Monthly Archives: February 2014

Sochi to Beijing?

By all accounts the XXII Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia was a big success.  I’m not quite sure how one measures such things but it certainly feels like everyone is pretty satisfied, as well they should be.

For those Americans who were school children at the height of the Cold War Sochi didn't look at all like the Soviet Union the adults described to us.
For those Americans who were school children at the height of the Cold War Sochi didn’t look at all like the Soviet Union the adults described to us.

For those of us who grew up in the U.S. during the height of the Cold War we certainly saw a Russia that didn’t look anything like the Russia described to us as we huddled under our school desks waiting for the Soviets to rain nuclear annihilation on our huddled bodies, as the adults seemed convinced they were anxious to do.  (Given the lack of protection a school desk would provide in the event of an actual nuclear detonation one has to wonder why the school children weren’t simply kept in ignorant bliss.  Was the exercise meant to be ‘protective’ or ‘educational’?)

China, of course, has not yet achieved its usual athletic powerhouse status at the Winter Olympics and actually finished with fewer medals this time around than in Vancouver four years ago.  Still, China finished with a respectable 9 medals, 11th in the total medal standings, and the best showing in Southeast Asia, one ahead of Korea, host to the next 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, and Japan.

CCTV 5, the state-owned television channel devoted to 24/7 sports, gave broad exposure to the event, and close to 200 million Chinese tuned in, according to statistics.  That’s not exactly a ‘hit’ by the mega-standards of Chinese television (The reality show, Where Are We Going, Dad? has more than 600 million viewers each week, according to The Atlantic.), but respectable for a collection of sports that all but a handful of Chinese have ever witnessed in person, much less participated in.  (I wonder, in fact, how many people from any country have ever witnessed a biathlon or curling match outside of the Olympics.)

The China men's curling team made it to the bronze medal game - the country's best finish ever.
The Chinese men’s curling team made it to the bronze medal game – the country’s best finish ever.

To be fair, the timing for the Games could not have been worse in terms of Chinese enthusiasm, coming as they did on the heels of Spring Festival.  The economy was still awakening from its New Year slumber and many children had not yet returned to school.

Still, President Xi is a strong advocate of the importance of athletics to the development of the Chinese people and the modern Chinese way of life.  It could be that the President is merely a sports enthusiast but I suspect he appreciates the health value of sport and genuinely wants to help prepare society for a life of more discretionary income and free time.

The government, of course, is also interested in garnering respect for itself and its people.  And it feels a certain sense of obligation to behave like the financial and political superpower that it is.

And not surprisingly it set out to do so at the Olympics using the same formula it did to build the world’s second largest economy – infrastructure, foreign expertise, and hard work.  A total of 10 foreign coaches worked with the Chinese national teams, including Canadian curler Marcel Rocque, with three world championships to his credit as a player, who took the Chinese women’s curling team into the round robin and the men into the bronze medal game after only 10 months at the helm.  It was the best showing ever by the Chinese in the event.

China is a powerhouse in short track skating.
China is a powerhouse in short track skating where the ability to maneuver in traffic is a must.

China has been particularly successful in short track skating, of course, which accounted for 2/3 of its medals this year and has provided 7 of the 9 gold medals earned at the Winter Olympics in modern times.  This is no surprise to me, frankly, since short track skating reminds me very much of the dynamics of getting around a traffic roundabout in congested Beijing.  And some of the maneuvering tactics employed, I’m convinced, were borrowed from the art of getting to the front of the queue at a crowded checkout counter in China.  (No slight intended as to the athleticism, dedication, and skill of the athletes involved.  They’re awesome.)

Mengtao Xu and Zongyang Jia (Xu Mentao and Jia Zongyang in China), moreover, won silver and bronze medals, respectively, in ladies’ and men’s aerial freestyle.  (I don’t know why they refer to it as the ladies’ freestyle instead of the women’s freestyle, but I defer to the official website.)  And Zhang Hong made history when she took gold in the 1000m speed skating event, the country’s first gold medal in the iconic Olympic sport.

