Monthly Archives: February 2017

China’s One Child Policy

Author Gary Moreau

I published Understanding China: There is Reason for the Difference in 2015. And I had been compiling the content of the book for the eight years I had lived and worked in China, putting it all in the context of what was then my sixty-one years of life experience.

While books are normally classified as fiction or non-fiction, I’ve always thought of this book as a book of understanding. As noted in the introduction I was trying to decipher the why behind the what regarding the differences between Western and Chinese culture. The objective was to become less frustrated by the differences, when simply knowing what to expect wasn’t enough, and to become more pro-active in my ability to influence behaviors in the workplace and marketplace.

Books, however, except for classic literature, tend to be a snapshot taken at a point of time. The author’s thinking naturally evolves over time. The subject matter likewise evolves. And in the case of China that evolution continues at breakneck speed, or, what I call in the book China Time.

I am giving an American college lecture on China next week and in the preparation I started to think about the ways in which my thinking had changed since writing the book. In addition to the evening lecture I am conducting a Q&A session with a class that is using Understanding China as a textbook this semester to answer the class’ questions and provide further elaboration on points of interest.

As a result of this introspection the one area in which I concluded my thinking had changed the most was in regard to China’s one child policy, officially known as the family planning policy. The policy was implemented in 1979 in response to rapid population growth that the country deemed unsustainable. (China’s population has nearly tripled since 1949 and the founding of the PRC.)

Understanding China is available at Amazon in paper and electronic formats.

In the book I reiterated the commonly held belief, both inside and outside of China, that the one child policy would inhibit the natural development of the ability to collaborate and work as a team, essential qualities in the modern workplace. The single child of single child parents, with no aunts, uncles, or cousins, I believed, would not learn the skills of diplomacy or cooperation necessary in our shrinking world due to the lack of competition for scarce resources, material as well as emotional, during their youth.

In retrospect, I was wrong. And here’s why.

In Western cultures we put primary emphasis on individual rights and freedoms. You have merely to glance at your preferred source of news today to see this reality on display in today’s Western political arena. Compromise and cooperation, let alone civility, is notably absent in most of our public discourse.

The Chinese, however, are much more collectivist in their perspective and cultural emphasis. They understand and support the idea of the common good, and are quite willing to sacrifice their personal rights in support of that collective well being.

My widowed Chinese wife, for example, who grew up in a family of five children, with ten aunts and uncles and close to fifty cousins, was herself limited to one child. When asked, however, she sincerely supports the government’s decision to implement the policy. While she would have preferred to have more children, she believes it was the pragmatic thing to do for the benefit of China as a whole. As a result, she holds no grudge whatsoever against the government for what, to most Westerners, would be perceived as a gross violation of her individual rights and freedoms.

I also, at the time of writing the book, failed to fully integrate into my thinking the degree to which Chinese culture is built on relationships and the Confucian obligation that flows from them. In essence, it is this circle of relationships and obligations that serve to provide the same influences on a Chinese child that siblings and cousins provide in most Western cultures. Society essentially serves as a giant eco-system of extended family even though each individual set of parents may themselves have only one child.

If you go for a walk in a public park in Beijing, for example, as I often did, you will encounter relatively few individuals. You will encounter a few young couples that are, perhaps, courting or recently married. But most of the people you will encounter will be in groups, large and small.

Many will be families, which are often three-generational. (Child, parents, grandparents) Most, however, will simply be groups of individuals out for a collective outing. Some will simply be friends while others may be work units, such as a department within a company, spending time together both by choice and as a result of their sense of obligation to socialize with their workmates.

It is this abundance of social interaction, in the context of a culture that emphasizes obligation within a relationship, which provides much of the development of social and collaborative skills that Westerners of my generation learned within the larger family unit common to the West at the time.

In fact, with the advent of the nuclear family and a noted reduction in the birth rate in many Western cultures, it might be argued that the West is moving in the opposite direction. It is the West, not the East, which is suffering from an inability to work together, compromise, and collaborate. Certainly the curtain political climate here in the US would support that conclusion. (It’s an observation. If the comment makes you angry, you might be proving my point.)

