familiar inequality, where the rights one possessed on one’s particular rung on the social ladder were unquestionably guaranteed. And what was all this about the primacy of the state? The Chinese had always been collectivist in behavior—they had to be to survive—but one’s first loyalty was to the family, where the unequal relationships between father and son, husband and wife, and older and younger siblings already provided a sound structure for a secure future and a venerable old age, when one was cared for by one’s children. Would bureaucrats in Beijing take care of the old folk in Xinjiang or even Guangzhou?

What prosperity had ever existed in China came from the hard work of the farmers and their ability to sell their produce on the best terms available or, in more modern times, their products from small family businesses, especially in that vast beehive of activity south of the Yangtze River. What about the strength of the great extended Chinese families who lived and worked not only in China but also prospered in London, San Francisco, Vancouver, Hawaii, Singapore, and throughout the peninsulas and archipelagos of Southeast Asia? Were the Wongs, the Zhangs, the Zhaos, the Chens to fade into insignificance, collectively pledging their obeisance to this unnatural structure—the Party—deriving not from any line of revered ancestors but in existence for only a blip in China’s history and conjured up, of all places, in barbarian Russia?

If the Party maintained its ideological grip on the Chinese in unrelenting fashion from 1949 to 1986, it speaks more for the utter ruthlessness of Mao and some who followed him than for any compatibility between a command economy and the innate Chinese entrepreneurial spirit. Mao knew how many millions of lives had been sacrificed in Russia and the Ukraine to keep Stalin in power; if there was one place in the world where life was “cheaper” than in Russia, it was China. Nearly a billion people suffered the yoke of complete totalitarianism for one decade after another. A brilliant prime minister, Zhou Enlai, gained favor with Mao and found meaningful dialogue with the West. Unfortunately, he died in his prime and, with the Great Leap Forward, premature and ill-planned industrialization plunged China into an abyss of failure, despair, discontent, and near starvation. When wise men began to speculate, Mao smashed the intelligentsia with the inappropriately named Cultural Revolution; starting in 1966, teachers, professors, doctors, lawyers, and all manner of non-manual workers were exiled to the countryside for five, ten, or twelve years’ hard labor, thereby teaching the people the true meaning of revolution.

Chinese civilization had rarely sunk so low. After Mao’s death, the Gang of Four, led by his wife, equaled him in cruelty and myopic vision. Only the rising star of the diminutive octogenerian Deng Xiaoping saved the country from further self-destruction. In 1976 he rescued the intelligentsia, liberalized the economy, and, while keeping the Communist Party in sole command, gave the green light to capitalism wherever a Chinese could find it. The people found plenty and soon started making money for themselves instead of surrendering everything to the collective. Deng declared, “It is glorious to get rich” and even allowed foreigners to come into China to advise people on how to do it.

Phenomenal China

Statistics relating to China are bewildering, mind-boggling, and often misleading. The population figures themselves are staggering when one grasps the fact that 1,300,000,000 people are equal in number to the combined populations of Europe, Russia, the United States, Canada, Mexico, and all of Central and South America! At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the GDP of this huge populace was approximately $1,000 billion—modest compared with the United States’ $8,000 billion and Japan’s $5,000 billion, and only on a par with the GDP of France or the United Kingdom. Similarly, the Chinese GDP per capita, at $800, pales into insignificance against Japan’s $41,000 per person.

But reality is not that simple. The power purchasing parity (PPP) calculation of China’s GDP suggests a comparable figure would be $4,000 billion, which brings China immediately into the big league. When Deng took power in 1978, two years after Mao’s death, China was getting weaker and poorer relative to the rest of the world and was struggling to feed its growing population. Deng’s solution was simple: capitalism. He introduced market prices for farmers, established property rights for the first time since 1949, opened up China to trade and foreign investment, and encouraged the importation of technology. The result was dramatic: China’s GDP grew at an average of 9.7 percent for two decades and 200 million people were lifted above the subsistence line. Although accurate figures are hard to come by, there are an estimated two million millionaires or more in China; 90 million Chinese earn more than $30,000 per annum; and Chinese individuals have more than $400 billion outside the banking system, “under the bed.” There are 10 million cars on the road; if China follows the United States and Japan in proportionate car use, there may not be enough oil in the world to keep them all running. There were 220 million credit card holders at the end of 2000.