There are several ski areas within Beijing itself.  It's not the Alps but there are serious mountains a 2-3 hour drive away.
There are several ski areas within Beijing itself. It’s not the Alps but there are serious mountains a 2-3 hour drive away.

China, of course, wants to take its participation in the Winter Olympics one step further, as it inevitably does, and is in the hunt to host the XXIV Winter Olympic Games in 2022.  It’s a joint bid between and Beijing and neighboring Zhangjiakou and we can assume it’s a serious bid indeed.  I don’t doubt for a minute that they can pull it off and I’m sure it would prove to be one of the most spectacular events ever held.

I don’t believe, however, that hosting the Winter Olympics has yet garnered the same level of popular support that the 2008 Summer Olympics did.  They cost a lot of money, the Olympic Games, and anyone living in Beijing surely wants to see the government solve the air pollution problem before it even thinks about devoting valuable resources to anything else.  (Beijing was shrouded in pollution this past week, forcing the government to declare a level orange air quality emergency – the second highest level – for the first time since the emergency system was enacted last October.)

I’m not sure, however, that’s not the ticket to the clean air we’re all looking for.  I would bet dollars to donuts that if Beijing were to host the 2022 Winter Olympics the world would be welcomed by blue skies and lily-white snow.

While I would enjoy being in Beijing for the event just as much as I enjoyed being here in 2008, however, I must admit slight trepidation at the thought of the Chinese hosting the Olympic Alpine events, having taken my own daughters skiing in China for the first time a few weeks ago.

This Beijing ski area even boasts a traditional European clock tower.
This Beijing ski area even boasts a traditional European clock tower.

A lifelong skier I was thrilled when they first expressed an interest and pleasantly surprised when I began to investigate and discovered that there are several ski areas within driving distance of Beijing.  And when we arrived at the one we finally settled on we all nodded in approval at the general look and feel of the slopes and facilities, modeled as they apparently are after some unnamed Alpine village, complete with clock tower.

The rental process was quick and efficient, but with Chinese characteristics, reminding me once again that there are no lawyers here – at least not of the personal injury variety.   Pragmatic as always, the rental process is organized by shoe size.   There are no release of liability forms to sign as there is no liability to begin with.  You have only to find the counter offering your shoe size and there you will be handed a pair of boots with skis pre-fitted to match.  Someone has already decided what length of ski goes with what size foot and the bindings are pre-set to some universal setting chosen, apparently, without regard to weight or skiing ability.  How else could you process so many skiers in the amount of time the high-urgency Chinese are willing to devote to such things?

And then, of course, there were the lift lines.  Or ‘no-lines’, as it were.  Just an opening and a sea of people all attempting to crowd through at the same time (think the last turn of a 6-person short track skating competition), a picture of congestion further enhanced by the fact that most of the snowboarders dismount their boards, apparently in an effort to enhance their ability to squeeze past the skiers waiting for a lift up the slope.

To be expected, for sure.  Remember that process issue I keep talking about.  Many Chinese just don’t understand the idea of queuing.  It truly is a foreign concept.

The beginner slopes are always a place to exercise caution.  (To be fair, this is snow, not smog.)
The beginner slopes are always a place to exercise caution. (To be fair, this is snow, not smog.)

My expectations realized, however, my dormant fear likewise came to life as I watched a teenage boy slam into my youngest daughter at the bottom of the bunny slope.  He apparently had never skied before, strapped the skis on and pointed them down the fall line, pushed off, and then began to wonder how we was going to stop.  Why he chose my daughter, who was no more than one-half his size and standing quietly out of the way, I can’t say.

Such events, of course, occur on beginner slopes all over the world with some regularity.  What dismayed me, however, was how little the numerous Ski Patrol officials standing nearby in their very official-looking jackets seemed to care.  One of them casually asked if my daughter was okay but didn’t make any effort to tutor or discipline the lad who could have caused her serious injury.  A gentle reminder, I’m afraid, that in their urgency to adopt world-class practices the Chinese sometimes fail to grasp the deeper purpose involved.

