Are the people of mainland China just like Americans? (Part 1 of 2)

If you had been born in mainland China anytime in the last century, you, your parents, and your grandparents would have lived through a number of major upheavals including:

– The Chinese Civil War (1927-1949) between the Kuomintang government of the Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party.

– The Japanese occupation of China in World War II (1937-1945).

– The great famine (1959-1961) in which more than 30 million died.

– The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in which Mao Zedong inspired youth to violent class struggle to root out the “Four Olds”:  Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Customs.  They did so with a vengeance.  The total death toll is unknown but has been estimated as high as 20 million.

– The fastest economic growth of any country in history (1978-present).

Mainland Chinese people from previous generations went through much worse.  Over the course of several thousand years of Chinese civilization, there has been a near constant series of wars between competing regional factions and warlords. In his thought provoking book Has China Won (p. 11), Kishore Mahbubani, former president of the UN Security Council, argues that “As the Chinese look back over two thousand years, they are acutely aware that the past thirty years under CCP rule have been the best thirty years that Chinese civilization has experienced since China was united by Qin Shi Huang in 221 BCE.”

Given the head spinning changes of the last century, it would not be surprising if mainland Chinese wanted a little peace and quiet, and placed a high value on order.  This is consistent with an ironic “Chinese curse,” usually translated as “May you live in interesting times.”  According to Richard Conrad, a researcher who lives in Asia, a more accurate translation from the original Mandarin would be far more forceful: “I’d rather be a dog in times of peace than a human in times of upheaval.” The high value that mainland Chinese place on order is also consistent with Confucius’ emphasis on hierarchy and harmony, as expressed in his “first imperative: Know thy place.”   (Culture Hacks, p. 120)

This is the first of seven mainland Chinese cultural characteristics which can have a major impact on political relations with the West:

– High value on order

– Collectivism over individuality

– Saving face

– Political patience

– Relationships as the key to success

– Non-linear thinking

– The relativity of truth

While others have proposed different lists (including one quoted in my first post in this blog), there can be little doubt that significant differences exist. If you are not convinced, simply Google a phrase like “doing business in China” and start reading all the books about how radically different it is from doing business in the US, based in part on Chinese culture. 

There is also a body of academic research supporting significant cultural differences.  In The Geography of Thought, social psychologist Richard Nisbett conducted and reviewed dozens of studies and concluded (Kindle loc 147) that “there are… dramatic differences in the nature of Asian and European thought processes.”  People think differently about the world as a result of societal differences that date back to ancient Greece and China.

But in today’s politically correct world, few Americans understand these differences or their implications.  And it can be politically risky to even talk about them.  Just ask Kiron Skinner.  In 2018, she was appointed Director of Policy Planning at the US Department of State, and given the task of overseeing the development of a new US policy on China.  But in April 2019, Skinner gave a speech which characterized the US-China relationship as “a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology… It’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.”  Among the political implications, Ms. Skinner argued that “it would be impossible because of cultural differences for the United States to make appeals based on human rights to Chinese and use that as a wedge against the Communist Party.”  

Skinner’s warning is based on the fact that for several decades China has been promoting a different definition of human rights, in which, as Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin put it in February 2021:  “China… Regards the rights to subsistence and development as the primary, basic human right.”  For the Chinese, if you and your children don’t have enough to eat, THAT is a violation of human rights that trumps all others.  Similarly, CCP officials often talk about events in the US like crime, riots and school shootings as violations of the security aspect of human rights, and signs of the superiority of their system     

Whether you think China’s definition has a certain common sense appeal or is an evil and convoluted twist of the very phrase, the gap in understanding does support Skinner’s conclusion that this issue is not a promising place to start negotiations.  But that is exactly what the US often seems to be doing.  For example, a few weeks ago the US announced a diplomatic boycott of Beijing’s Winter Olympics in February.  White House Press secretary Jen Psaki described the reason as “egregious human rights abuses and atrocities [of Muslim Uighurs] in Xinjiang”  (For background, see this previous post.)

