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The durability of traditional Chinese culture in contemporary China: or, why foreign business executives should take page from Xi Jinping’s playbook

References to traditional Chinese culture are ubiquitous even in what are seemingly the most modern of contemporary economic and political interactions. In May 2020, for example, as COVID-19-related anti-China sentiment was reaching a fever pitch in the United States, diplomat Xie Feng penned a plaintive op-ed in the Wall Street Journal expressing China’s frustrations over foreign attempts to take advantage of the pandemic by demanding reparations (Xie, 2020). Xie Feng attempted to bolster his argument by quoting a Chinese proverb which itself is a thinly veiled reference to Confucius: “a gentleman pursues wealth in a righteous way” (Confucius, 1998, pp. 89-90, 113). Confucius famously criticized displays of wealth, and is reported to have said that “gentlemen” or civilized, sophisticated, and ethically cultivated people, understand rightness while small or “petty” people understand profit (Confucius, 1998, p. 92). Other, more disparaging remarks about wealth, its excessive accumulation and display are scattered throughout the Confucian Analects (Confucius, 1998, pp. 91, 14S). These remarks indicate that material riches, in and of themselves, are not what the civilized, cultivated person values in life.

Remarkably, in a piece placed in perhaps the most traditional Western business news outlet designed to advance diplomatic relations and influence global opinion, Xie Feng explains his country’s worldview through a 2,000-year-old proverb uttered by the most distinctively Chinese cultural icon. What was he trying to say about China’s worldview that required reference to an ancient proverb? Try as he might to be diplomatic, Xie Feng was giving a subtle dig to the effect that Chinese ethical ideals are high-minded and cultivated, in contrast with the behavior of some Western nations claiming that China is to blame for the origin of the virus and its spread. To simplify, the implication is that cultivated (Chinese) people are civilized, unlike Western “barbarians” who try to shift responsibility from themselves by pointing fingers at others, like children do on a playground. A second implication is that Chinese ethics and ideals are older, and therefore more venerable. Again, simplifying somewhat, the message is: “by the way, we knew how to behave properly a long time ago.” Moreover, a smattering of remarks in the article imply Chinese intellectual and cultural superiority, for example: “China took a ‘closed-book exam,’ with uplifting results that have informed other countries’ decisionmaking in the open-book tests’ that followed” (Xie, 2020). This is also, almost certainly, an implicit request for respect from Western nations.

Xie Feng makes several other rhetorical moves that merit attention, if we are to understand Chinese perspectives on China-West tensions underscored by COVID-19. In the same paragraph as the thinly veiled reference to Confucius, the author mentions the “Boxer Indemnity.” This is a reference to the Protocol, signed at the end of the Boxer Rebellion, 1899-1901. It was signed by the Chinese government on one side, and by Russia, six European nations, and the United States on the other. According to the Protocol, the Chinese government agreed to pay roughly 18,000 metric tons of silver to the Western powers and punish its own citizens for crimes against Western powers occurring on Chinese soil, which one would normally assume to be outside the jurisdiction of Western laws (Spence, 2012).

Mention of the Boxer Indemnity serves more broadly as a reminder of the Century of Humiliation (1840s-1940s), during which China suffered repeated economic, military, and political defeats at foreign hands. No doubt, the author sees China as unjustly accused by Westerners of inventing or scattering the virus, and instinctively wants to “save face” by pointing out China’s relative success at stemming the spread of the virus. Finally, the author repeatedly suggests that a more cooperative approach is more likely to save lives—that is, an “us-versus-COVID-19” outlook rather than the prevailing West-versus-China outlook. A spirit of cooperation (even if largely formal or even feigned at first) and an avoidance of us-versus-them rhetoric, even in the face of competition (especially in business), are foundational values of traditional Chinese culture that we will emphasize throughout this book.

As our deconstruction of Xie Feng’s op-ed illustrates, traditional Chinese culture is quite often just below the surface of contemporary interactions with the West, resonating in subtle ways and sometimes requiring careful attention to effectively understand and communicate. Of course, anyone who has traveled to China might rightly and quite obviously observe that not everyone thinks in the same way. We are certainly appreciative of such well-founded skepticism about our project. The idea of 1.4 billion people thinking the same way about ethics would seem a dubious starting proposition. Would anyone claim all Americans or Russians think alike? Indeed, quite a number of Chinese citizens whom we approached that are Western-educated or have had extensive exposure to foreigners understandably resented any notions that they can be pigeon-holed or caricatured in a simplistic manner, particularly one that would reduce them to embodying millennia-old tomes they might have read as youths in school. We certainly do not wish to do anything of the sort in this book. Rather, our argument is that the classics are still highly relevant to modern Chinese mores and sensibilities, not that they dominate or dictate the outlook of every Chinese citizen on every issue.