All told, however, we had a delightful day on the slopes.  And, as always, it helped to make winter feel just a tad shorter.

And then, as noted, the thick fog of pollution rolled in, the blue skies of Sochi seemed a dream away, and winter suddenly feels like it will drag on forever once again.

Alas, Beijing has been shrouded in an orange-level smog emergency for most of the past week.
Alas, Beijing has been shrouded in an orange-level smog emergency for most of the past week, making it feel like a long winter once again.

Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.

A Turn of the Lens

I spent a few days in the United States on business this past week.  I thought it might be an opportune time, therefore, to pivot my lens and share a few musings about the land of my birth, which I now view from afar.

Living in China for 6 ½ years has taught me a great deal about the United States.  Not directly, of course.  In more ways than the average American and Chinese realize, I think, the two worlds could not be more different.  And that’s not going to change any time soon.

China has, however, given me a richer and more defined context within which to understand my home country and culture.  And while context does not, in itself, promote learning, it does promote understanding.

So, here goes.  And, remember, I don’t profess to be right or wrong.  My goal is to stimulate thinking and, in the end, hopefully, understanding.  (If you get there, please share with me.)

I believe there are two primary reasons why in its relatively short history the United States has become a global superpower and home to the largest economy in the world.

The first is that Americans have always embraced education.  And, as a result, we have the largest, most accessible, and arguably best education system in the world.  It’s not perfect.  And it is failing far too many of our most needy students.  But that, I believe, can be fixed.

Forget about the standardized test scores.  Yes, the Asians dominate those.  That’s not going to change by having longer school days and more test preparation time.  It’s cultural  and systemic.

And in the end it doesn’t matter.  There is a huge difference between having knowledge and having the ability to apply it.  The Chinese excel at acquiring knowledge.  But they sometimes struggle to apply it.

Americans, on the other hand, have the opposite skill set.  We can be just a tad lazy about acquiring knowledge, but we excel at applying it.  And I believe we have our education system to thank for that.

Above all else, the skill of applying knowledge promotes natural curiosity.  And, as I have written before, natural curiosity, above everything else, is what built the America we know today.  In the aftermath of World War II a nation wondered; a nation dreamed; a nation of people asked themselves what they could do to change the world.

American children are taught the most lesson of all - how to think for themselves and to defend their conclusions.
American children are taught the most valuable lesson of all – how to think for themselves and defend their conclusions.

In turn, U.S. educators moved away from rote learning decades ago and turned their attention to teaching children to think independently and to communicate their thoughts vigorously and effectively.  (I personally believe the Vietnam War helped to promote this pivot but that’s another story.)

As an employer in the global economy I can tell you straight away which skill set is more valuable in today’s global economy.  It’s no contest.  My company doesn’t need people with knowledge.  We can provide that and it’s changing daily anyway.  We need people who know how to acquire knowledge and how to apply it.  And, more specifically, how to apply knowledge to solve problems and to see and seize opportunities.

So if the U.S. wants to maintain it’s footing in a shifting world we should continue to invest in the kind of education that got us where we are today.  Make it even better.  And just as importantly, make it more accessible.  But don’t copy what the test-score champions are doing.  That will only give us better test scores.  That won’t give us better students.

The second reason for the U.S.’ success, in my opinion, is that we have always embraced diversity.  And, I fear, we are losing that edge.

We’ve all read and heard that the U.S. is a country of immigrants.  Except for Native Americans we all came from somewhere else.  (As you can imagine, the Chinese find this almost impossible to grasp.)  But that only gets to the issue of ethnic diversity.

Real diversity – the kind that matters in problem solving – is much broader.  Of course it includes ethnic diversity, religious diversity, and gender diversity.  But real diversity is a diversity in worldview, from whatever its source.  This level of diversity embraces differences in experience, priorities, and aspirations – the things that shape our cognitive conclusions.