Other statistics are no less amazing. Professor Yeh of Beijing University told me in 1995 that the government planned to move 200 million people from the countryside to the cities as part of the drive toward intensified industrialization. Recently I read that 420 million people are to be moved. There must be a big housing program under way. In fact we are told that 10 million people sleep on the streets in the big cities. It is hard to digest such figures, whether accurate or not, and equally difficult to forecast China’s development in the coming decades by juggling numbers of this magnitude. Some economists tell us that inevitably, China’s economy will overtake that of the United States by 2010. Or will it be 2020? The current health of the American economy suggests that it will be later rather than sooner.

When making predictions about China, it is perhaps safer to distance oneself to some extent from the bewildering statistics inevitably linked to such a huge nation and populace. Predictions based on such numbers have been wildly inaccurate in the past.

Who could have foreseen the incredible commercial success of Japan or even that of war-torn South Korea? Optimistic forecasts in the 1960s relating to the huge potential of giant countries such as Argentina and Brazil were never realized. On the other hand, tiny states such as Singapore and Taiwan surpassed all expectations. Less difficult to predict is how a country with a long, un- broken culture will behave. As Franois Guizot said some years ago,

When nations have existed for a long and glorious time, they cannot break with their past, whatever they do; they are influenced by it at the very moment when they work to destroy it; in the midst of the most glaring transformation they remain fundamentally in character and destiny such as their history has formed them.

The 1917 Revolution established seventy-odd years of Communism in Russia but failed to eradicate enduring Russian traits, many of which stubbornly resurfaced after perestroika. After World War II, Polish, Hungarian, and Czech Communists reshaped their nations’ destinies, only to see entrenched national traits overturn their plans in the 1980s and 1990s. Outsiders have even less success in effecting cultural change. Finnish culture survived more than seven hundred years of Swedish and Russian rule. African states reverted to ancient tribal alignments after independence from European powers that had redrawn their borders. Maori culture, after considerable assimilation with white New Zealanders, is currently reasserting its character inside a democratic framework. The older the culture, the more resilient the basic traits (which, after all, have stood the test of time).

China has a longer and more glorious past than any of us. Which of its cultural traits will persist in the twenty-first century? If we have to deal with the Chinese, or wish to, in the coming decades, what can we rely on?

Enduring Chinese Cultural Traits

When a nation believes in its own intellectual superiority, it does not abandon its ways lightly. This is particularly true when it perceives its superiority as having derived from moral and spiritual values, as China does. These are in abundant supply in Chinese self-assessment; they include wisdom, patience, gentleness, purity, impartiality, pride, sense of duty, filial piety, kindness, courtesy, respect for hierarchy, sincerity, family closeness, loyalty, tenacity, stoicism, moderation, respect for learning, diligence, self- sacrifice, thrift, and humility.

Looking at these self-ascribed qualities, the Westerner might conclude that such nice people will be easy to deal with. When faced with a dilemma, obviously they are going to do the right thing. Unfortunately, there are some complications. For instance, what, in Chinese eyes, is the right thing? They see us though their cultural spectacles, as we see them through ours. If we Westerners place truth before diplomacy and the Chinese reverse that priority, how should we assess their veracity? How can we come to terms with their inherent Confucian belief in human inequality, the basis of their respect for hierarchy? If, as collectivists, they perceive intellectual property rights as the product of the achievements of generations, how do we react if we see our technology appropriated without payment? How can we become reconciled to the view that human rights in the Western sense can only be fully granted after the stability of society has been guaranteed?

These dilemmas are engendered not so much by differences in basic, universal values (kindness, sincerity, loyalty, etc.) as by different notions of these concepts emerging from centuries (even millennia) of philosophical, spiritual, political, and locally pragmatic conditioning. The Chinese will comport themselves in the way they view as morally upstanding. We can predict with some confidence that the Chinese people and authorities in this century will pursue their core beliefs such as diligence, moderation, stoicism, respect for the elderly, conscientiousness, patriotism, and pride. The West’s relations with China will improve only to the degree that we make an attempt to gain insight into their cultural patterns and behaviors and learn to interact with them more effectively. Which characteristics are going to predominate throughout the century, and how should we deal with them? I list what I believe to be the most important traits in random order below.

Confucian Tenets

The Confucian ethical system has prevailed in China since 500 B.C. and will continue to set the tone for Chinese behavior in the twenty-first century. To review, Confucianism teaches that people are not equal, that they play different roles in society. People are also regulated by specific relationships that dictate their obligations toward other people. When the Chinese are engaged with Westerners, they will act in accordance with these ancient tenets. We must remember they do not have “free hands.”


