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Parting paradoxes: ethical continuity and change in contemporary China

Earlier in this chapter we noted how traditional Chinese culture is more accepting of paradox than many Western ones, and we have certainly tested that contention with our readers. In the beginning of this book, we acknowledged that traditional Chinese culture was but a part of the current moral climate. Traditional Chinese culture bumps up against pop culture, art, video games, the internet, and contemporary political discourses, to name but a few alternative sources. Moreover, just as there is no denying that traditional Chinese values persist in the modern era, it is abundantly clear that the economic reforms that began over four decades ago have ushered in new ideas about globalization, free market economics, and human rights. How much and in what ways China has changed and what the future will bring continues to be a topic of speculation and debate among China experts. Though it might seem paradoxical and contradictory to some, the authors believe China will change dramatically in the coming decades but that tradition will also endure. The rule of law, human rights, and other Western ideas will inevitably achieve some greater resonance in China in the coming decades. Even so, the traditional Chinese values that have endured over two millennia are very likely to endure as well in some form and strength, and may well influence cultures beyond China’s borders. Hence, the authors have no worries that this book will become obsolete anytime soon.

Another paradox that has been a recurrent theme of this book is the idea of ethical fluency, i.e., that one can understand and act within one ethical system while maintaining the core values of another. We have put our theory of ethical fluency into action in case studies involving intellectual property, quality and safety in the drug supply chain, and, in the hardest test, human rights. (Whether our solution represents a Western proclivity to resolve a paradox or a harmonious Chinese embrace of paradox we leave for the reader to decide.) We have been working under the broad idea that two different systems of ethics can address the same concerns about humanity and social/political order, but from differing metaphysical, epistemological, or religious presuppositions. We have shown how traditional Chinese culture offers a fully formed way of looking at the world, and particularly at ethics. For example, if you truly treat people benevolently, then any need for them to assert their human rights is far less acute because you’re already treating them well and justly.

This book has attempted to demonstrate that engaging with Chinese perspectives on ethical thought and behavior does not amount to a relativistic “going native,” or as the old adage goes, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” We have shown how ethical fluency can help accomplish precisely the opposite result, i.e., promote preexisting ethical and business objectives more effectively by practicing ethical flexibility or, as we call it, Agility. To elucidate why flexibility in ethics—Agility—does not entail giving up on preexisting ethical principles and values, we return to our metaphor of water, which is central to the classic texts The Art of War and the Daodejing, and famously invoked by Bruce Lee. Just because water changes its shape to fit whatever container you put it in does not mean that water has no essence of its own. Water has specific chemical properties that cause it to dissolve salt but not oil, that explain surface tension, and so on. Water can exert great power suddenly, as in floods or tsunamis, but it can also slowly wear away hard materials like metal and stone over time. Water adapts its shape yet it still has an inherent nature.

In conclusion, we recall a story told about a Westerner’s first trip into China. After US President Richard Nixon’s momentous visit to China in 1972, the country slowly opened to the West with fits and starts, most notably in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. In those first decades of opening to the West, it was not possible to fly into China. The entrepot city of Hong Kong, then still under British rule, was the entry point into “the mainland.” In Hong Kong at that time there was a story told at the famed Foreign Correspondent’s Club of a Western journalist making their first trip into China, usually into Guangzhou, which could be reached by a short train trip. (Shanghai at the time was a two-night journey by train from Guangzhou.) The story went that after the first day in China, the wide-eyed Western newbie would exclaim “this place is so interesting. I want to write a book about it.” A week later, a bit chastened by all they observed and experienced, they would cut down their expectations and say “perhaps an article will do.” After a month, the hope was reduced to the daunting prospect of uttering one sentence about China that did not seem ignorant and foolish.

The authors hope that as the reader comes to the end of this book they will not wish we had confined ourselves to working out that one sentence. We end our book with this story because it perfectly captures two aspects of Western experiences in China. The first is the exhilaration of arriving in such a unique and fascinating place. The second is how in many ways China seems so complicated and difficult for Westerners to understand. This book has attempted to make China a little less complicated for business executives and others, but we hope in doing so that we rekindle in the reader that surge of excitement that they felt on their first trip to China. While we wrote this book as a primer to communicate and operate more effectively in China, we hope that our discussion will also yield some intrinsic personal fulfillment for the reader. We hope it will provide a vehicle for Westerners to experience Chinese culture on a more intimate level, deepen friendships with their Chinese counterparts, and help realize the hope of nearly every Westerner visitor to understand and appreciate this rich and ancient culture.

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