By Chang Wang and Joe Pearman, contributors

Editor’s note: Most business articles written these days that focus on China concentrate on doing business in China; they discuss the country’s regulatory scheme, operational protocols, or business etiquette.  This conversation instead focuses on doing business with China and the Chinese people, describing some of the ins and outs of interacting with Chinese individuals or firms in the contexts of cross-border communications and negotiations.  Through this conversation, the authors hope to help the business community become aware of the miscommunication that stems from the “parallel universes” the American and the Chinese inhabit, to expose the hidden rationales underscoring the official narratives of Chinese history, and to reveal cultural and linguistic misunderstandings that frequently occur during the process of finding “common ground.” 

For the purpose of this conversation, “China” and “Chinese” are narrowly used: “China” refers to mainland China, not including Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan; and “Chinese” refers to the Han ethnic people who live in mainland China.

Chang Wang, a native of China, is the chief research and academic officer at Thomson Reuters, the world’s leading source of intelligent information for businesses and professionals.  Joe Pearman, a native Minnesotan, is an undergraduate student majoring in business at the University of Minnesota. 



Parallel Universes

Pearman: I recently read a commentary by Dr. Christopher Ford,  a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, which claims that, compared to the rest of the world, China lives in a “parallel universe of competing facts and historical claims.”  Dr. Ford explained that “the Chinese and non-Chinese participants [of a defense conference] seemed to start from radically different starting points on the most basic matters of fact (e.g., who started the Korean War, or whether or not Japanese history textbooks acknowledge that country’s invasion of China in the 1930s).”  In addition, from his own experience in negotiating with the Chinese, Ford said that the Chinese are “quite comfortable telling non-Chinese what their various governments’ intentions are.  We were told, for instance, ‘The United States wishes to ‘contain’ China and obstruct its rise.”   As a native of China who lives in the U.S., do you feel we are living in two parallel universes? 

Wang: The commentary you mentioned perfectly illustrates the most difficult aspect of doing business with China and the Chinese people: namely, cultural communication.  Not only do some concepts simply not exist in another language, but also the context of that particular concept is unknown to the other cultures.  When dealing with many cultures, but especially with the Chinese, there is a constant need for “cultural translation” to contextualize concepts and events, such as the Chinese military stating that America started the Korean War. 

I also hope this commentary will illustrate the truth of an old adage: “I don’t know what I don’t know.”  It’s reminiscent of what Gore Vital said: ““What he knew he knew well.  Unfortunately what he did not know he did not suspect existed.”  In a language, either your mother tongue or a foreign language, if you don’t know the word, it does not “exist,” but once you learn the word, it appears everywhere.  The word simply defines a concept for which you did not yet have a name. 

People don’t realize that the “parallel universes” exist, so they don’t recognize the massive potential for communication difficulty in every interaction between China and the rest of the world, especially the United States, and the need for “cultural translators.”  Perhaps if we come to a fuller understanding of these parallel universes, we will be able to understand each other’s respective perspectives.  Frankly, however, I think there are many roadblocks to true understanding.  In fact, I find it hard to believe that outside of a small field of Sinologists and “America experts,” people on either side will ever truly comprehend each other.    

Pearman: Well, there’s no reason to lose hope completely.  For instance, China might have a separate narrative of history and politics, but every year there’s more trade and more exchange between our two countries.  For instance, every year, more Chinese students come to study at colleges and universities across the United States.  These are some of the most politically active places in this country; I’d say it would be almost impossible for them not to go back to China with a greater understanding of the freedoms and advantages of democracy.  And, for that matter, when people from other countries do business in China, they expose the Chinese to new industrial practices and ethical standards.  That’s got to have a positive effect in the long run. 

Wang:  I wouldn’t be too hasty to believe that being educated in a democracy makes one a democrat; more than one foreign national with anti-American values has defended tyranny or religious extremism in Queen’s English or with a perfect Midwestern accent on CNN.  And I’d also caution against believing that businesses will change China.  Remember Professor Jonathan Spence’s masterpiece “To Change China: Western Advisers in China.”  The Chinese eagerly accept Western technical advice, but always cling steadfastly to Chinese “values”: first Confucianism, and later Maoism.  Chinese call this principle “Chinese learning for fundamental principles and Western learning for practicalities.” Rather than changing China, most Western advisers are changed by China, such as the devout Jesuit monks who got caught up playing Ming and Qing dynasty court politics.  Indeed, I would submit that today a business in China must adapt to Chinese rules or leave.  For instance, Google was forced to withdraw after it would not cooperate with Chinese censorship.

But let’s start with the unique universe the Chinese inhabit.  For instance, recently I received a request from a Chinese colleague to comment on a document entitled “The Secret Ten Commandments of the CIA in Undermining China,” a list popular on the Chinese Internet.  It is not only popular with and commonly regarded as authentic by most of the Chinese people; it is quoted frequently by the Chinese government, even the military.  It is supposed to be a list of things the CIA, and the U.S. government will do to encourage the fall of the Chinese government.  I quote:

Destroy their belief in assiduous working.  Induce their youth with materials, make them scorn their original education, especially the communism (sic) ideology, and encourage sexual promiscuity, superficial honor.