Guanxi is a special relationship within the Confucian framework, governing the exchange of favors and usually involving position or rank. Westerners operating with the Chinese in the twenty- first century will not be able to remain wholly outside the guanxi system. It is an important part of building positive personal relationships and entails reciprocal gift giving, which is seen as a social investment. Through guanxi eventually two people are linked in a relationship of mutual dependence. Gift giving and exchange of favors are not seen by the Chinese as a form of bribery. Guanxi is intuitive, not calculating, and it is not limited to the business scene. The weaker party may expect to receive more and contribute less to the exchange—this is another form of Confucian unequal relationships and laudable in Chinese eyes. Westerners should be generous when circumstances afford and when the relationship is important. The guanxi process should begin before actual business or social transactions take place; it is more elegant that way. Incidentally, once begun, the process never stops—so be cautious!


The concept of “face” in Asia is unlike face anywhere else. Face (personal reputation) completely dominates everyday behavior in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and, to a lesser degree, in other Asian countries. The Westerner dealing with the Chinese must learn to coexist with and respect face as a living reality. To the Chinese, one’s personal dignity, reputation, and honor are precious attributes, to an even greater degree than is the case with sensitive Spaniards, Mexicans, and Sicilians. Latin honor is often intertwined with macho aspirations, bravery, and the like; Asian face involves moral repute, basic integrity, trustworthiness, and even such disparate qualities as kindness, competence, and conscience. May the Westerner beware of imputing any base motives or deficiency of character that might impinge on or in any way threaten the Chinese perceived wholeness. Should we do so, our own integrity will be shattered as well, and any further relationships will be difficult, if not unattainable.


The Chinese consider virtue more important than truth, for they believe there is no absolute, scientific truth. Truth depends on circumstance and is at its most meaningful in a virtuous context. A good example of this is seen in the Chinese saying, “A lie is not a lie if it prevents shame.” This is no more illogical than the Western saying, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Is beauty any more durable than truth? Saving face and preventing the embarrassment of another is obviously virtuous, so there you have it. It will take the Chinese more than a mere century to change this view. Virtue has, over the centuries, been of paramount significance for the Chinese. It is one of the goals of life. They also believe they are more virtuous than others. Truth and honesty are ambiguous concepts, open to many interpretations. Virtue shines brightly; it is unmistakable.

Harmony and Patience

The Chinese idea of harmony is similar to the Japanese concept of wa—a system of conciliatory relationships and actions that smooths the running of business and the functioning of society. First meetings in China are devoted to the creation of early stages of harmony and attempts to establish trust and status. There may be several meetings of this kind, interspersed with no little amount of socializing. The Chinese prefer not to start discussing business seriously until at least a modicum of harmony with the other side has been achieved. Americans, in particular, are often impatient to “get the show on the road” and begin meetings and even negotiations at an early stage. This does not and will not work in China. The Chinese will continue to establish social and work relationships according to their timetable, which will inevitably involve many preliminaries and “toing-and-froing” that will test American and European patience. The Internet and the electronic proximity it provides may speed things up a trifle, but the essential getting-to-know-you procedure will continue. It is a well- tried and essential component of Chinese cultural procedure.

Which brings us to the question of patience, for which the Chinese are well-known. They are in fact two or three times as patient as the British, who are not known for their impetuosity. Americans would certainly not even be in the top ten. The Chinese, now well aware of Westerners’ impatience, often use delaying tactics to gain advantage, frequently causing Westerners to make errors of judgment born of imprudent haste. The maxim “More haste, less speed” is true nowhere more than in China. The Chinese qualities of patience, perseverance, and stamina are factors to be seriously reckoned with in the future. They can— and most likely will—outlast all of us.


Humility, as prescribed by Confucius, is one of the cornerstones of Chinese behavior; any form of ostentation or boasting is an absolute taboo. The greater one’s ability to demonstrate personal humility, the higher the esteem one will enjoy. Westerners, though they will never be able to plumb the depths of Chinese self-abnegation, would do well to try to achieve at least some degree of modesty if they wish to win respect. An eighty-year-old Chinese master carpenter visited his son in the United States. The son introduced him to a prospective temporary employer (an American), who reportedly had the following conversation with the carpenter:

Employer: Have you done carpentry work before?

Carpenter: I don’t dare say that I have. I have just been in a very modest way involved in the carpenter trade.

Employer: What are you skilled in, then?

Carpenter: I won’t say “skilled.” I have only a little experience in making tables.

Employer: Can you make something now and show us how good you are?

