Keeping China in Context

Thursday, September 18, 2008 9:36
Posted in category The Big Picture

In the process of editing another video for Crossroads, I came across a 2 minute snippet that I felt belonged more on All Roads. The interview was of one of Shanghai’s NGO leaders, Zee Zee Zhong, and I had asked her where she felt foreigners and foreign organizations failed in China when executing their programming. It was initially meant to apply to the non-profit sector, but when I was reviewing the clip, it was clear to me that her answer actually touched on something we are constantly talking about in China.

Foreigners do not understand China, nor the context by which they draw many conclusions.

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For my part, this is something that I have seen in a lot of areas, and when issues like trade imbalances, product recalls, environmental castastropies, labor imbalances, and inflation are reported on in China… it is clear that many are missing the context by which a story is being reported, or what the real story is.

The fact is that it is very easy to pull out the anecdotes of China and create a story, or a strategy based on that, but by doing so a process of misrepresentation and bad decisions more easily take place.

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8 Responses to “Keeping China in Context”

  1. Bill says:

    September 18th, 2008 at 11:11 am

    The first thing I learnt in public administration is that you don’t only have to understand, you must make yourself, your policy, your procedures, your rationale, etc. understandable. Is there any way to make China more understandable ? Or, is it a one way responsibility on the foreigners ?

  2. Clement Wan says:

    September 18th, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    The one thing I noted about your interview with Ms Zhong is that she seemed fairly defensive if not resentful of the coverage of China. On one hand I can see her point, on the other, in my experience a lot of other people seem to feel similarily in China – a kind of “with them or against them mentality”. Media tends reports on the news – which means looking for the exceptional – imagine how she might feel if she were American! To read the foreign press is to think that the US is currently being ruled by Satan who also happens to be the root of all evil and everything bad in the world. (I’m a Canadian incidentally)

    While I agree with the broader point that one shouldn’t walk in with preconceived notions and this might be a finer point, but doesn’t it have more to do with a manager’s ability to adapt to change and a new environment rather than necessarily specific to China? As a thought experiment, imagine how ridiculous it would be for someone to think that they could know you well from only what’s been written about you. China also really doesn’t help itself with its censorship of the media/internet.

  3. Chris says:

    September 18th, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    I am reminded of Stephen Covey’s powerful communication model, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. The responsibility for effective communication, for understanding and for being understood, lies within each individual. Therefore, I think the best way to make China more understandable is for each individual, for each of us, to “Seek first to understand . . .” Also, I don’t think China is a coldly inscrutable monolith. Especially after watching the Olympics, I think China wants to be understood by the global community and is trying very hard to be “understandable”.

  4. Rich says:

    September 18th, 2008 at 10:23 pm

    @ Bill – Good question. No doubt there confusion to the nth degree in many areas of existing regulations and policies in China, but I would also look at the media itself as many foreign reporters / researchers are still not language capable.

    So – a problem from both sides.


  5. Rich says:

    September 18th, 2008 at 10:26 pm

    @ Clement

    I don’t see the defensiveness. She does recognize that there are problems, and specifically says that not all the bad coverage is wrong.

    As an aside. I am an America – and we need to start throwing rocks at our leaders. Our top finance people were slagging the Chinese banking system for years while coring out the global system for themselves…

  6. Clement Wan says:

    September 18th, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    Rich –

    You’re probably right about finance people – and I used to be an i-banker in NYC (with a specialty in financial institutions) before doing what I do now though if I can make a small defense of the American system, it’s that the problems generally get dealt with. I think we’ll have to wait for history to see whether or not it was the right thing for the Fed/Treasury to do, but as much as mark-to-market accounting will help the US system move past this crisis faster than the slow motion disasters coming in China and what’s been happening in Japan, a strong argument can be made it helped to create the liquidity crisis that has caused some of these firms to collapse.

    This being said, I think history will show that there is certainly plenty of blame to go ’round particularly with how the US policy created much of this subprime mess / unsustainably low interest rates to begin with. (incidentally, I would argue that it wasn’t so much finance people who were slagging the Chinese banking system/currency but rather politicians… though these undoubtedly seem like moot points at the moment as we watch all these massive financial institutions go down in flames). What perhaps is more instructive for at least the Chinese will be to see how the US is dealing with the crisis – this is a wholesale reshaping of the financial landscape. There are really no half measures and no bailouts in the traditional sense (e.g. government dumping money in to help out a few cronies). Not sure if it will be enough to stem the panic but I’m at least glad that the shareholders and most of management with them have been wiped out.

  7. Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    September 19th, 2008 at 1:02 am

    The context thing I think is a given. But to understand it, you really need to be in-country in China, and with experience. Pontificating about China business while living permanently overseas is not going to cut the mustard – the subtlties get lost under such circumstances. Which is where a lot of the overseas media and many of the China blogs go astray – they are not written in China, and lack the perception.

  8. David says:

    September 19th, 2008 at 7:16 am

    This is an interesting topic: soft side of doing business in China, or, what you see isn’t always what you get. Having visited dozens of Chinese companies (SOE & private) over the last five years, I can confirm Rich’s underlying points: paint Chinese business people with a broad brush at your own peril — look at each situation in its own context.

    One recent example: The owner of a seemingly well run private Chinese company aggressively promoted Maoist ideas during a recent visit regarding strategic cooperation. He claimed to take an annual retreat to on of Mao’s early caves to ‘re-connect and re-charge’. He cited Mao in most of his open statements about company strategy and philosophy. Mao’s portrait hung in every office. He wrote his own ink brush slogan posters for company meeting rooms. Contrary to some views of China, my experience is that Mao’s profile has lost a little these days. This company seemed unusual. Indeed, after a long dinner out of sight from his managers, the owner asked for my perspective on the 2008 US election. In turn, I asked him which American political party he hoped would win in November. The ‘Maoist’ owner stated, “Republican, of course. Aren’t we all in it for the money in the end?” Not a word of Mao or the cave. Lesson: Don’t read book by its cover. Don’t look at China through a BusinessWeek or CNBC story — see and learn for yourself.