Chinese Cultural Construct Explained

A fine article written in China Daily forum from forumner,  Raymondusa, to explain the basic differences between Chinese (East Asian) and Western cultures.
Chinese Cultural Construct Explained

As a Chinese American, I find whenever there are foreign visitors to China sites, invariably, there are always visitors who blindly attempt to lecture to China, asserting that it should do this, be that, and attempt to define China.  I don’t know if this is a mixture of both ignorance and arrogance, but even the tone of some contributors, is one of blind condescension.  Some will come to China sites and claim they are only providing constructive criticism out of their goodwill towards China.  But I sometimes see it more as xenophobes bashing China, and looking for any reason, significant or slight, to tarnish China, like that is supposes to uplift their own reality.  Therefore, I will write this article, as someone acculturated in America, that understands the American culture, and one who lives the Chinese culture, and understand the cultural constructs that partly explain some of the disconnects.  

In America, it’s fine to do self-PR, to sing one’s own praises, to draw attention to self, to accept credit, because one major focus is self-actualization, and individualized achievements.  Chinese culture usually frowns upon this approach, as the opposite is truer, most of the time.  I’m not saying which approach is better, since I can think there are different circumstances where both, either, or neither, is well served.   

Take for example the issue of world leadership.  Some people lament why China doesn’t take a stronger role as a world stakeholder, to use its financial strength to influence more of the world, to use tools like sanctions, boycotts, financial aid, loans, etc. and tie it to desired outcomes, similar to how USA use such tools.  These tools are comparatively direct, confrontational, relatively aggressive, and consistent with US cultural construct, but inconsistent with Chinese cultural construct.  That’s where the cultural disconnect comes in.  The Chinese culture prefers to do things with more diplomacy, tact, less confrontational, more dialog and negotiations, and to find mutually agreeable solutions.  Whereas USA will trade strategic solutions, for tactical results, China prefers to take a longer-term outlook, focusing on strategic results, even if it means tactical problems and a more circuitous route to strategic success.  This now attitude explains some of the short-term successes for USA, but also explains some of the long-term failures, as its tactical policies, do not always support strategic outcomes.

Some foreign visitors are familiar with the “Golden Rule” of do onto others as you do onto self.  But what is more helpful is for foreign visitors to understand the “Platinum Rule” of do onto others as they prefer it done”.  One area that is quite vexing is the issue of constructive criticism.  It’s not a big deal in America for people to dispense criticism, arguably constructive depending on your perspective.  But when it comes to Chinese culture, constructive criticism is dependent on who is doing the criticizing, whether they are respected, whether they have creditability to criticize, which is mainly earned by walking the talk, and practicing what they preach, and whether they are truly seen as someone criticizing constructively out of goodwill to see positive changes ensue, or whether they are seen as hypocritical xenophobes looking for any reason to criticize.  The latter factors help determine whether the criticism is seen as constructive and respectfully heeded, or just the mindless utterance of xenophobes destructively critical just because they perceive it is an opportune time to pile on.  When foreigners understand the “Platinum Rule”, they can get a lot more accomplish appealing to what benefits China and how China prefers to do certain things, than they can applying the “Golden Rule”, since not every issue has equal reciprocity to make the “Golden Rule” appropriate.  

Chinese Cultural constructs sometime help, and sometime hinder desired results.  I acknowledge there are some negatives too!  For example, Chinese cultural construct exacerbated the recent PR problem.  The PR problem is not one of inability to do it, but rather the cultural construct that creates a dilemma since it means drawing attention to self, practicing self-promotion, highlighting individual or country accomplishments directly, instead of the more preferred way of having surrogates sing your praises.  Yes, it goes against Chinese culture to do it, and thus the dilemma.  I feel Chinese culture can empower, and can also debilitate when it is applied inappropriately.  There is a time for self-promotion, to proclaim what you have done for others, to build goodwill so others know what you have done, and continue to do for them, since it builds an attitude of gratitude, as others know and appreciate it.  But this also needs a balance, where you have an effective alliance of others praising and acknowledging what you have done, using both direct and indirect testimonials.  This is an area where Chinese Cultural constructs hinder effective PR, and where adjusting cultural constructs and adapting is beneficial, since I see more opportunities to practice good PR.  The recent Everest torch run is a good example of positive PR.              

Chinese cultural constructs usually value substance over form or style.  There is a high premium on achieving things of substance, and or meaningful accomplishments.  But the cultural disconnect comes when this premium is preferred for one, like it is a mutually exclusive choice.  Substance is very important and I certainly do not downplay it, especially in Chinese culture.  But there are times when one needs to emphasize form, or work on people’s perceptions, faulty or real, in order to have the opportunity to show substance.  For example, you can be the smartest, most technically gifted accountant, but if no one perceives you that way, you may never get a chance to show your substances.  I think both substance and form is important is different ways.  Knowing how to form and shape perceptions help get you in the building, and having actual substance, keep you in the building.  Substance without form, form without substance, leaves one still lacking, since there are circumstance where you need form, substance, or both, for maximum effectiveness.  

These are just some Chinese cultural constructs, some empowering, and some debilitating, when not used appropriately.  Foreign visitors should learn these constructs, and understand it so it can work more effectively with China.  When in doubt, apply the “Platinum Rule” and you will find it far more effective aligning with China for both tactical and strategic reasons.


About kchew

an occasional culturalist
This entry was posted in China view. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s