Carpenter: How dare I be so indiscreet as to demonstrate my crude skills in front of a master of the trade like you.


Hierarchical differences—another Confucian feature—are greater between Chinese of different ranks than between Americans, Britons, and Northern Europeans. The Chinese social or business pyramid is rarely flat by Western standards, and seniors are normally approachable only on their own terms, though kindness is expected to radiate downward. One can foresee a reduction in hierarchical extremes in the twenty-first century, as the Internet and more facility with foreign languages will enable many Chinese to bypass their superiors, but the general hierarchical principle will endure. Westerners should respect it. Frank, open exchange between colleagues of different ages and ranks is not going to be typical of Chinese office routines for decades to come.

One must always bear in mind that one of the basic premises of Confucian philosophy is that inequality creates stability in human affairs. Chinese, Japanese, and other Asians feel uncomfortable when having to deal with people of exactly equal rank. Equality engenders rivalry, competition, perhaps confrontation, conflict, or dispute. Subordinates on both sides suffer confusion without clear directives from above. Superiority or inferiority settles the issue. Superiors may command freely, while demonstrating kindness and compassion as well as wisdom. Inferiors are happy to obey wise instructions, and they benefit from benevolent advice, while demonstrating loyalty and trust. They are also absolved from responsibility and blame. It is a mutually satisfactory and essentially comforting situation. New generations of Chinese may seek to moderate the steep slope of the pyramid, but they are hardly likely to envision horizontal communication.


“Brutal” frankness on the part of Westerners is indeed brutal (or barbaric) to the Chinese. Enough has been said in other parts of this book to remind the reader that indirect, oblique—often opaque—speech is a keystone of Asian communication. Criticism, appraisal, even laudatory comments are all couched in hesitant, woolly forms of expression that allow the listener to read between the lines and enjoy the protective ambiguity that such parlance offers. It is the same with questioning. The more indirect the question is, the clearer the answer is likely to be. The Chinese excel in such courtesies—the Westerner should listen and learn the game.

Wizened and Wiser

Confucianism also bestows power on elderly men. This has been noticeable in postwar years in the structure of Chinese leader- ship. It is not easy in Asia for a younger man or woman to command seniors, and Chinese look askance on visiting American and European executives who are rich in titles but poor in years.

We can expect exaggerated deference to age to diminish in China in this century as the technological age fortifies its most enthusiastic adherents—the young—but it will be advisable for Westerners to pay exaggerated tribute to the age, wisdom, and experience of their Chinese partners for a few decades yet. Perhaps at mid-century a better balance between age and experience on one side and youth and talent on the other will have been achieved.


The shining individual brilliance often displayed in the West— and certainly strongly in evidence in the early years of the IT Revolution—is not greatly prized in Chinese or Japanese society, although among younger generations of Japanese a new form of tentative individualism is on the rise. Even young Chinese habitually subordinate personal goals to those of the collectives. Many see their personal and collective goals as being the same. The collective feeling—that of belonging to a group—is so strong in China that the average Chinese does not feel whole, or complete, as a single human unit. Only by being a useful component of a caring group, assembly, or organization can he or she experience complete self-fulfillment. Western egotism or persistent individualism is an entirely alien concept to a Chinese. How can such selfishness—conceit—be possible? Western businesspeople would do well to respect the Chinese collective spirit, which is in harmony with the rest of Asia and will not disappear in this century.


Successful engagement with China in the twenty-first century will depend on the West’s ability to develop a more sophisticated approach than that adopted from 1950–2000—basically a yo-yo- like ricocheting between extremes of sympathy and antipathy. The least sophisticated—and most dangerous—policy would be that of isolationism, on either side’s part. In the past favorably strategic geography (with two vast protecting oceans) has allowed the United States to flirt with the illusion that it can live in isolation from the rest of humanity and would stand to lose little by doing so. This is no longer viable. Technology, in the form of electronic proximity, has replaced geography. China, for its part, has nearly 5,000 years of relative isolationism to set aside. Such a long history of ethnocentrism and inwardness will not be easy to overcome, but the IT Revolution will take its toll on Chinese seclusionism. Europeans, historically, have few isolationist policies to answer for, though no doubt the Chinese would have preferred that they had, instead of the adventurist, imperialist campaigns that caused China so much angst.