In recent years, of course, the Chinese government has eased the restrictions of the one child policy, largely in anticipation of a rapidly graying society and the recognition that the Chinese labor force will shrink considerably in the years ahead.

It has had some possible impact on birth rates although it hasn’t been material and isolating the true cause is difficult at best. In one Western news report I recently read, for example, the writer noted that the birth rate in China grew last year and attributed that increase solely to the modification made to the one child policy.

The writer failed to note, however, that last year was the Year of the Monkey, the monkey being considered a very auspicious sign, while the year before was the Year of the Sheep. The sheep is generally considered a less propitious sign.

While taken by most Chinese and foreigners with a large grain of salt, these zodiacal predictions do impact birth rates nonetheless. Some expectant mothers, for example, asked their doctors to induce labor to insure their child was born in the Year of the Dragon (2012); the dragon commonly considered to be one of the most favorable signs to be born under.

The one child policy, of course, isn’t the only area where my thinking has evolved since publishing Understanding China. I mostly got it right, I think. And that’s not bad when writing about a culture and a place as fluid as present day China.

Contact: You may reach the author at Mr. Moreau is also available for public speaking and the provision of third-party written content on a wide variety of topics for your website or other communications material.

First the Car, Now the Bike?

Author Gary Moreau

First there was Uber, Sidecar, Lyft, and Didi, which revolutionized the car-for-hire industry with their convenient and affordable ride-sharing apps. In China, at least, phase two has already arrived, led by two Chinese startups, Mobike and Ofo.

The new revolution: Smart phone apps that allow patrons to pick up bicycles and leave them ANYWHERE. That’s right, anywhere. Patrons use their smart phone apps to find the nearest bicycle and to unlock it. They are then free to ride anywhere they like and just leave the bicycle. All for as little as $.15 per hour.

Just in time. With several Chinese urban areas already exceeding 20 million people in population, and with several expected to grow to 80 million residents over the next decade or so, the Chinese are already choking on automotive emissions and traffic congestion. Taxis help with the cost of car ownership and parking, but they are not the end-all. The professional drivers may be able to navigate a traffic jam better than the average driver, but they are still part of the automotive ecosystem – and its limitations.

China is one of the world’s leaders in terms of public transportation. It boasts the world’s largest system of high-speed rail. And the biggest subway system in the world is in Shanghai, while the Beijing subway system, the second largest in the world, carries as many as 11 million passengers per day. I was frequently one of them when I lived there.

But you still need to get to the station, or the bus stop. And it is that first or last mile that has always been the natural constraint on the embrace of mass transit. New York City commuters traveling into the city from out of the boroughs by train often use automobiles to cover that connection distance. But that doesn’t entirely realize the benefits of mass transit.

China may be uniquely qualified to take advantage of this new technology because most major urban streets are equipped with isolated lanes for bicycles. Urban planners the world over should take note. You can ride a bicycle in a safe environment without having to be a 20-something daredevil weaving through a sea of cars.

Understanding China is available at Amazon in paper and electronic formats.

Many progressive cities around the globe have bicycle rental stations scattered around the city in order to facilitate clean and congestion-free travel. But you must pick up and leave the bike at one of their official racks. The first and last-mile problem is, therefore, potentially reduced, but not eliminated.

The bike-sharing revolution, of course, is occurring on China time and at a Chinese scale. Ofo, one of the pioneers, began as a student project at Peking University in Beijing. It will have 20-25 million bicycles in circulation by the end of this year.

There are two takeaways for me. The first is that anyone who thought that China could not be the next tech giant (And I was one of those at one time.) was clearly wrong.

The second has to do with simple humanity. I am often saddened by the strife and total lack of civility the world exhibits today. We’re all fighting. And for what?

I wonder, however, if part of the problem is simply our physical isolation from each other. My wife and I live in a suburb of Detroit now. There are no bicycle lanes. And while there is a fair amount of population density we have both marveled at how few people we encounter day to day. There are a lot of cars, which undoubtedly have drivers, but meeting at a stoplight isn’t quite the same as actually seeing each other.

