The other day I was having dinner with some friends and we chatted about how many Chinese people follow very rigid rules and are almost banned to try new things. There seems to be so much pressure to do things ‘right’ that it leaves no space to do things wrong and learn from it. Many of the world’s inventions were created through trial and error and making small tweaks or even serendipitously stumbling upon something. One famous and now iconic mistake was the invention of Coke when Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton tried to make a cure for headaches but instead made a drink that tasted delicious. So I question if China would be able to innovate much faster if it was much more culturally accepted to experiment, fail and learn.

Not so much in the startup world, but in the traditional business world, many Chinese have very strict orders by their superiors. Since China is so competitive and people outnumber jobs, it is very dangerous not to do what you are told.  I heard one example even from an international magazine; employees are asked to clock in and out to monitor their daily hours worked. Once I talked to a property agent and tried to discuss terms but when that didn’t I wanted to talk to her manager and she suddenly became very scared.  At many restaurants, if you ask for a slight variation of what is on the menu, like adding cheese to a burger that doesn’t have cheese, it can’t be done.

Through the above examples, there are a number of points to reflect on. Firstly, it is no secret that there are very low levels of trust in China. A local person once reasoned it was because there are so many people in China, how can you trust everyone? Therefore, people don’t give someone the benefit of the doubt to do things on their own, with their own talent or skill. Secondly, since an early age when in school, many Chinese are taught to rote learn things and not encouraged to challenge the teacher. This has created a sense of insecurity to challenge the norms or rules and think differently, because you do so at your own risk. That’s why I feel many Chinese people are happy to complete tasks but not think about how to do things better. Perhaps that is why things aren’t always very efficient.

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Jason Lim

Jason is an Australian born Chinese living in Beijing, specializing in entrepreneurship, start-ups and the investment eco-system in China, especially in the tech and social area.