Recently I had the pleasure to travel around in China for a few weeks. Visiting a fair deal of the country, north and south, the big cities and a part of the country side. I came back with a truck load of impressions! Experiencing China from within … being confronted with the almost incredible speed in which it is changing itself, in many ways. And yet, how at the same time it seems to remain attached to its roots, history and cultural heritage. There were many moments of wonder and admiration and also moments of confusion. China’s growth influences the world significantly and will continue to do so in the coming decades. It looks like China is adopting certain Western aspects, but without losing its Chinese roots. It will very likely not develop itself into a ‘westernized’ China. So, how will China influence the world? How will Chinese and ‘Western’ cultures engage each other in the coming years? Questions to which nobody knows the real answers these days. But some of the impressions I collected during my journey (impressions, not conclusions or judgments) shine an interesting light on these questions. The least you can say is that 21st century leaders (Chinese and Western leaders) are facing an interesting challenge to understand the differences in culture and history and to develop ways to create successful cooperation.
The first impression (it left me speechless on several occasions) was the substantial knowledge many Chinese have of the West (let’s say USA and Europe). Asking me where I came from, answering “Brussels”, and than receiving a reaction “Brussels? But you say you are Dutch, so you left your country?” Or “In what part of Holland did you grow up, the west side with the cities or the east side where less people live?” Knowing geography on such a detailed level. But also knowing a lot about our history, about how Europe evolved, being able to name important events and dates in history, and describing differences between the US and Europe. This knowledge did not come from Chinese people that lived or studied in the West, but from Chinese that never left China in their entire lives. I asked how they knew all this, and they replied “at school, we learn a lot about Europe and the USA at school”.
It made me think: What do we in the West really teach our children about China? About its geography? About its history and the defining events and people in its existence? What if the Chinese would know much more about us than we do about them? How would that influence our relationships?
Another profound impression was the importance Chinese attach to having / establishing / keeping harmony in almost everything. In human relations; in what and how to eat; in the way the Chinese approach health and medical issues; in the way they design houses, gardens, buildings; in the way they use the public space together. Even when observing the chaotic traffic, where nobody seems to pay any attention to any rule, you begin to see the harmony after a while (e.g. everybody is more or less moving with the same speed, and the honk is used to warn each other rather then to scare each other off). In general (I know, I’m generalizing here) Chinese seem to put harmony and balance above individual needs and aspirations. Showing yourself by openly sharing a blunt personal opinion will probably not be seen as being brave or honest, but as being reckless, naive or even stupid.
It made me think: What if we in the West have the tendency to engage the Chinese with an individualistic orientation? What if we implicitly value the individual more than the group? What could we learn from China in this respect? And does the new generation in China (coming from ‘one child’ families) also value this concept of harmony as much as their parents? Are we in the West sufficiently aware of these differences and potential evolutions?
A third impression was the way Chinese stay goal oriented, with a kind of stubbornness, and without showing emotions, in almost all circumstances. And how it often turns out they know much more than they show. When I asked a business man about this he replied: “We believe that the worst thing that can happen to you is losing face. Therefore we carefully define our objectives upfront. Once defined we will not easily let go. We will always look for ways to guarantee both parties win something, so nobody will lose face. But we will only do that if we respect our opponent. If not, we will not hesitate to take what we want without taking into consideration the other. (He gently smiled at me.) And we never show our emotions in public, like Westerns often do. By doing that you reap nothing but contempt from your opponent.“
It made me think: What if we in the West have the tendency to expect openness too soon? What if we too quickly believe there is a relationship we can rely on? How easily can we underestimate our Chinese counterparts by thinking we understand what they want? How easily would we confuse lack of openness with dishonesty or lack of integrity? How would all this influence our relationships?
The overriding impression I got while visiting this fascinating country was the extraordinary way China is dealing with change. Sure, it is struggling with a variety of challenges; for instance the increasing gap between rich and poor, the gap between the new and the older generations, environmental challenges that come with its growth, etc. But through this all I witnessed people that are creating, building, moving forward, improving, lifting themselves. This is not change forced by a crisis. This is change driven by a passion to create progress.
It made me think: What if we in the West are busier with trying not to lose what we have than with trying to create our future in this changing world? What if we are more occupied with ourselves than with what is happening around us? What if we are hindered by a cynicism that is triggered by a fear of letting go (see previous article on this). If so, how crucial would the role of today’s leaders be in changing this?
If you are interested in more about how China is influencing the world I refer with pleasure to this TEDx video with Martin Jacques explaining facts and assumptions about China (click photo to play video).
As international business consultant, change leader, alignment facilitator and executive coach Aad supports multinational companies, their executives and leadership teams in increasing their business success. He works with his clients on leading complex change, cross-cultural leadership, post-merger integration, and amplifying business performance. Find out more about Aad and his services.
Excellent summary! Relevant for all educational sysrems. Thx
Thanks, Sven! I agree, education plays an important role in enhancing cross-cultural understanding. Thanks for stopping by!
Great post Aad!and Great observations!
I’ve been to China a couple of years ago, and as you mentioned in your post, I was amazed how the deal with change in every aspect of their lives.
Great summary, I hope you have the chance to build on your experiences!
Thanks, Cornelius! Much appreciated!
This definitely makes perfect sense to anyone..
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Interesting article, apparently most of Asian education system is similar. The question to the business man and his response was very appropriate of the culture too. Nice article, good reading..
Rajesh, thanks a lot for your nice words. They stimulate me to believe that my observations do not just derive from my Western biased view 🙂
Collaborative approach of adopting western culture in China, and then the new birth of so called ‘Western China ‘ will establish its roots across the globe as a nation following cross-cultural methods. Chinese culture is very rich. Chinese people have the ability to adopt cultural differences. Another profound impression is that Chinese keep harmony in almost everything. China will soon be a hub of cross cultures.
China’s economic rise, coupled with the humbling of the western economies after the global financial crisis, has seen a shift in how Beijing projects its power. It’s perhaps understandable that China’s leadership appears less willing to countenance calls from the West on how to run its economy and its foreign policy (demands for political change and improved human rights have almost always been rejected out of hand). But China’s development is incomplete by a wide margin, and that provides strict limits to its global assertiveness.
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