We are also appreciative of the fact that, as in other societies, there are many layers and substrata of cultures that in contemporary settings, and over the course of history, have interacted with and helped to shape the social and cultural legacy of the classics. Indeed, the precise nature of values associated with traditional Chinese culture has been a matter of considerable debate and controversy for millennia. Through the centuries, for example, Confucius and the teachings attributed to him have been adopted, interpreted, and reinvented in an almost endless cycle of reform and return to tradition to suit the needs of the day (Nylan & Wilson, 2010). Moreover, there have been many foreign influences on “traditional” culture, as for example during the Jurchen Jin, Mongolian Yuan, and Manchu Qing dynasties. Moreover, we are also mindful that the classics of Chinese literature and philosophy can hardly be expected to provide a full picture of who a modern Chinese person is or how they might behave. What follows is no substitute for immersing yourself in pop culture, art, or contemporary political discourse. It should be read as but one part—but we will argue an indispensable and oft-overlooked one—of a complex picture needed to understand and operate effectively in contemporary China. The fundamental premise of this book is that the classics still matter in contemporary Chinese business. For example, Confucius and Sun Tzu (more accurately written “Sunzi”) continue to resonate in contemporary Chinese business and ethics in ways that Homer and Virgil do not in the West (Ames and Rosemont 1998, Sunzi, 2011). Even if not literally read by everyone, the values are taught at home and in school. Globalization, free market economics, and human rights are new ideas being introduced into China whose impact on its cultural traditions will, in the fullness of time, unfold. Whatever the ultimate influence of these foreign ideas will be, the normative concepts and fundamental values transmitted in the classics will continue to exert significant influence.

In the interest of sticking to our pledge not to caricature Chinese mindsets, we hasten to add that the degree to which traditional values are going to characterize and affect the behavior of any particular Chinese counterpart is going to be on a spectrum. If you are sitting across the table from a Beida (Peking University) graduate with an MBA from Harvard and five years of work experience at Morgan Stanley, they are more likely to have taken the same negotiations course you took in school and there is very likely to be less cultural residue from having read the classics as a youth in school (very likely, but not absolutely so). On the other hand, if you are across the table from a government official or factory manager with little exposure to Western education, these kinds of mental frameworks could be more significant. The point of studying the Chinese classics is not to create a new kind of blunder where a Westerner sees a traditional mindset in every encounter. This would be as dysfunctional as ignoring the residues of traditional culture when they do appear in contemporary business. The point of this book is to raise fluency in thinking through that culture, recognize how it might color a particular encounter or business proposition, and learn to be agile in how you respond. (As we have noted, the importance of “agility” in navigating Chinese culture is a foundational theme we develop in this book.)

Contemporary Chinese political leaders are keenly aware of the power of appeal to traditional values. This was not always the case in the Communist Party. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s, Mao Zedong systematically and brutally attempted to purge the country of its millennia-old traditional culture. Even in the early years of reform, the Party stressed modernization and change over continuity, with sanguinity over the cultural consequences. “There are those who say we should not open our windows, because open windows let in flies and other insects,” Deng Xiaoping remarked in October 1985. “They want the windows to stay closed, so we all expire from lack of air. But we say, ‘Open the windows, breathe the fresh air and at the same time fight the flies and insects’ ” (Church, 1986). Today, however, the country’s leaders have moved decisively to embrace, reinterpret, and sometimes twist the tenets of traditional culture to advance their agendas.

President Xi Jinping has called traditional culture the “foundation” and “wellspring” of the Party’s values (Xi, 2014). In 2015, Xi went so far as to publish his own version of Mao’s Little Red Book that was entitled “Classical Aphorisms by Xi Jinping,” which quotes from Confucius, Mencius, and Laozi, among others, and dubiously attempts to portray the authoritarian Xi as a paragon of traditional Chinese values (ChinaDaily, 2015). Xi’s “discovery” of the classics is a powerful tell-tale of their persistent importance. Westerners would be well advised to take a cue from him if they want to be effective when doing business in China. Put simply, if China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping thinks it is important to invoke traditional ethical values to persuade the Chinese people about his ideas, then Westerners should appreciate their value in winning friends and influencing people. In the next chapter, we offer a roadmap for doing so.

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