Dragons and dinosaur views: the Chinese enigma that isn't

The West believes China to be immutable and inscrutable, but in truth we are much more alike than we are different, says Peter Brady

January 22, 2009

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, China is seen as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. It is an economic threat, the trading partner of choice, the world's worst polluter, the place we choose to manufacture our goods, a country of communists and the home of millions of entrepreneurial capitalists.

You have only to open a newspaper or turn on the television to learn that China is different and dangerous. Recent stories have blamed China for global warming, the price of Christmas trees in Germany and even the taste of Hershey bars not being what it was - apparently, the country's newfound appetite for dairy products has increased the cost of milk and forced a change in the recipe. In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, reports of pollution and human rights abuses were as common as sports news.

This idea of China being fundamentally different (prevalent among academics and business gurus), combined with a perception in the West that its culture is unchanging and timeless, has led to a misperception that the Chinese operate in a realm cut off from the rest of us and that there are huge disparities between our cultures that can be understood but never bridged. From this has sprung up an industry investigating, explaining and exaggerating the differences in cultures and how to deal with them.

The mantra is that it is the West that needs to adapt - Chinese culture has lasted 5,000 years and is not going to change any time soon. You can find hundreds of seminars, courses, training programmes and self-help books that teach everything from how to present a business card with two hands to the 100 ways to understand what "yes" really means. More and more universities teach about cultural differences in their programmes using the Chinese as the main example.

In 2003, Harvard Business Review published a paper on negotiation in China. It explained that to negotiate successfully with the Chinese you must understand the "four thick threads of culture" that have bound them for 5,000 years. Negotiators should use the "eight elements" of Chinese negotiation style, including renji hexie (interpersonal harmony) and chiku nailao (eating bitterness and enduring labour).

Since then, numerous papers, programmes and courses have focused on teaching engineers, bankers and managers the Confucian route to harmonic negotiation. Without understanding this and the history of Chinese culture, no business deal in China could possibly survive - or so we are told.

But Chinese immigrants are among the most entrepreneurial and successful in the world. You only have to look to Singapore and Hong Kong to see just how hard work, flexibility and a will to win can overcome obstacles such as lack of natural resources and overpopulation.

Would either of these powerhouses have been successful if the Chinese had remained hidebound by tradition, or been insulted by cultural slip-ups in negotiations? Of course not: the Singaporeans and other Chinese immigrants have maintained their Chinese identity and culture but never let it get in the way of business. Neither do their counterparts on the mainland.

One lesson we could take from the credit crunch is that professional cultures are global and transcend national differences. Bankers are bankers the world over. Whether it is a seemingly staid gentleman from England or a brash American, when push comes to shove they all behave the same. Likewise, when two engineers from different cultures or a group of academics sit down together, the conversation soon becomes specialised and specific to their profession.

The Chinese academics I have talked to are frustrated because their counterparts from the West seem to cling to an outdated view of their country - all bicycles and dragons, as one put it. In those circumstances, the idea of there being a need to adapt to Chinese culture can be a barrier to successful discussions.

That being said, there are differences in culture and it is useful to be aware of them. It helps make the initial stages of negotiation easier. But the important point is that we are much more alike than we are different, and a partnership that is good for both sides will succeed. Maybe China isn't such a riddle after all.

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