Recent Posts

Being friends with China…

While I am not a lawyer and have very little interest in business, I nevertheless love reading Dan Harris’ China Law Blog.  Dan is a tireless blogger who always manages to make the most mundane issues of legal prudence and China business babble interesting to the non-business person.  Maybe I just like to fantasize about the road not taken, if only I had decided to study law and not, say, 19th century China.  Would spending my days reading legal briefs be more interesting than deciphering inter-office memos from the 1870s? Thinking a bit more (and knowing my temperament) probably not…but I bet I’d be closer to owning a nice boat.

Over the weekend, Dan blogged about this article (from China Market Access Blog) and how being a “good friend” to China is important for your business.  The original post, by Jason Patent, is based on a talk by Dr. James Chan.  The advice (via Chan via Patent and via Dan Harris) is this:

There is one thing many Westerners don’t think about when they walk into China. What the Chinese people really want from Westerners is “acceptance.” If you want to sell anything to the Chinese or, for that matter, build relationships with the Chinese, you must make your customers, contacts, associates, and partners feel you are not behaving that a “barbarian” or “marauder.” This is a key perception that is deeply-rooted in the Chinese psyche based on thousands of years of mistrust and distrust of the “outsiders.” There is one thing about “acceptance” that only you can do: you have to be able to accept the Chinese as they are. You want to do business with the Chinese; you don’t want to change the Chinese. The moment you make people feel that you’re going to China to make the Chinese look and act and adopt the same values that you fine “superior,” you’ll be perceived as the age-old “barbarian” and “marauder” whom they’ve learned and taught to distrust. You cannot make all 1.32 billion Chinese to trust you. But you can find and groom the one or two persons, the “insiders” who feel that you respect them and that you listen to their advice. If you can do this, you will make money for as long as you desire in China.

That’s good advice as far as it goes.  As a salesman, it’s not exactly ripping a page out of Dale Carnegie to belittle or insult your potential customers.  Walking into a room and telling people what they are doing wrong just isn’t good form — nobody likes that guy. Dan wisely notes:

This is something I am constantly preaching to clients and friends who go overseas, not just to China. We Americans are so used to being the “big dogs” that we generally do not care much about what others think of our country. I have learned through my own personal experiences that this is not true of most other countries.

Many Americans are unaware to the extent that “American Exceptionalism” informs our world view and how it insulates us from criticism while freeing our tongues to poke holes in other people’s culture and systems.

That said, I think the article also begs the question: What does it mean to be a “friend of China”?

In an essay about China’s relationship with overseas Chinese published this past weekend on the Wall Street Journal website, Australian historian and author Geremie Barmé discusses the equally persistent and insidious  notion of “Chinese Exceptionalism”:

“You simply don’t understand China’s unique national conditions.” This common refrain is still chimed with certainty, and stridency, by average citizens, just as leaders of the party-state employ it when addressing foreigners. Unless you appreciate, and accept unequivocally, China’s “unique national conditions” you betray yourself as lacking insight into and empathy with the mysteries of that country’s tortured history and complex present realities.

This kind of talk allows for a kind of “Chinese exceptionalism.” People employ it whether they are rejecting well-intentioned observations on social mores or staring down the incredulity of outsiders confronted by egregious political and mercantile behavior. Not only can the criticism of outsiders be deflected in this fashion, even those with intimate ties to the country are frequently derided for failing to appreciate China’s conditions. Sometimes, individuals are taught a lesson about the country’s peculiarities by means of a long stint in jail.

Does being a “friend” to China mean always agreeing with the CCP interpretation of hot and complicated issues? I’ve had people in China within the first five minutes of meeting me start to grill me on my views of Taiwan and Tibet.  It’s awkward to say the least, especially because the answers to those questions are complex…often more complex than my interrogator would care to admit.  As I’ve written before, my response to “Tibet is a part of China and history says so,” is not “Tibet is not a part of China and history says so,” but “How do you know? What does research done from other perspectives suggest? Are there other ways of looking at this complex issue?”  That’s not the right answer — especially if you want to be a “Friend of China” — because it’s not enough to “Not disagree,” what is sought is full and unconditional agreement of a particular world view.  Americans might recognize this approach as the one our former president George “You’re either with us or against us” Bush II used when decidering foreign policy in the last decade.

Too often it seems that China doesn’t want friends, it wants sycophants.*

Moreover, how boring would it be to have friends who always agree with you? That’s one (of many) reasons I’m glad I married Yajun.  Now, readers of this blog know that Yajun and I disagree on any number of issues relating to China.  (My personal favorite was: “Yeah, we’ll talk about letting Tibet be independent right after the US gives Arizona back to the Mexicans.)  I don’t always agree with her interpretation (and she even less with mine!) but I love the back and forth.  I love reasoned debate. I’ve learned a lot by arguing with her over the dinner table, and these arguments have made me a better observer, writer, and teacher of China.  (I’d like to think I’ve had a similar effect…you’d have to ask her.  I think my sole influence so far has been to make her a Red Sox fan, and even that’s tenuous.)