China’s path out of isolationism and sequestration lies in its increasing involvement and participation in global and regional institutions—the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, and so forth. If the United States and Europe encourage China’s membership in these bodies, Western debate on China’s role will be less likely to continually return to those troublesome dichotomies we are so familiar with—trade versus human rights, wealth versus morality, cooperation versus obstructionism. The West’s prediction (and hope) is that in the coming decades, the market economy will prove not only beneficial but also incompatible with centralized power. That power is currently held by the communists, but if China continues to open up, the system may not be able to hold to the party line much longer. Liberal logic would suggest that if growth continues to gather momentum, the Party will eventually be damned, and if the economy worsens, it will be damned anyway. The only thing wrong with this argument is that oppressive regimes have a habit of staying around—Cuba, Indonesia, and Iraq are examples.

Again, a safer route to follow in forecasting China’s evolution in the twenty-first century is the cultural one. Which aspect of the Chinese mentality will predominate in the next twenty years? Traditional centralization from Beijing and the traditional north? Adventurous entrepreneurialism among the people living south of the Yangtze? Another retreat from the meddlesome “foreign devils”?

If there is one dominant trait in the Chinese people, it is a unifying one—their patriotism or, better expressed, their sense of nation. Even more intriguing, this persuasion is also embraced by the Overseas Chinese. When we talk of the Chinese, we should remember that the mainland Chinese, though comprising 95 percent of all Chinese, are only one part of a big picture. The sixty million Overseas Chinese (fifty-five million live in Asia) have a combined GDP estimated at $900 billion, which makes them the eighth largest economy in the world, on a par with Brazil and well ahead of tenth-place Canada. Just over a decade ago, Hong Kong’s five million inhabitants had greater purchasing power than the PRC’s one billion! Overseas Chinese in Taiwan, Singapore, London, Paris, Toronto, Vancouver, and in many parts of the United States share this prosperity. More importantly, they share hopes of a flourishing Pan-Sinic future for all Chinese. More than any other nationality, the Chinese act like they are all members of one big family. When a Zhang in Hong Kong needs extra capital to invest in Shenzen, he or she might well contact second cousin Zhang in Vancouver, or perhaps cousin Zhang in Kuala Lumpur.

The presence of a few million Chinese in Southeast Asia should also not be overlooked. Overseas Chinese are thought to control over 80 percent of listed companies in Singapore, over 75 percent in Thailand, 72 percent in Indonesia, 60 percent in Malaysia, and more than 50 percent in the Philippines. How have Chinese Southeast Asian residents been so successful in taking over businesses? In Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, where people are almost exclusively of Chinese origin, the answer is obvious, but what about Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines? The answer probably is that the work ethic possessed by Confucian disciples is much less evident in Muslim cultures and even less so where Buddhism is prevalent, as there are certain taboos concerning materialism and the amassing of wealth in both religions. Be that as it may, nearly all of Southeast Asian business is virtually leased out to resident Chinese, who often adopt local names and set about integrating themselves into the local economies.

The Overseas Chinese have been largely successful over the years, acquiring cosmopolitan and international skills, while simultaneously establishing an acceptable relationship with other nationals. They were slaughtered unmercifully at the time of Sukarno’s demise in Indonesia, but this was a political reaction rather than any lasting desire on the part of the locals to take over business. The wide-ranging international experience of the Over- seas Chinese living in Southeast Asia, the United States, Canada, and in major European cities will prove of enormous benefit to the development of the PRC in the coming decades. The family feeling is strong and enduring. The Overseas Chinese contributed more than 80 percent of all foreign investment in the PRC during the last decade of the twentieth century. Even Taiwan, despite the ongoing animosity between the two governments, is eager to get in on the act, financing factories and contributing managerial skills across the straits. The devolution of Hong Kong to China in 1997 is, naturally, of enormous value to the PRC in terms of commercial know-how, as a source of capital, and as a premier outlet for trade.

These connections are also valuable to the West. British, North Americans, and many Europeans are accustomed to a local Chinese presence that can walk and talk with Westerners who accept their trade and eat in their ubiquitous restaurants. PRC authorities, far from shunning their ring of capitalist brothers and sisters abroad, will seek their help and connective skills. This in turn will help Americans and others to communicate, empathize, and ultimately deal extensively with China. It will be a long and slow process, probably with many setbacks, but in a sense it is inexorable. Overseas Chinese are ideal go-betweens (itself a Chinese concept). They will remain capitalist, but at the same time they will remain Chinese. Mainlanders will become increasingly aware of the feasibility of this duopoly.

Cultural Imperative
Cultural Imperative: Global Trends in the 21st Century
ISBN: 1877864986
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 108 © 2008-2020.
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