Spread our lifestyle through all media including films, books, television, radios and religion.

Distract them from ccp (sic) propaganda. Make them focus on sports, pleasure, games, criminal films, etc . 

Divide the people into hostile groups by constantly harping on controversial matters of no importance.

Destroy the people's faith in their natural leaders by holding the latter up to contempt, ridicule and obloquy . . . 

I was amused by this malicious fabrication and took the time to examine the list and write back to my Chinese colleague, telling him there was no way on earth this document was authored by the CIA and in fact, there was no way it was authored by an English-speaker. I am no fan of the Agency and am personally appalled by the Torture Memo.  But it is abundantly clear that this document was put together by a Chinese-speaking individual with a strong belief in the conspiracy theory.  Nevertheless, the Chinese authorities took it very seriously, and this reminds us again we are living in two “parallel universes.” 

Pearman: That list seems strikingly familiar. I read that in the 1960s there was a book called “The Naked Communist,” and it contained 45 things the Communists in America were supposed to do to allow takeover by the USSR.  Conveniently enough, both of these “lists” make it clear that anyone who criticizes the government is a foreign agent, and anyone who lives in a way that differs from the mainstream is a saboteur of some kind or another.  I think you can argue that’s the root of many conspiracy theories: people seek to justify a certain bias or prejudice by constructing a narrative that gels with it.  They don’t need proof per se, as these beliefs are self-justified truth to them, so the conspiracy theory must, by extension, be true. 

Wang: That’s precisely what I found – the new list is a replica of the old list, with sides switched.  I agree with you that conspiracy theories are constructed to justify a belief, and that’s borne out in our example.  The Chinese believe they were the victims of Western imperialism and there has always been the intention of the West to encroach, undermine and “contain” China.  As Professor Perry Link argued: “China is still living in the syndrome of being the victim, and we don’t know when that syndrome will finally be cured.  It’s going to take a while.”  The preamble to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China narrates the history of what is known as “The Hundred Years of Humiliation,” which goes from 1841, the start of the first Opium War (the Opium Wars were two conflicts in the mid-1800s where Britain and France forced the Qing Dynasty to allow them to sell opium, a forerunner of heroin, in China) to 1949, when Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic.  We are taught in school that during those Hundred Years, China was raped and pillaged both by a decadent elite and by the West.  This is shown in “The Burning of Yuanmingyuan,” a popular 1980s film, which depicts the looting and destruction of a series of magnificent pleasure gardens by the British and French during the Second Opium War.  In school, our teachers showed it again and again, as part of the “patriotic education” curriculum, to remind us of all the terrible things foreigners had done to us.  

Pearman: From the Chinese perspective, were foreign invasion and forced trade the main reasons for the fall of Imperial China, or was it the civil war and the famines?  And weren’t the Qing Dynasty and its successors extremely despotic and corrupt in their own right?

Wang: Maybe they were, but we Chinese believe that no matter how crazy and brutal our leaders are, that’s our internal affair.  That logic could lead to a bizarre question: would it be more acceptable to be killed by a fellow Chinese than to be killed by a Japanese, or to be exploited by Americans?  One Chinese person killing another may be a regrettably normal part of life in China, but death or injury from a foreigner is a stain on the whole nation’s honor. 

Chinese citizens are reminded of how we were a semi-colonized, exploited backwater in the 1800s and early 1900s.  We are taught that after a great struggle, the Party managed to drive the exploitative capitalists and imperialists from China, but that they will come back if they ever have the opportunity.  That’s why many Chinese citizens today believe the United States seeks to “contain” China in the Pacific, to prevent its rise to power.  And since the U.S. seeks to contain China, the CIA’s secret list must be real.  And since the CIA’s secret list is real, the U.S. seeks to contain China.  It’s exactly the sort of circular reasoning you described: this truth is self-evident, so it requires no proof.  

Pearman: Moving on from parallel universes to the overall theme of cultural communication, I’ve heard there are three “taboos” in China, three topics that one should never bring up in conversation, either among Chinese or between Chinese and foreigners.  They are Taiwan, the Tiananmen Square tragedy of 1989 and Tibet. 

Wang: You’re right about the existence of these taboos, but before we go on, I would like to clarify something.  The Chinese people are not satisfied with the status quo in their country.  They dislike corruption and abuse of power in the government.  However, at the same time, it is true that they believe much of the propaganda the government puts out, or the “core values” as the government purports to embody.  And this brings about the three T’s.  I would advise everyone who plans to do business with China and the Chinese people to make a short study of each of these three issues.  You are advised not to argue with your host or visitors, of course, but each one provides important insight on a facet of China. 