Whatever their validity, Skinner’s comments about “non-Caucasians” led to a huge outcry over racism, just about everywhere except China.  There, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post ran an article entitled “Culture and race can’t be ignored in US-China rivalry – American official Kiron Skinner is right.”  A few months later Skinner was forced out of her job, in part due to the public outcry over her “racism.”  Which is a bit ironic given that Skinner is herself African American.

Skinner’s views can be traced to Samuel Huntington’s highly influential 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations which argued (p. 20) that “culture and cultural identities… are shaping the pattern of… conflict in the post-Cold War world.”  Admittedly, among political scientists this is a minority view.  Most instead favor Francis Fukuyama’s  view that that the entire world would gradually converge on a single system: liberal democracy with free market capitalism, as explained in his book The End of History.

Fukuyama’s view has been widely accepted, Nisbett wrote (p. 220) “especially [by] Americans, who tend to assume that everyone is really an American at heart, or if not, it’s only a matter of time until they will be.”  I wish I believed Fukuyama, but I side with Huntington in thinking that the cultural split between East and West will be an important and continuing source of tension for the foreseeable future. 

The second cultural difference listed above is collectivism over individuality.  As one reviewer of Nisbett’s book put it “The key concept in East Asia is harmony, where collective goals are held as more important than individual goals.”  Or, in the more colloquial words of Conrad’s book (p. 201), in China “the emphasis is on avoiding disrupting the harmony of the group by being different, thinking differently, or being a nail that sticks out.”

From an early age, American children are taught to be individualistic while mainland Chinese children are taught the value of collective values and action.

Of course, this is in direct contrast to the high value Americans place on individualism.  In his fascinating Foreign Affairs article China Vs. America – Managing the Next Clash of Civilizations, Harvard Professor Graham Allison noted that “the Chinese term for ‘individualism’—gerenzhuyi—suggests a selfish preoccupation with oneself over one’s community. China’s equivalent of ‘give me liberty or give me death’ would be ‘give me a harmonious community or give me death.’”

As a result of this cultural difference, “A person from China is more prone to look at how their acts affect the whole instead of how [they] affect them personally. They are more willing to give up and sacrifice for the greater good.”

In the last few years, I can’t remember reading about many Americans who were willing to sacrifice their individual rights for the greater good.  If you have the slightest doubt about the value Americans place on individual rights, try having a conversation with somebody who disagrees with you on vaccination or gun control. 

The third and final cultural gap to be described in this post is “saving face.”  Americans are not fond of looking foolish, but in China this is much much more important.  “The Chinese prize face above all else, and will sacrifice money, honor, and their own health to gain it.”  (Culture Hacks, p. 124)

A lack of understanding of face is one of the many cultural traps that faces Americans hoping to do business in China.  There are many ways to go wrong.  For example, according to Conrad (p. 210): “Westerners can sometimes inadvertently cause someone to lose face by saying ‘no’ too directly, contradicting something someone says, not listening attentively to someone, interrupting them, criticizing someone publicly, not letting another pay for a meal, turning down a toast, or even not walking as far as possible when sending someone off.”  An article entitled 13 Major Cultural Differences Between China and the United States put it this way: “To prove a point and show yourself in the right, even over business issues, is considered shameful and should be avoided.”

In politics, the lack of understanding of face can cause more serious problems than hurt feelings or lost business.  One examples is described in Conrad’s book (p. 123), “In 1993, soon after becoming president, Bill Clinton bluntly told the Chinese not to conduct any more nuclear weapons tests. Given that President Clinton said this to the Chinese publicly, the only way they could save face and show that they weren’t in a subordinate position to the US, was by publicly testing another nuclear device. To make their point abundantly clear, the Chinese conducted two nuclear tests.”  

Oops.

Part 2 of this brief series will describe the other four cultural traits from the list above, and how to avoid gaffes like Clinton’s, based on a better understanding of US-China cultural differences.

4 thoughts on “Are the people of mainland China just like Americans? (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Jim, as always I appreciate these posts. My first thought was “ oh snap” if you don’t know your enemy you cannot win. Americans surely do not. Think a famous Chinese said something like that.Be well ,Tom

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  2. Pingback: Are the people of mainland China just like Americans? (Part 2 of 2) | Understanding China, five minutes at a time

  3. Pingback: The Rule of Law – China style | Understanding China, five minutes at a time

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