Perhaps I am simply wistful for a simpler time when my friends and I rode our bikes for hours every day. But I don’t think so. Fond remembrances aren’t always bad.

China, despite the harsh rhetoric coming out of Washington these days, just might be on to something. And helping to save the world – our world – in the process.

Contact: You may reach the author at Mr. Moreau is also available for public speaking and the provision of third-party written content on a wide variety of topics for your website or other communications material.

The Rule of Law: Irony?

Author Gary Moreau

One of the byproducts of the yin and yang worldview that defines much of Chinese culture is the acute appreciation of irony. Which, in itself, is ironic given that much of the West thinks of China in quite the opposite terms.

Although China employs a political system tightly controlled by a single political party, restricts Internet access and media coverage, and manages day-to-day life through an enormous bureaucracy, it is the US that is often crippled by its preoccupation with rules and process. While Americans take great pride in “a job well done,” the Chinese are far more concerned with achieving the desired outcome.

One manifestation of this deductive/inductive difference in worldview is the difference our two cultures place on the rule of law. The rule of law, of course, is the foundation of the American way of life and business. And while that comes with many benefits, for every yin there is a yang. We tend, for example, to take decades to build infrastructure projects that the Chinese accomplish in months and our behaviors, in context, aren’t always practical or cost effective.

While the Chinese pass very general regulations and laws and leave it to local officials to interpret them in the most pragmatic way, we are slaves to the details of the law. We thrive on ‘loopholes’ and pay handsomely for lawyers and experts to find them.

Our legal system is the foundation of who we are as a country. But it is an identity that comes with a price tag. And, unfortunately, that price tag sometimes stands in the way of equal justice under the law. ‘Them that has’, you might say, can afford the best legal talent.

Understanding China is available at Amazon in paper and electronic formats.

My Chinese wife reminds of this excess on almost a daily basis when we set out on our daily walk in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. We live in a new subdivision of townhomes that have been tastefully and thoughtfully designed and set out. We are very happy here.

In front of each building unit, housing anywhere from 4-6 individual units, is a small turnout where guests and visitors can park. Each turnout is roughly 30-40 yards (25 meters) in length and will hold no more than 3 or 4 cars even with adroit parallel parking skills.

As you can see from the picture above, however, the turnouts that border a public street are equipped with both ‘One Way’ and ‘Stop’ signs, as is most certainly required by law, I’m sure. (The picture was taken with my iPhone and doesn’t do the depth perception justice. The turnout is tiny.)

My wife, however, finds this to be quite silly. “Of course,” she says, “The cars can only go one way and must yield upon exiting. And each car can easily see the other cars. This is all common sense. Who would think otherwise?” The signs, to her way of thinking, simply add unnecessary cost/taxes and contribute to general visual pollution. “It hurts my eyes,” she laments. (There are no real estate taxes in China.)

But this is the land where the law reigns supreme. The right to sue in a court of law is as fundamental as the right to vote. It is, in fact, a legal right you cannot give away even if you are willing to.

Yin and yang.


When asked by people in the business world what I relished most about doing business in China I would inevitably say, “There are no lawyers.” When asked to name the most challenging aspect of doing business in China, however, I learned to say, “There are no lawyers. Specifically, there is very little case law.”

Case law, it turns out, is the stuff of predictability. And predictability is the essence of risk avoidance, which we, as Americans and American corporations, are increasingly consumed with.

There is nothing perfect about the American legal system. But there is nothing perfect about much of anything in life, with the possible exceptions of children and love.

It is, nonetheless, better than many of the alternatives. Yes, criminals may get off on technicalities. Frivolous lawsuits may harm corporations and citizens alike. And we may put road signs where they are clearly not needed. Hopefully, however, we can look at those signs and, well, smile.

Irony is okay. Even funny.

Unfortunately, it took the Chinese to help me learn that. And now, as we enter the Year of the Yin Fire Rooster, I share it with you. Do with it what you will.

Contact: You may reach the author at Mr. Moreau is also available for public speaking and the provision of third-party written content on a wide variety of topics for your website or other communications material.