Business is Business

By Western media accounts the G20 meeting that convened in Hangzhou, China on Sunday got off to a rocky start. There was no red carpet waiting for President Obama upon his arrival aboard Air Force One. In fact, there weren’t even any stairs, forcing staffers to scramble for an alternative route for the president to disembark.

And it didn’t stop there. His National Security Advisor got into a verbal tussle with one of the Chinese officials coordinating the arrival, and there was a subsequent argument about how many reporters could accompany Presidents Obama and Xi on their evening stroll.

All of which was generally portrayed as premeditated ‘snubs’ indicative of just how much friction there is between the US and China at the moment. One writer suggested that these snafus were proof positive of just how different the two countries ‘values’ are – implying, of course, that the West has noble values and China does not.

One Chinese official on the tarmac went so far as to proclaim, “This is our country,” noting that they should be allowed to establish security protocols, including where to put the press. And that does, in fact, reflect the strong current of nationalism among the Chinese still sensitive to the Century of Humiliation, when foreign powers routinely ravaged China, took its land, and generally tried to tell it what to do.

The British even went to war in 1839 to stop the Qing dynasty’s efforts to address the growing opium addiction among its people, largely fueled by British traders smuggling the opium in from India in exchange for silver. Britain, it should be noted, had already made opium illegal within its own borders. After capturing Canton, the modern day Guangzhou, and Nanjing, then called Nanking, the British forced the Chinese to cede the island of Hong Kong to British rule, and to open up four additional cities, including Shanghai, to British traders.

Now boasting the number two economy in the world and having lifted 300 million people out of poverty in one generation, the Chinese understandably believe they deserve a little respect, which the US ‘pivot to Asia’ and the harsh rhetoric of the US presidential election concerning foreign trade, would seem to be denying them.

Having said all of that, I don’t personally believe that any of this represents an orchestrated attempt by the Chinese to snub the Americans. “S_it happens,” as the old saying goes, particularly when there are so many egos involved and the Chinese want desperately to see their first G20 meeting come off without a security hitch.

But I really think Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, unwittingly provided the best explanation of why US/Chinese relations appear to be so strained at the moment. Speaking to a Western reporter in fluent English (Before starting Alibaba Ma worked as an interpreter to foreign visitors to Hangzhou.), Ma noted that in his 52 years he had witnessed several American presidential election cycles and without exception the negative rhetoric against China escalated during them.

Ma went on to say, however, that he thought things would return to a more civilized tone after the elections, offering the explanation that, “business is business.”

That very phrase is offered with epidemic frequency among the Chinese and perhaps says more about the Chinese worldview than any other combination of three words. And, I submit, why the US and China just don’t seem to understand each other.

It’s a powerful phrase in its simplicity, invoking the image of balance so central to the Chinese worldview. Business is business; nothing more, nothing less. It stands alone and apart. Which is why Chinese negotiators don’t seek the hallowed Western middle ground of ‘win-win’ in a negotiation. They seek to extract every last ounce of flesh they can.

The other side of that perspective is that, as the Godfather might say, “It’s business; nothing personal.” The Chinese have a decidedly more ‘devil may care’ attitude about wealth and success than Americans do. They don’t, in other words, personalize wealth and success to the same degree Westerners often do. They are more inclined to see good luck where Americans see a noble commitment to hard work and business savvy.

Which is, to say, the Chinese compartmentalize to a far greater degree than most Americans. We are prone to wrap everything up into one big ball of values, principles, and ideals.

President Xi Jinping very much wants to keep the G20 meetings focused on global trade and the world economy. He doesn’t want to see the talks sidetracked by other issues that may be more contentious and subject to individual political perspective.

When President Obama met privately with Xi before the formal start of the G20 talks, however, it was reported that the American president wanted to talk about human rights and the South China Sea, two areas where the two leaders will surely find little common ground.

Compartmentalization is the more pragmatic approach to resolving disputes. There is the chance, however, that broader ideals may be compromised, although we are hardly the shining city on the hill when it comes to human rights, and the benefit to everyday Americans of the pivot to Asia has yet to be shown.

And, of course, the Chinese official is right – it is their country.

Contact: You may reach the author at understandingchina@yahoo.com