A Failure to Communicate

On June 26, 2015, I posted a blog entitled, Island Building in the South China Sea. The closing sentence read, “As I said before, the islands are there. And there will be military installations there – visible or not.”

Regarding the question of whether or not China would eventually declare the entire area an air defense identification zone (which would require the installation of ground to air missiles to uphold) I wrote, “But of course they (the Chinese) will.   There is absolutely no sense in debating that. I can only hope that the U.S. government doesn’t waste a lot of taxpayer money hiring professors, think tanks, and consultants in an attempt to decipher China’s intent.”

On February 19, 2016, however, nearly one year later, Reuters released an article entitled, U.S. accuses China of raising tensions with apparent missile deployment, noting, “U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said commercial satellite imagery suggested ‘very recent’ placement of missiles on Woody Island in the Paracel island chain that went against China’s pledge not to militarize the South China Sea.”

The article went on to note, “Bishop (Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop) referred to comments by Chinese President Xi Jinping in Washington last year that China did not intend to militarize islands in the South China Sea…”


How did a simple glassmaker know beyond doubt what the experts apparently didn't understand? Scary or scarier?
How did a simple glassmaker know beyond doubt what the experts apparently didn’t understand? Scary or scarier?

This does reinforce my acquired conclusion that whether or not you are a diplomat, a businessman, or just a tourist passing through the Middle Kingdom, it is far more important to understand the fundamentals of Chinese culture than it is to be fluent in the language. The U.S. government has no shortage of Chinese linguists, but an apparent lack of anyone who really understands Chinese communication.

Frankly, that’s more than a bit scary.

Did the Chinese lie? Not at all. In their view they haven’t militarized the area by placing missiles there. A statement released by the Chinese government (that I could have written a year ago) noted “the limited defensive facilities that China has deployed on its own territory have nothing to do with militarization.” And that, I believe, is what they sincerely believe. I’m sure they are as baffled by the U.S. response as the U.S. is by the placement of the missiles to begin with.

In my experience, the Chinese government says exactly what it means.e Because they are receiver-oriented in their communication, however, we have to take the time to know what that is.
In my experience, the Chinese government says exactly what it means.e Because they are receiver-oriented in their communication, however, we have to take the time to understand what that is.

But even setting the difference in worldview aside, what deductive (i.e. Western) rationale could there be for building new islands in the first place other than to support the country’s defense? They certainly weren’t planning to build beach resorts on them. They have plenty of those already.

And what, I have wondered all along, did the U.S. really hope to achieve with the air and sea patrols it has recently conducted near the South China Sea islands that China claims sovereignty over? And will they stop? Or will the West see this as an opportunity to ratchet up tensions a little further, believing, as deductive thinkers are inclined to do, that right and wrong are absolutes that cannot co-exist – and we are right in our interpretation.

Perhaps what scares me even more, however, is that the U.S. government really did understand what President Xi Jinping meant and is simply feigning surprise as part of an ongoing verbal sparring match. If so, I would suggest that we are behaving in much the same deceitful way that we often accuse our enemies of. And by any form of logic, of course, that makes us no better than them.

As first uttered by the prison warden in the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” That failure didn’t end so well for old Luke.

Let’s hope things go better between the two largest economies, and two of the strongest military powers, in the world. As an old friend is fond of quoting, “Are you listening to understand, or listening to respond.”

We have to stop pretending that communication is black and white. It isn’t. Context is everything. And the worldview and communication style of the communicator is the most important context of all. We’ve got to get smarter in how we listen or poor old Luke’s problems will seem trivial by comparison.


Some early praise for the author’s latest book, “Understanding China – There is reason for the difference”

“An insightful, compelling introduction to the intricacies of Chinese business and life.” – Kirkus Review

To see the full review from this prestigious literary company, please click on this direct link:


“Understanding China is a “must-read” for anyone interested in culture, working with Asian businesses, visiting China or simply if you enjoy a well-written book! I worked in China in the 90’s and while I eventually understood the differences, I never understood “why” until now. Moreau does a great job explaining the “why”. Well done!!”

(Not a relative!)

“Having done business and gone on personal journeys through the Asia Pacific region, I wish I’d read a book like this first. The premise is that being happy and effective in China requires more than just learning how things operate and working within the established system. This will bring frustration and leave you ineffective because you, the Westerner, will still be looking at these cultural differences as irrational. Mr. Moreau contends that only by understanding why things are the way they are in China and in the West can a Westerner actually influence outcome in China.

The author proceeds to explain the differences with very engaging writing that made me say, “Of, of course! It all makes sense now.”

(Also not a relative!)


Copyright © 2016 Gary Moreau

Note: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.

You may contact the author at glassmakerinchina@gmail.com