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

Part 1 of this post listed seven characteristics of mainland Chinese culture which can complicate political interactions with the West, and discussed the first three:  a high value on order, collectivism over individuality, and saving face.  This post will explain the remaining four:  political patience, relationships as the key to success, non-linear thinking, and the relativity of truth.

Political patience is one of the most powerful weapons in China’s diplomatic and military arsenal, particularly against an impatient superpower like the US.  As Harvard Professor Graham Allison put it:  “Americans tend to focus on the present and often count in hours or days. Chinese, on the other hand, are more historical-minded and often think in terms of decades and even centuries… U.S. politicians take to Twitter or announce alliterative, bullet-point policy plans that promise quick solutions. In contrast, Chinese leaders are strategically patient: as long as trends are moving in their favor, they are comfortable waiting out a problem.”

Exhibit A for the application of political patience is Hong Kong.  In 1898, the British Empire obtained a 99 year lease to the island.  By the time it expired in 1997, the UK and China had negotiated an agreement for a 50 year transition period under the principle of “one country, two systems.”  This assured that Hong Kong would maintain its democratic government and capitalist economy separate from the mainland until at least 2047.

Danger signs began appearing within a few years, with Beijing pushing for more control and protestors in Hong Kong pushing back.  This peaked in 2019, when Beijing proposed a new law which would permit Hong Kong residents accused of crimes to be extradited to the mainland.  Half a million took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest.  When the extradition law was finally withdrawn after seven months of protests, activists said it was too little too late, and the protests continued.

In Hong King, protests like this disappeared in 2020 after Beijing passed a strict new security law.

By May 2020, Beijing had had enough and announced that its legislature was considering a sweeping new national security law to govern Hong Kong.  According to a New York Times report, the law defined “four offenses — separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers — with penalties up to life imprisonment. It [also] demanded oversight of schools and media.”  (Maybe it was just a coincidence, but China put this policy into effect at a time when Washington was distracted by the coronavirus crisis, and a series of Black Lives Matter protests.) The law was passed on June 30, 2020 and went into effect the same day. 

In less than two years since then, over 100 of Hong Kong’s most well-known activists have been arrested, and the crackdown is still underway.  Just a few weeks ago “police arrested six current and former executives… [of] Stand News, one of the last independent news organizations in Hong Kong… in predawn raids, accusing them of a conspiracy to publish ‘seditious’ material.”

Fortunately, there are signs that the US is becoming more sophisticated about dealing with China’s political patience.  In January 2021, Rush Doshi was appointed director for China at the National Security Council.  Doshi is the author of a recent book entitled “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order.”  While some scholars believe that China’s leader Xi Jinping is responsible for China’s current aggressiveness, Doshi argues that Xi’s actions are all part of a master plan based on political patience.  So we can only hope that the US will factor China’s political patience into its thinking… at least until a new administration disagrees. 

Another East/West difference which can complicate mutual understanding is the fact that in China relationships are the key to success.  The Mandarin term guanxi has become so common that it is defined in the Oxford English dictionary as: “the system of social networks and influential relationships which facilitate business and other dealings.”  But that definition is just the start.  The concept of guanxi is so complex and so critical that entire books have been written about it.

Confucianism holds that the basis of society lies in the family, and that proper behavior starts within the family circle.  One’s network of personal connections — and the importance of guanxi — builds out from there to include friends, friends of friends, and business partners. All of these relationships must be built over time, to assure trust and mutual respect.

In this context, the most important fact about guanxi is, as Richard Conrad put it in Culture Hacks (p. 166 and 187):  “China has one set of rules for conduct within the extended family or clan group and a much different set of rules for those outside of the group… When an official steals money from the state to help his family in China, he sees himself as being virtuous.”

If it’s OK to steal from fellow citizens as long as they are outside your network of connections, imagine how foreigners can be treated.  Conrad also wrote (p. 192) that after traveling to 31 of the 32 provinces in China, “[I] have never been robbed, though I have, from my Western perspective, been cheated in almost every province I visited.”  As James McGregor summed it up in his book One Billion Customers (Kindle loc 269):  “China has allowed foreigners in only on its own terms, and those terms are often opaque, contradictory and bewildering… negotiations can take forever and the resulting agreements can be promptly ignored.” 

When it comes to US-China communication, one of the most confusing and frustrating differences is the next on our list:  non-linear thinking.

When I earned a PhD in Psychology several decades ago, I spent five years learning to identify the underlying causes of human behavior using linear logic, in which A causes B and B causes C.  But (Culture Hacks, p. 112) “the Chinese believe the world is far too complex for simple linear logic. Rather than focusing on unifying rules or patterns, Chinese thinking became as complex as the perceived world.”

This difference extends even to the games we play.  In the West, chess is a popular linear game in which each move proceeds logically to the next.  In China and other Asian countries, a more popular game is “go,” which is played on a larger board with many more possible moves.  To win, one must surround the other player’s pieces, an art in which each move can be affected by the overall context of the board.

Go is a far more complicated game than chess.  Computers became able to beat skilled human chess players several decades ago, most famously in 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat world champion Gary Kasparov in a six game match.  But for go, a comparable result required another two decades of research, until Google’s Alpha Go program beat 18-time world champion Lee Sodol in 2016.

This sort of situation-dependent complexity can be especially frustrating for Westerners when combined with the seventh and last trait from our list:  the relativity of truth.  “China is a relative society and doesn’t believe in absolute right or wrong… If one can get away with a crime and not get caught, then there is nothing wrong with it.”  (Conrad, p. 192)

Like so many other things in China, truth depends on context.  What is right in one context may be wrong in another.  This can be extremely confusing to Westerners.  For example, when Western bankers evaluate the financial position of a company, they look at statements such as “profit and loss” based on the records in a company’s accounting books.  But “Chinese companies will often have one set of books for public investors to see, one set for the government and tax authorities, and then the real set of books… they believe in different truths for different audiences.” (Conrad, p 122)

Even worse, “to the Western mind, once a bargain is struck, it shouldn’t be modified; a deal is a deal. For Easterners, agreements are often regarded as tentatively agreed-upon guides for the future.”  (Conrad, p. 196)

The political consequences can easily be seen in the case of Hong Kong.  In 1984, China and the UK signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration which guaranteed that the “one country two systems” approach to Hong Kong government would last until 2047.  But around the time of the first major Hong Kong protests in 2014, “The government began dismissing [the agreement] as a relic… a Chinese diplomat in London said the declaration was ‘now void,’ according to a British lawmaker.”  For Hong Kong, the “one country, two systems” approach began to be phased out in 2020, 27 years before the agreed upon deadline of 2047.

The US’s naïve belief that China would live up to its signed agreements is also behind a number of other diplomatic mis-steps, right up to the fact that, as a headline in Fortune magazine put it that “The centerpiece of Trump’s trade deal with China ‘failed spectacularly’.”

The seven differences described here unquestionably complicate today’s relationships between China and the US.  But on the positive side, as Nisbett noted in The Geography of Thought (p 227) there is “evidence that cognitive processes could be modified even after relatively limited amounts of time spent in another culture.”   If globalization continues to march on at its pre-pandemic pace, it is reasonable to expect that these cultural differences will gradually shrink and even disappear.

But until then, as Harvard Professor Graham Allison wrote in Foreign Affairs,  “misunderstandings are magnified, empathy remains elusive, and events and third-party actions that would otherwise be inconsequential or manageable can trigger wars that the primary players never wanted to fight.”

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