I submit that if you understand the history of the relationship between Taiwan and the mainland, you understand China’s past.  As you know, after Mao Zedong’s Communist forces won the Civil War, the government of Chiang Kai-Shek fled to the island of Taiwan, which continued to call itself the Republic of China.  Nowadays, China asserts that Taiwan is a run-away child that should be brought back to its “home,” the People’s Republic of China, while conservatives in the Taiwanese government assert that the Republic of China is the legitimate government, if not all of China, at least the island of Taiwan.  It’s also important to note that while the mainland is still a one-party state, Taiwan is now a multi-party representative democracy.  A full understanding of the so-called “Taiwan issue” would be vastly beneficial to understand modern Chinese history, as much of it is defined by the interplay between Taiwan and the mainland.  

The Tiananmen Square of 1989 was the tragic end of an era of semi-liberal politics that had defined China in the 1980s, and the intellectual revival in the mainland engendered by that era.   I think it’s the key to understanding the China of today.  Before Tiananmen, the Chinese government had been experimenting with limited political reform as well as economic reform.  We also had a very short-lived renaissance of academic freedom and culture in the 1980s.  After Tiananmen, the door to political reform was slammed shut, while economic reform was manipulated to benefit a handful of “red elites,” the oligarchy, at the expenses of environmental and social welfare.  So now you have a country where there are more than 100 billionaires but no general elections, a country where everything is a business and yet the power of the state is absolute.  It’s an immense contradiction, and one that can only be understood with a study of contemporary history before and after Tiananmen.  

And if Tiananmen explains the China of today, Tibet provides a sobering glimpse of the future.  Ethnic moderates have tried to conciliate with the authorities, but the government is determined to use a hard-line approach to maintain stability.  The future of the ethnic issue is not only indicative of the future of Chinese society, but will itself greatly impact and shape the future of Chinese society, particularly in the ethnic regions which make up near a  half of the mainland.  The Chinese authorities have no intention of ending up like the Soviet Union’s Communists; they will not to make Gorbachev’s “mistake” of reconciliation. 

Pearman: May we say the future, overall, is not a terribly pleasant prospect.  So it’s hardly surprising you’re discouraged from bringing these things up.  They all challenge the nationalist narrative of the authority, and it seems to me that this nationalism is the basis of the “parallel universes.” 

Wang: You could argue, I think, that nationalism is the underlying cause and the “parallel universes” are just a symptom.  Another “symptom” is the resentment I mentioned earlier that’s tied to the colonial actions of the “Hundred Years of Humiliation.”  When you don’t remember how touchy the Chinese can be about being treated as equals, the results can be disastrous.   

I would like to share a real story to illustrate this point.  There was a multinational firm that decided to develop a local product for China.  It hired local Chinese employees, most of whom did not speak English well, and brought in supervisors from the U.S. and the U.K. who spoke no Chinese.  The supervisors had to sign off on all the work the Chinese did, which led to a somewhat inefficient situation.  Say a Chinese employee wrote a report detailing his progress on a certain task.  This report had to be translated to English, where it would be read by a supervisor.  The supervisor would issue instructions, which then had to be translated back to Chinese.  It was a massive time sink, and I don’t think it’s surprising that the Chinese came to find the communication with their supervisors laborious.  They could have done the work on their own, and the foreigners seemed to be there because the company believed that their international experience in other countries would be valuable to Chinese product development. 

After six months, the supervisors had to transfer back to their home country for income tax purposes.  A representative from Human Resources, another non-Chinese, addressed the Chinese employees at a town hall-style meeting.  The HR representative firmly believed these Chinese were heartbroken seeing their foreign colleagues leaving: “I know you feel lost, like orphans,” she said.  “I know you don’t know what to do without your colleagues.  But don’t worry!  They will continue to communicate with you and instruct you via Skype.  You are not abandoned!” 

Bear in mind that this woman was not acting with malice; she really wanted to reassure the Chinese employees.  But there was a fundamental misunderstanding: she had no idea how offensive her words would be to her audience.  She thought the foreign workers were helping the Chinese, but the Chinese felt like they were being treated like ignorant laborers, or second-class citizen in a multinational company. 

Pearman: It makes me wince to hear that story.  But I will say that woman’s words would have been offensive no matter whom she was addressing.  Anybody would resent the implications of the talk.  So while I can understand why her words were so egregious to the Chinese, I would say that’s not exclusively a cultural problem.  If anything, it’s more about not understanding how an organization actually functions, or a simply lack of civility. 

Wang: Perhaps.  But that’s hardly the only misunderstanding I’ve witnessed over the years.  Although I will say that because of the effective propaganda machine and the narrative of national humiliation, the Chinese are quite sensitive to perceived disrespect and are suspicious of the intentions of foreigners.  Meanwhile, look at the other side of the aisle: thanks to the legacy of the “Chinese Exclusion Act” and the Cold War, Americans are also making a similar mistake by assuming the “bad” intent of the Chinese.  And that leads us to the next part of this discussion, which will appear in next month’s China Insight.


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