I believe this is why the U.S. has, in the past, always embraced the underdog.  What is the underdog?  The underdog is the one that is not expected to win.  Why not?  Because the underdog does not look or feel like the previous winners.

In the 1968 Summer Olympics Dick Fosbury didn't look like a winner.  But he 'flopped' his way to gold and changed the sport forever.
In the 1968 Summer Olympics Dick Fosbury didn’t look like a winner. But he ‘flopped’ his way to gold and changed the sport forever.

But we embrace them nonetheless.  And it is, almost without fail, the winning underdog that redefines the contest.  The winning ‘winner’ notches another win.  But it is the winning underdog that changes the game forever.

But here’s the rub.  We still, from what I’ve observed, applaud the underdog, particularly in sport.  I’m not sure, however, we still embrace the underdog, particularly in areas that are more personal than a sporting event we are merely witnesses to.  And I have a theory as to why.

As Westerners we are linear thinkers.  I’ve written about this many times before.  We see the world through a lens of cause and effect and linear progression.

I believe, however, that we’ve allowed our linear thinking, and the linear worldview it inevitably results in, to mutate into digital thinking and a digital worldview and there’s a big difference between linear and digital.  If there is anything I’ve learned in my 60 years on this earth it is that life is not black and white.  Most of what happens in life falls along an infinite spectrum of gray.

The problem with a black and while world, of course, is that there are no shades.  And without shades there is no transition.  And without transition there is no context and answers and solutions are either right or wrong.  They’re digital.

And in a digital world the distance between the embrace of diversity and intolerance is short indeed.  You are or you aren’t.  And since there is no middle in the B&W world, the ‘are’ and the ‘aren’t’ tend to be defined by the most extreme of positions.

But why have we become so polarized?  Why is there such a fine line between right and wrong on virtually every issue?  Why have diversity and difference become mutually exclusive?

We live in a digital world.  But digital technology doesn't fully explain digital values.
We live in a digital world. But digital technology doesn’t fully explain digital values.

When talking about the digitization of anything, of course, there is always a tendency to jump immediately to the technology that has so completely – and so quickly – changed our lives in such profound ways.  Communication technology is, after all, digital by definition.

I believe this is only part of the answer, however.  Technology is merely a transmitter.  It processes inputs into outputs.  It does not, of and by itself, spawn either one.

To fully understand the way in which technology has changed the world, therefore, I believe we must look at the way we process the output of technology – the ways in which we interpret it, extrapolate it, and apply it to our belief systems and our day to day behavior.

As noted in previous posts, Westerners tend to be transmitter-oriented in their communication style.  The burden of effective communication rests with the transmitter.  The effectiveness of communication in this worldview is a function of proper transmission.

The Chinese, on the other hand, are receiver-oriented, meaning that the burden of effective communication rests with the receiver.  You almost have to be, I think, if you live in a land of 1.3 billion people.  It is simply impossible for all of those people to be speaking at the same time with universal effectiveness.

And isn’t that the world which technology has created in the U.S. and other Western countries?  If technology is all about the quantity and speed of input processing and transmission, hasn’t the practical effect been to turn a land of 300 million people into a land of billions, where each person has the communicative transmission power that in a prior generation took a group of people – even a village – to generate?

Perhaps, in other words, it is time for us to take a page from the Chinese and other Asian cultures.  Perhaps in a world of 24/7 social media, 10-syllable Tweets, and 3-second sound bites, it is no longer reasonable to put the burden for effective communication on the speaker.  Perhaps, in other words, technology has knocked the yin-yang of communication hopelessly out of whack.  In a world in which there is an infinite supply of the ability to transmit, we need to become better listeners.

In a world of such prolific transmission do we need to  become more receiver-oriented in our communication?
In a world of such prolific transmission do we need to become more receiver-oriented in our communication?

