Keeping China Down

I remember I was at work in our Shanghai office many years ago when I first encountered white collar conflict, Chinese Style.  My boss was a Chinese.  We were both less than ten feet from HIS boss, another overpaid, over weight expat that knew nothing about China but enjoyed the knowledge he was indeed, for a short time anyway, important.  He was a short, stodgy fellow with a scar across his cheek that yawned a lot.  He liked to play golf.

Suddenly another mid level Chinese manager walked by.  He was the manager of something, of which I’ve long forgotten.   An upcoming biz trip was right around the corner, my boss said something to the other manager, and the other fellow responded with a dismissive tone, and suddenly in the blink of an eye these two mid level managers were both nose to nose, right outside the unknowing Expat’s office. 

If I had to use just one word to describe the typical Western Expat in China, it would be “OBLIVIOUS”.  

The dictionary describes “OBLIVIOUS” as “lacking conscious awareness…unmindful”. 

Fair enough.

I would prefer to use the word “LOST”.   UNKNOWINGLY IGNORANT also comes to mind.   That is, not knowing what you don’t know.    In this case, not understanding the dynamics of his own staff.
Case in point?  Not 10 feet from the entrance to his office a fight was in danger of breaking out between two white collar managers over something so frivolous that not even I would have been offended by it.

I’ve since seen many, many such incidents in my over twenty years working in China.  Behavior more proper for a kindergarten than a workplace full of mature grownups.   I’ve seen meetings turn into shouting matches, collaboration and teamwork out the window.  Sometimes even as the customer is in the elevator on the way up.  

Does this happen in the West?  Of course it does.  But we in the West have self regulating mechanisms that control our behavior in the workplace.  It’s called the background check.   A Letter of Reference.  Performance Review.   Very few Chinese companies have these things.  Combined with the renowned ability of the Chinese to argue with each other, workplace drama is the norm, not the exception.

Still, the propensity for conflict amongst the Chinese in the workplace is something one rarely hears about.   The immature behavior, the inability to come to a consensus, the ease with which a grownup is so quickly offended, would be funny if not so true. 

As such I believe it is not I, nor you, nor any Western Government, let alone military that “keeps China down”, or “contained”.  Rather, it is the Chinese themselves.   The culturally ingrained need for FACE can be a huge impediment when trying to collaborate.   Indeed, I would argue that the biggest irony of all in this Socialist Paradise called China is the inability of Chinese Society to work for the Greater Good. 

As I’ve said before, the individual has long since stopped even pretending to give lip service to this mantra and perhaps more so than in any other country today, is out for himself.   So how can Chinese in the workplace not be any different?  Is the Greater Good of any Chinese Company really ever taken into consideration by its workers anymore?  

Two things drive this behavior:

The growing disparity of wealth between the workers and management, and the failure of management to get “buy in” from the staff.   More precisely, the lack of top down communication from Senior Mgt on the vision of the company. 

On a Macro Level, it’s this inability thus not to work for the Greater Good that keeps China down.  That in effect, “Contains China”.  It isn’t the newest missile.  Or Trade Sanction.  Or Super Secret Diplomatic Gathering.  Rather it is the mentality of the Chinese towards each other, and towards the workplace, that drives either the failure or success of China today and in the future.

You will recall I have spoken of the Great Brain Drain within China, still continuing unabated.   (And despite China’s best efforts there also continues to be capital flight.)   The truly talented and ambitious don’t stay.   People like to talk about how many Chinese are flowing across American borders.  Well….they go to Sweden, too.   And Germany. (Anywhere except Mexico.  I saw zero Chinese in Mexico.)  

Anywhere basically where their research will not be stolen and they can have a salary in foreign currency.   Anywhere a talented fellow can spend most of his energy NOT on trying to figure out who to suck up to, or give gifts to, but on simply trying to be best, do his best.  And that place still isn’t China.

And the government cannot stop it.   How can Chinese Leadership stop it’s best and brightest from going abroad when they send their own kids to Harvard? 

On a micro level one needs to ask the basic question:  How can China succeed if Chinese can’t get along with each other in the workplace?  If the propensity for pettiness and overreaction to the slightest perceived slight is common place? 

More vital, how can China take it to the next level?

This goes back to EQ.  Plain old maturity.  I find it’s more common in the China Female than the Male. 

Understanding the hierarchy is important in every company, regardless of culture.  Yet I can still have a fellow give me direction, and order up a memo on something, and as long as I am clear he is a VP, you bet your ass I’ll follow his direction.   In China it is still all based on who your 老大 is.   And if you are not his 老大, nothing will move.    A Chinese organization is just more territorial.  Turf is more rigidly protected, and that slows everything down.  

China’s ability to do great things will depend not just on money, but on its ability to have successful collaboration with each other.   The next big technological achievement everyone is waiting for China to accomplish is sending a Man to the Moon…..and bringing him back safely.    Unlike in the transparent West, we have no idea where China really stands on this project.  But if there are delays, I will argue that China’s very poorly developed sense of EQ and inability to work together will be the main cause.   Certainly not any sort of a Mysterious Western Plot to sabotage China’s Destiny.


  1. As with everything, confrontations like this happen everywhere. But seeing them in China was shocking to me. Fights, angry arguments, and people throwing things at each other in public are not uncommon in China. I found it all very unsettling. Ironically, they won't even say anything, though, when they see people doing disgusting things. I'm not just talking about the spitting everywhere, but the peeing in public. No one ever says anything about it. I once saw a child take a shit on the subway. Not only did no one complain, but one woman said what a cute kid it was as she handed the mother a tissue to wipe her kid's butt with. She did so, and then covered the poop with it and used her foot to shove the poop back under the subway seat. Not a word.

    It's really hard to get passed this. People say you shouldn't judge cultures, but just accept that they are different. And certainly don't complain to the locals about theirs. But so many, widespread rude and disgusting things that you see every day--how can you not dislike it? Saying "That's just the way they do things here", having no judgment, I found to be impossible. You either complain or you just stop caring, which is a dismissive act, but in no way an embracement of the other culture. You put yourself above it, which is a judgmental act, and you are better than them.

    And while there may be things you actually like and appreciate about Chinese culture, the daily onslaught of rudeness and disgustingness one faces in China cloud your view at the most basic level and tempers your enthusiasm for everything else.

  2. Mike, much thx for your feedback. I wrote a post some time ago.
    Here it is:

    I think it dovetails nicely with what you've mentioned.

  3. Yes! previous poster nailed it for me. After living in China, I can't say different is okay anymore. Pluralism is just a bunch of BS: there's one right way to do things and a million wrong ways.

    My China time made me an adherent culturalist... Not a racist.. But its hard for Americans to differentiate between culture and race (Americans have to many hang-ups on race, one of our cultural failures) so I usually have to keep those opinions to myself...


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