Dan, over at the excellent China Law Blog, has asked me to comment on a discussion they are having there. The general question is: Is there a Chinese mindset, and so what if there is? This is an extension of a prior CLB post which described a talk by businesswoman Janet Carmosky, who attempted to define a "Chinese mindset." All of this is centered on the kinds of social and cultural differences businesspeople from the US might encounter when they do business in China. Carmosky's general idea, as summarized by Dan, is that the Chinese "mindset" looks something like this:
- Americans think the Chinese lie and steal.
- China's morality is not the same as ours. Ours is based on Judeo-Christian values. China's is not.
- Key to dealing with China is to get into a network. Real Guanxi.
- Chinese mindset is the following:
- Tomorrow never comes. When it does, you can start all over anyway.
- Never tell anyone what you are doing unless you know what will be done with that information.
- Take the opportunity, even if that means breaking a contract.
- Nobody operates independently. Survival depends on a network.
- Do not trust anyone and respect only those in your network.
- Teamwork and transparency are a drain on the system.
I am always a bit leery of generalizations at this level. When we talk about "the Chinese," we are always going to miss the variety and diversity of "Chinese" experience. But let me focus on a couple of points here.
First, we need to keep in mind that these ideas are arising from a context of doing business in China (though I recognize that Ms. Carmosky's experience in China extends beyond the business world.) These comments are directed toward an audience of businesspeople and, by and large emerge from business experience. We must, at the outset, recognize, that business in only one part of China, and a very recent part at that. When looking at Chinese business behavior shouldn't we expect, especially given the incredible competitiveness in all sectors of Chinese society, that trust might be betrayed at times and contracts broken? How long has entrepreneurial behavior been tolerated much less practiced? And what is the legal and political context of that new behavior? I would generally come down with Dan on this: context matters. We should not reach for over-generalizations about morality and culture, which could imply deeply ingrained mental orientations, when more immediate political and legal contextual forces are most likely primary. I suspect that individuals from different cultural backgrounds, when placed in the immediate context of contemporary China, might well act in ways similar to the "Chinese mindset".
Thus, invocations of the West's "Judeo-Christian" tradition make little sense to me. To be honest, I have never met a "Judeo-Christian." Indeed, it wasn't that long ago that the Christians were fiercely beating up on the Judeos. In any event, two points here.
First, there is no singular religious-moral tradition of the "West." Let's remember that theorists have made quite a big deal over the differences between Protestants and Catholics (see Max Weber on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism). For a recent version of this kind of analysis, Lawrence Harrison has argued that "Catholic culture" has contributed to nepotism, corruption and underdevelopment in Latin America, while "Confucian culture" has promoted economic growth in East Asia (can't find the best example of this on the web yet, but here is a book review of his most recent foray into these matters). If Catholic culture is different than Protestant culture (and I do not really buy these arguments, but they are analogous, in their culturalism, to Carmosky's categories) then how can we talk about a "Judeo-Christian" unity?
Secondly, and in response to the question above: perhaps the main point is that Christianity provides a universalistic basis for ethical judgment and action (we are all children of God), while Chinese culture (dare I say "Confucianism") is more particularistic, basing judgment on social roles (I am more obliged to my family than to strangers). There might be something to this distinction, and it may have real world manifestations in business, but I would push back against it in two ways.
First, there are universalistic ideals in "Chinese" thinking. It is very easy to read Mencius (and the Tao Te Ching!) and come away with a clear sense that the use of public office for private gain is wrong, just plain wrong. And that is pretty darn close to universal.
Secondly, there are powerful particularistic pressures in our own society. How else can we understand the violence and crime that is so common in American society? Those universalistic Christian values do not constrain us completely; we are open to individualistic, selfish, particularistic motivations.
Thus the "China" v. "us" distinction does not really hold up. China is not as Chinese as we might think; and the West is not at Western as we might want.
The most important thing to keep in mind here is that Chinese experience will vary from social sector to social sector. I hang around with Chinese intellectuals and it is quite common for them to be disdainful of Chinese businessmen, who are seen as crude and grasping and uncultivated. The rise of Chinese business is seen, by more conservative Chinese critics, as an undermining of "real" "Chinese" culture. Such critics would be aghast at the idea of generalizing from such un-Chinese behavior to define a "Chinese mindset". I do not mean to imply that intellectuals or conservatives are more genuinely "Chinese" than Chinese businessmen. To me, it is all Chinese. But "Chinese" is a large and varied and diverse field of cultural possibilities. It has always included conniving merchants and righteous Confucians.
And when we add domination by an insidious Party power structure, which reaches deeply into society and shapes personal relations, we run into yet another complicating factor. I am just finishing John Pomferet's book, Chinese Lessons. He does a great job detailing the corrosive effects the Party's power has on individual lives. People must (this was more the case in the past, before economic reform created new opportunities for people outside the Party) curry favor with Party members, spy and inform on their neighbors and friends, all in an effort to advance socially or just to survive economically. Party dictatorship creates a vast structure of incentives and disincentives which overwhelm other claims to morality. This is true wherever Communist Parties have ruled, in non-Christian China or Christian Germany or Cuba. The "mindset" then, may have less to do with China and more to do with Communism.
Bottom line: I do not think there is a singular "Chinese mindset". There may be tendencies in the narrower realm of contemporary Chinese business, tendencies which are as much politically as they are culturally determined and which may change as the society continues to evolve.
The title of this post is taken from a book, written in 1894 by American Arthur Smith. He had lived in China a long time, and cataloged those traits that, for him, distinguished the Chinese: "absence of nerves," "intellectual turbidity," etc. It is a classic of Orientalist reduction of a vast society into a series of statements that elevate the morality of the West and disparage the backwardness of the Chinese. I am not suggesting that Ms. Carmosky comes anywhere close to this sort of distortion. Rather, I mention it here as a cautionary note: when we start down the road of cultural over-generalization, we are setting ourselves up for misperception. Best to stay away from "mindsets;" better to stick with more limited understandings restricted to a more particular time (1990-2006) and setting (business practices).