Marshall McLuhan was right, of course, when he noted, “the medium is the message.”  The context in which he made that insightful observation, however, was a society and culture shaped by transmitter-oriented communication.

And perhaps that’s precisely what McLuhan’s many contemporaries were alluding to, consciously or not, when they noted that America needed to ‘chill out.’  Said at a different time for different reasons, but even more relevant today.

We do need to chill out if we are going to survive the Internet era and not implode in the process.  We need to spend a little less effort on transmitting and a little more time and effort on listening.

In the end, it was a good trip.  I stepped off the plane and filled my lungs with clean air.  And I drank luxuriously from every water tap I came across and laughed at my childish abandon.

Be thankful, America.  Despite all of the issues we face, we’ve got it good!

Access to clean air and clean water is priceless.
Access to clean air and clean water is priceless.

Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.




Children & the Chinese Child

Everybody loves children.  Every culture embraces them.  They are, as so many songwriters and poets have reminded us, the future itself.

Our children are our future.
Our children are our future in the most literal sense.

Nowhere, however, have I seen children quite so revered as they are here in China.  They are universally adored, coddled, and the focal point of every family’s life.

There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that Chinese culture turns on personal relationship and obligation and no relationship is more deep-rooted and binding than family.  Confucius, in fact, made filial piety (xiào) the cornerstone of much of his philosophy of rights and obligations.

As a result, or perhaps because of it, the government provides little in the way of financial support for the elderly.  That is considered a family obligation.  Because of the dissolution of the family unit due to migration and urbanization, greatly increasing life expectancy, and what is referred to as the ‘4-2-1 problem,’ however, it is an obligation increasingly difficult to satisfy.

Culture and policy combine to put intense pressure on students whose standardized test scores will largely determine the opportunities open to them as adults.
Culture and policy combine to put intense pressure on students whose standardized test scores will largely determine the opportunities available to them as adults.

The 4-2-1 problem arises as a direct result of China’s one-child policy, officially known as the family planning policy, implemented in 1979 in an effort to control population growth.  In very practical terms it means that in the typical three-generation family, two of which are retired, one child/worker is responsible for supporting 6 of his or her elders (two parents and four grandparents), an obligation that doubles when the third generation member is widowed or whose spouse does not or cannot work.  (There are almost no spouses who choose not to work here.  It’s just not an option for all but the richest of Chinese.)

Now imagine that this one child is lost due to natural disaster (e.g. earthquake) or otherwise fails to succeed due to poor study habits or an inability to compete successfully in the workplace.  While this greatly enhances the propensity to over-protect and coddle children it likewise puts them under tremendous pressure to perform, particularly in school where standardized exams largely determine the career path that will be open to them.  Neither (over-protection or undue pressure) is likely to be helpful to the child’s proper development.  Both may contribute, as one reader previously noted, to narcissistic tendencies.  (As previously noted, academic achievement in China is a zero-sum game.  A child can only ‘succeed’ if his or her classmates fail.)

As elsewhere in the world children love to play together.  At home, however, the only child has no peers with which he or she must compete.
As elsewhere in the world children love to play together. At home, however, the only child has no peers with which he or she must compete and/or cooperate.

Now extrapolate the one-child policy laterally.  In addition to having no siblings, and being raised by parents who themselves were raised with no siblings, many only children have no aunts, uncles, or cousins either.  They have, in other words, not a single familial peer with whom they must compete on an equal emotional footing.

Needless to say this can have profound implications in terms of how adult Chinese express themselves, work through problems, share, or otherwise compete throughout their lives.  I see the impact every day.  It’s not that people are arrogant or self-centered as those terms are normally used.  They simply struggle to collaborate or, as noted in a prior post, compromise or sublimate self-interest in the interest of the best collective outcome.

This, of course, can also lead to an inability to embrace diversity, generally reinforcing the cultural tendency that inhibits ethnic and cultural assimilation, a tendency likely to be reinforced by the gender imbalance indirectly caused by the one-child policy.