Dan’s advice is sound.  I do think that foreigners, especially Americans, are too often unaware of our ‘exceptionalist’ prejudices and we hurt our chances of doing business or developing lifelong friendships if we make politics our only topic of conversation or if we take a high-handed approach to our daily lives abroad.  I’m not in China to piss people off, but neither did I check my moral or intellectual compass at the door to Beijing’s Terminal 3.


*For a scathing review of this horrible book, see Yang Hengjun, “China’s Megatrends, and why I can’t hold my tongue.”

Author’s Note: I was watching West Wing last night…can anyone spot the three places I cribbed Aaron Sorkin?

6 Comments on Being friends with China…

  1. but neither did I check my moral or intellectual compass at the door to Beijing’s Terminal 3.

    The money quote; and the reason why anyone with “friend of Chhina” stamped in their passport should be approached with caution.

    I love The West Wing and Sorkin’s dialogue, which is why I’m surprised I can’t find all three ‘cribs’:

    1. Maybe I just like to fantasize about the road not taken…

    Bartlet asks Debbie Fidderer (sp?) who would have got the job if she hadn’t spotted Charlie.

    2. “You’re either with us or against us”

    Sam, exasperated with Mandy’s internal campaigning to take on a republican client against the backdrop of Leo’s exposure as a recovering addict.

    I would also add that China will never gain the trust of the international community so long as zero criticism is a pe-condition of entry to the “friendship” club. In this respect Zhongnanhai has a lot of growing up to do.

    #2 might just be a coincidence rather than a crib, but I’m struggling for #3. This sounds vaguely familiar:

    3? …but I bet I’d be closer to owning a nice boat.

    Sounds like the kind of line written for Toby.

    Great article, as ever.

  2. Think that the problem is that most people who grow up in only one culture are not aware of the cultural blinders which they wear, whether they are Chinese, American or anyone else. For now, it is more pronounced with Americans because American exceptionalism is something which many, especially Tea Party members, are still quite proud of, since they see America’s fall from grace as a temporary phenomenon.

    The Chinese exceptionalism has been around a long time, ever since the reforms of the late Qing (at least), but no one paid much attention to Chinese exceptionalism till now, and only because the Chinese are newly wealthy. And we all know how the world works: “He who has the gold makes the rules.”

    In the meantime, everyone else sits back and listens in quiet amusement.

  3. Wow, my proud husband admits that he learns a lot from arguing with me. That’s something worth a celebration. I thought his ego only saw his own brilliance. 🙂

    Being real friends is about respect and honesty. Sharing opinions about each other, no matter it is compliment or criticism, is a very important part of the definition of friends. Being a Chinese, I hope my friend tells me about my problem or my country’s problem rather than kissing my ass, because that makes me wonder what the sycophant’s real intention is. However, I cannot speak for all Chinese.

    One thing I want to add is that Chinese and Americans dislike criticism for different reasons. Americans’ arrogance and ego means they strongly believe in their own ideas. God blesses America so how can America be wrong? On the other hand, Chinese dislike of criticism comes from a lack of self-confidence. Many Chinese know China has corrupt officials and human rights issues, but it is our dirty laundry, other people should not talk about it in public, or “they don’t understand China.”

  4. I am surprised you even argue with your wife! Usually it boils down to these two rules for me
    1. The wife is always right
    2. When wrong, see rule number one

    Back to the topic, this idea of being a Friend of China is pretty… strange to say the least. I mean, at a government level yeah I can see it, but in the private sphere, there is such a thing as a monolithic China and a foreigner can gain (or lose) the its friendship? I mean, I get not going into a new place and telling people that they are doing everything wrong (which is just typical enough of Americans to be a fair stereotype), that is fine and a generally good idea, but the belief that ‘not changing people’ means ‘never criticizing people’, and that is a crucial point in doing business is just bizarre. I mean, a lot of business people do want to change China: they want to Change what Chinese people buy. Sure its on their terms, but have you SEEN the Dell ‘lolipop’ commercials? An English song, being sung by a bunch of foreigners, selling expensive candy-colored computers, on Chinese national TV. I dunno, this idea of being a Friend to China is kinda iffy to me.

  5. Stuart,

    1. “And I think, if I’d kept with the flute, maybe professionally…would I be meeting interesting men? And I think: Probably not.” (Donna to Ainsley)

    2. “Though I gotta say, calling a reporter’s question ‘stupid’ isn’t like a page out of Dale Carnegie or something.” (Sam to Josh)

    Okay, my bad, number three ended up getting cut…

    Still love that show even after all of these years.

    • “Still love that show even after all of these years.”

      Me too. And the actors were intelligent enough to keep the dialogue up to Sorkin’s level even after the creator stopped writing for the show after the fourth season.

      I actually find myself cribbing and paraphrasing Sorkin more often than I realise. The other day I was chatting with a twenty-something at my wife’s uni who said she couldn’t be bothered to register to vote for the upcoming federal election down here; I told her if she didn’t vote she doesn’t get to complain about the next guy. I actually had to stop myself from adding “decisions are made by those that show up”.

Comments are closed.