7 min read
The China that can be understood is not the real China
Sometimes the only way to truly understand a thing is to compare it to something else. Live in the same place for long enough and you’d be forgiven for forgetting that anything significant actually exists outside it. We adapt to our environment, allowing it (some more than others) to shape our thoughts and behaviors. While I’ve lived in China for a little over 10 years, it’s only been in the last 2 to 3 years that I’ve done any significant travel inside or outside the country.
In December 2017, I was invited to Italy to mentor for a China market entry program at HFarm, an accelerator and innovation consultancy. In April, I got the chance to speak at the Russia Internet Conference, an annual government-sponsored conference, in Moscow about the Chinese ecosystem and recent developments in blockchain. More recently, in June, I was invited to TechSauce, a conference held in Bangkok every year, as a moderator. Living in China breeds a certain arrogance about the rest of the world, an arrogance made clearer with each new country I visited.
In each country, I was able to witness a different manifestation of the fundamental ideal that forms the foundation of every tech-driven entrepreneurial environment: we can make the world a better place by creating great businesses. This was especially apparent at TechSauce. I had the pleasure to talk with entrepreneurs testing the limits of what can be done in Thailand and Southeast Asia, from working with regulators to deliver better insurance schemes to microfinance solutions for blue-collar workers who easily find themselves in debt they can’t handle.
It wasn’t until about a year ago that I started seriously studying China. I’ve tried my best to balance inputs from the local entrepreneurial ecosystem, various tech and non-tech media, as well as serious non-fiction. With all the new information, I’ve been trying my best to figure out how it all fits together. Visiting other countries and cultures has helped me put some of this in perspective.
The power of history
To steal a phrase from Dan Carlin, I’m no historian. I am, however, continually amazed by how much can be explained by historical forces and trends. In China, I still struggle with many aspects of the culture: the lack of basic politeness in public spaces, the dog-eat-dog/find the greater fool/screw or get screwed mentality, the consistent reminder of my alienness no matter how well I speak the language or understand the culture, and a pervasive cultural chauvinism that manifests itself both as an odd friendliness and strident pride. I came to China for an idealized escape from Western failings, I’ve stayed for reasons mundane: family, friends, and career.
Completely unplanned, over the last six months I have been in two countries scarred by a Marxist upheaval (China and Russia) and two with very well preserved cultural lineages (Italy and Thailand). A very good case can and has been made that we need to overturn the past to discover the future and increase human flourishing. Indeed, any contemporary entrepreneur worth their salt is doing exactly that. However, both China and Russia serve as warnings that some kinds of historical disruption are not only disastrous but can also change the people and culture in ways that isolate them from the rest of the world.
In both countries in the 20th century, a revolutionary view of the world was used to reshape politics, economics, and cultures. Past structures were only meant to justify the dominance of the ownership class and the oppression of the worker class. In China, this meant Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism (integral parts of the culture for thousands of years) were not only irrelevant but also antithetical to the new order; they were to be deleted as soon as possible. It’s hard to imagine what this must have been like for the people of China, supporters or not of the change.
Of course, this isn’t to say that current idiosyncrasies of Chinese culture are due solely to its recent history. Many current cultural phenomena were accurately described in the early 1900s by a Chinese author trying to explain Chinese culture to foreigners, including the propensity to treat everyone not family or friends as distrusted strangers, as well as the tendency for women to enact very feminine gender roles.
China is crazy entrepreneurial
Compared to the rest of the world, China is [insert expletive] insane. Lack of work-life balance is the norm and now, with instant communication tools, even personal time is consistently intruded upon by the demands of the employer. The post-90s and late-80s generations are changing some of these expectations, but human resources are still cheap until proven indispensable.
Even with these changes, including flaunting the fruits of their labor with well-framed and photoshopped pictures of lavish meals and exotic places, the basic economic and financial assumption in China is that there is money to be made and if you’re not making money somehow, you’re an overcautious fool.
This is not new: the Chinese diaspora the world over proves the point. Ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia consistently have greater economic affluence than much of their “local” counterparts. Looked down upon in Confucian ideology, the merchant class has now basically expanded to the whole of the country. “To get rich is glorious” is no longer just a slogan, but has become a fundamental axiom. And mobile-first business models have exacerbated this trend: WeChat shops, Taobao villages, and the dream of becoming a KOL. Combine this with a status-driven culture where hierarchies are still somewhat plastic and you have a potent mix.
China is not international
Of all the countries I’ve visited so far, Thailand was the most international, with TechSauce being the most international conference I’ve attended outside China (I would say the same about RISE, but they’re in Hong Kong, technically part of China). This makes sense given the country’s relatively small size and reliance on tourism, but a tourist destination is more than just the place, it’s also the people.
The number of people who could communicate effectively (not necessarily fluently) in English was surprising. In China, every university graduate spends at least 12 years learning English and yet the number of people who can actually speak is dismally disappointing, revealing a fatal flaw in Chinese education. Not only are the children disciplined with medieval pedagogical methods, but they are rarely exposed to any English outside the classroom.
And it’s not just English. The entire educational system seems designed to keep its students looking inward, focused on the result (exam scores) rather than enjoying the process of learning.
China is slowly returning to its old ways. The reform and opening-up period was more a blip than a trend and all those who thought China would liberalize have been proven wrong. Now that it has gained prominence on the world stage and become a “moderately prosperous” society, the country is slowly turning back inwards. Always quite protectionist, doing business in the country is becoming harder for expat entrepreneurs and MNCs alike.
Thailand is also quite protective of its business environment, mandating in most cases that companies must be majority Thai-owned. While certainly less favorable to foreigners in this sense, the sheer number of businesses catering to tourists and expats demonstrates a country with little concern about foreign influence in the broader culture.
Looking at the individual, one of the big issues we deal with at TechNode is how to connect Chinese founders and teams with the rest of the world. Unfortunately, even if they want that connection or exposure, if they are “too local,” cultural and psychological barriers prevent them from taking full advantage of international opportunities.
China, in this sense, is split: On the one hand, they are the most open of East Asian countries, but, on the other hand, this openness is born out of recent history and a fundamental pragmatism. They look at the success of others and do their best to emulate it, but Chinese culture looks inward and prizes intimacy among in-group members. The friction created by misunderstanding and miscommunication leads to discomfort and embarrassment. For many, avoiding this altogether is much more preferable.
China is full of trade-offs
I originally came to China because I wanted to understand a culture and people that were so different from me. That sense of difference has yet to fade. Visiting other countries has made me think of greener pastures. However, as Ben Thompson and James Allworth say, there’s always a trade-off.
China is reclaiming its position as the center of the world, like it or not. However, that’s being built on the back of an educational system based on obedience, a willingness to work excessively, a deteriorating environment, and a populace who gets the majority of their spiritual nourishment comes from 15-second videos. The trade-offs abound: Speed for professionalism, result for process, status for friendship, security for happiness, hard work for efficient process. And ultimately, economic power for freedom.
I find it quite difficult to explain China to people with limited knowledge of the country. It’s a huge, complicated country that will never be just one easily understood thing. As I’ve said to many people, the Chinese language became much easier for me to learn once I admitted that I will never really understand why it is the way it is.
Any time someone tries to sell you a picture of China, whether it’s the land of opportunity, a country full of shysters, or has a [insert positive or negative superlative] government, I encourage you to question whether they actually understand what they are talking about. To paraphrase Laozi, the China that can be understood is not the real China.