If parents prefer sons because of an erroneous perception that they are somehow stronger or more determined, the parents of this little girl surely make no such false assumptions.
If parents prefer sons because of an erroneous perception that they are somehow stronger or more determined, the parents of this little girl surely hold no such false beliefs.

While the male/female imbalance has shown signs of improving recently, the male/female birth rate has been running at 117:100 in recent years, well above the global average of 103:100 – 107:100 that is considered biologically normal.  This, of course, is due primarily to the practice of gender-selective abortions, although it is technically illegal for doctors or other healthcare providers to disclose the sex of an unborn fetus to the parents.  (In practice, it is quite easy to find out and every parent that I’ve discussed the question with has.)

In reality, the one-child policy has never been universally applied.  There have always been exceptions for people living in rural areas (parents were allowed a second child if the first was a daughter or physically or mentally challenged); ethnic minorities, of which there are 55, have generally been excluded from the restriction; and some cities have allowed parents to have a second child if both parents were themselves only children.

There are, in fact, many exceptions to the one child policy, as this brother and sister attest.
There are, in fact, many exceptions to the one child policy, as this brother and sister attest.

Like almost all national policies in China, the family planning policy is administered provincially and local authorities have been given wide latitude as to its application and enforcement.  Sichuan Province, for example, site of the devastating 2008 earthquake, which killed more than 87,000 people and left 4.8 million people homeless, immediately made an exception for parents who lost their only child in the quake.

And the central government did, of course, as has been widely reported abroad, relax the family planning policy even further during the Third Plenum of the Communist Party of China’s 18th Central Committee in October, 2013, allowing married couples, only one of which is an only child, to have a second child.

The reason for further relaxing the policy remains a little unclear since the government concurrently announced that it will not abandon the policy altogether, as some had predicted.  I believe, however, and it is strictly my guess, that part of the rationale had to do with the simple principle of fairness and the desire to address the growing gulf between the rich and everyone else.

As in the West, wealth can overcome obstacles, including the family planning policy.
As in the West, wealth can overcome obstacles, including the family planning policy.  What is the sacrifice of public education if you will send your children to a private school anyway?

You see, while I have no doubt that there have been cases of over-zealous local officials forcing women to abort a non-exempt second child  (I, myself, am unaware of any such case.), the primary penalty for violation of the family planning policy is financial.  In addition to paying a fine, which is undoubtedly negotiable, depending on your relationship with the local government, the offending couple has to pay the educational and medical costs of the second child.

Which, for the wealthy, isn’t a deterrent at all.  It’s a paper dragon.

I suspect, therefore, that the net impact of the new policy on Chinese birth rates will be quite small.  Those who want and can afford a second child already have or will have one.  And those that can’t – well, they can’t afford it.

Living in China can be inexpensive if you’re willing to do without modern conveniences and live in a confined space.  Raising a child, under any circumstances, is not.  To get the kind of education you will need to be anything other than a manual laborer, someone will need to pay.  And universal healthcare, even under the best of circumstances, has its limitations.  Most people will need money when serious illness strikes.

Young children and their mothers almost never stand on the crowded subways of Beijing.
Young children and their mothers almost never stand on the crowded subways of Beijing.

And then there are those, of course, who are so consumed with getting ahead that they don’t have time for marriage, much less children.

All that said, however, the Chinese do universally adore children.  With few exceptions young children traveling with their parents on the Beijing subway are offered seats in otherwise jammed subway cars that would not have been sacrificed for their parents.  In a country focused on today, but in which today’s labor is universally considered a sure path to tomorrow’s grand aspirations, children are both the symbol of a future yet to come and the prize for parents and grandparents who, after years of doing without, are in the previously unimaginable position to coddle and spoil; to celebrate, as they are sometimes called, a generation of ‘little emperors.’

Why not?

Why not, indeed?
Why not, indeed?

Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.

China’s Achilles Heel

Is there an Achilles heel to the Chinese miracle?  Western soothsayers talk a lot about a possible credit implosion, a housing bubble, political unrest in the region, and the increasing inequality of income distribution when assessing the risks facing China.  But while these risks are certainly real, I believe the greatest risk facing China in the coming decade is much more fundamental.  The greatest risk, I believe, is the widespread reluctance to accept the need for process.

Merriam-Webster defines process as “a series of actions that produce something or that lead to a particular result.”  And they are critical to the successful functioning of any organization, be it a business, a philanthropic organization, or a country.

The key is the emphasis on the ‘actions’, not the outcome.  Process is all about the way in which the optimal or best outcome is achieved with consistency.  It may not yield the perfect outcome in each and every instance, but it will, if structured properly, predictably yield the best overall solution over time.

As I have frequently noted, however, many Chinese have an aversion to process, or at least fail to accept the need for it.  They are focused almost exclusively on the immediate outcome at hand and sometimes care little about how that outcome is achieved.

The most apparent manifestation of this tendency is in the way people drive.  The rules of the road, while consistent with the rules of the road the world over, are universally ignored.  As is consideration for others.  Even when not actually in motion drivers invariably park their car wherever it is most convenient for them, even if it means blocking other cars in or otherwise creating an obvious disruption to traffic flow.

The problem arises in the potential conflict between individual outcomes and collective outcomes.  The rules of the road are designed to maximize driving efficiency and safety overall.  Any individual driver may, as a result, have to sacrifice his or her individual convenience for the convenience and safety of the motoring public as a whole.  (Statistically, they in turn will get the benefit on other occasions.)  And that’s just not a sacrifice many Chinese are willing to make.  Or more accurately, I think, many Chinese do not comprehend the need to make.

Frankly, this presents a monumental conundrum for the Chinese government, whose actions to temper this me-centric perspective in the interest of society as a whole only exacerbates the problem and opens the door to new outcomes that are even further out of sync with the common good.

Let’s take an example; paying taxes.  Nobody really wants to pay taxes.  But most of us do.  Because we realize that for the government to provide schools and roads and police protection it needs money.  And as long as the rules for assessing taxes are perceived as generally fair and the money is not overtly squandered we pay.

But what if we measured the outcome in strictly personal terms?  What if we determined our willingness to pay taxes strictly in terms of the direct financial benefit to us as individuals?  Would we be so compliant with the government’s taxation process?

Probably not.  And because this behavior is built on a worldview that is not exclusive to a small segment of the population (i.e. the crooks that exist in every society), the problem manifests itself on both sides of the process.  The governed cheat on their taxes; the governing sometimes accept bribes to look the other way.  In both cases the individual appears to gain, but society as a whole loses.

But let’s look at this problem from another angle.  What is the most famous and broadly recognized process of all?  The process of behavior defined by the Moral Code.  Virtually every religion has one and among the monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) they are both explicit and absolute.  (e.g. Thou shalt not …)  In the end, they represent the  process for achieving that religion’s ultimate objective (e.g. getting into heaven).

Religious influences actually run pretty deep here although many who would define themselves as religious don’t appear to be particularly doctrinal in their daily lives.  But even many who would not consider themselves to be dogmatically religious in the Western sense nonetheless accept the monotheistic moral codes as essential to the functioning of a modern society.  And both Confucianism, as well as Chinese Communism, or Maoism, if you will, while not religions, have historically provided a code of values that roughly translate into a moral code of behavior.

The problem arises, I believe, in that many of the Chinese who came to adulthood in the aftermath of Deng Xiaoping’s economic revolution appear to lack any such compass.  There are many exceptions for sure.  But in a very broad sense it would appear that a good portion of the population is today guided largely by the simple quest for financial security and a better life.

The risk, of course, is the fine line that separates individualism as a behavioral code and anarchy, or the triumph of individual greed and self-serving exploitation.  If nobody follows the rules, for whatever reason, there can be no game.  The collective outcome shatters under the weight of individual outcomes pursued with abandon.

Personally, I believe the government understands this risk, which, in part, is why it allows organized religion, albeit regulated, to openly operate here, and why NGO’s, nearly all of which embrace some universal moral code, exist in abundance here despite the potential conflict with the country’s political agenda.

And it is why, I believe, the government allows the deep-seated nationalism that is so fervent among the Chinese the world over to bubble to the surface from time to time despite its potential to froth out of control, potentially derailing the government’s own geo-political agenda.  Nationalism is, in many ways, a proxy for a behavioral process designed to sublimate self-interest and optimize the common good.

As on so many fronts, however, the ‘Moral Code with Chinese Characteristics’ is very much a work in progress.  I have no doubt that it gets much attention behind the closed doors of power here in Beijing.  And I have every confidence that once the vehicular anarchy reaches the point of total gridlock – and it will; it must – the Chinese people will once again look in the mirror with the self-awareness and pragmatism they have brought to the task for millennium and ultimately accept the need for some self-restraint in the winner-take-all Driving Games that exist today.

In the end, no modern society can exist, whatever it’s political system or however hardworking its citizens, without collective self-restraint.  Behavior in the public interest cannot be enforced.  As history will attest, there is no army or police force big enough, motivated enough, or equipped with the necessary tools to force a citizenry into behavioral submission over a long period of time.  People must ultimately be willing, of their own free will, to behave in ways that will promote the common good, or it simply won’t happen.

Ironically, I believe the Internet will help.  I say ironically because the Internet is one of the most highly regulated industries in China.  (The Chinese cannot access Facebook, Twitter, or any of the other tools of Western social media that many Westerners appear to view as both an entitlement and a prerequisite to modern living.)  It is, nonetheless, a vehicle for transparency – both good and bad – and the government is, in its usual deliberative way, steadily but surely loosening its grip.

It is the netizens of China, most of them young, I might add, who appear to be taking both their government and their fellow Chinese to task for behavior that is blatantly self-serving or otherwise inconsistent with the common good and/or generally accepted norms of universal morality.

It is Chinese netizens, as much as the disciplinary arm of the CPC, who are outing corrupt government officials and chastising Chinese citizens who behave in a boorish or contemptible way.  When a Chinese teenager desecrated centuries-old artwork at Egypt’s Luxor Temple last year, for example, the Chinese social media (Yes, they have their own versions of those aforementioned banned Western outlets.) erupted in digital finger-wagging and moral outrage.

The end result may be a Moral Code with Chinese Internet Characteristics, but if it precludes the anarchy that is inevitable without self-restraint, it could prove to be the one missing ingredient to achievement of the Chinese Dream championed by President Xi Jinping at the outset of his 10-year tenure in office.

I, for one, am rooting for him and them.

In the meantime, I dearly hope they continue to build more subway lines here in Beijing.   The roads, I fear, will soon be impassable.


Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.

Photo Diary: 2014 Spring Festival

I wasn’t planning to write any more posts about Spring Festival but I thought some of you might enjoy seeing some of the photos I took over the holiday.  As usual, it was a feast for all of the senses.

In my next post I will share what I consider to be China’s ultimate Achilles’ Heel as it enters the Year of the Yang Wood Horse.  Forget about the credit surge, asset bubbles, the state of the global economy, or any of the other usual suspects you’re reading about elsewhere.  I will share the greatest risk facing China today.

Enjoy the photos!

As usual, it all started with the company’s annual Spring Festival dinner:

opening dance

Mr Li

orphans II


models II

plant dance


dining room


And, of course, there were plenty of temple fairs.  I attended three this year.



red tree II


mongolian barbeque


twirly gigs


second entranceditan II bread


personal space


more barbeque


hawthorneshorse ditan


The traditional Chinese character for horse.  Can’t you just picture the Mongolian herdsman galloping his steed across the grasslands!