The Chinese New Year, often called the Lunar New Year, begins on Friday, February 16, 2018. Last year it began on Saturday, January 28, 2017.
The Chinese refer to it as the Spring Festival and it is, above all else, a time for celebrating the family. That, in turn, leads to the biggest human migration on the planet. Over the official 40-day travel period, according to the National Development and Reform Commission, the Chinese will take 3 billion distinct trips utilizing every form of transportation known to humanity. More than 390 million Chinese will travel by train alone, the equivalent of putting every man, woman, and child in America—and then some—on a train in a period of six weeks.
The US and most countries in the West follow the Gregorian calendar, created in 1582 by a slight modification to the Julian calendar in order to bring the date of Christian Easter in line with the date chosen by the First Council of Nicaea in 325. China adopted the Gregorian calendar as its official calendar in 1912, but Chinese culture and its holidays continue to be based on the Chinese calendar, sometimes called the Han calendar.
The Chinese calendar is neither a lunar calendar nor a solar calendar. It is a lunisolar calendar, defined by both the lunar phases and the solar seasons. The Chinese New Year falls on the second new moon following the winter solstice. Which means, if you do the math, the New Year can fall no later than February 19 and no sooner than January 21.
Most Westerners recognize that the Chinese years are each associated with one of the twelve animals of the zodiac. We’re leaving the Year of the Rooster and entering the Year of the Dog.
But it’s actually a little more complicated than that. The Chinese calendar, in fact, works on a 60-year sexagenary cycle. Each year is assigned two component designations. The first is the Celestial or Heavenly Stem, which are consecutive yin and yang versions of the 5 elements – wood, fire, earth, metal, water – and the second is the Terrestial or Earthly Branch corresponding to the 12 animals of the zodiac. Taken together these provide 10-year and 12-year cycles that run concurrently, resulting in a net 60-year cycle. (Sixty is the first number to be evenly divisible by both 10 and 12.)
Technically, therefore, this will be the Year of the Yang Earth Dog, which last occurred in 1958. Anyone born in that year will celebrate living for one life cycle, making the 60th birthday one of the most important in Chinese culture.
So, what can we expect in the year of the dog? Due to its yang component, the dog will have masculine energy this year, but feminine and masculine, as they relate to yin and yang, are not sexual. Masculine energy is more like what you’d expect from your typical house dog—barking at the window one second and sound asleep on the couch the next.
Given the inherent erraticism of the dog, it’s best not to chase the extremes but to connect to the center by studying hard, spending time with family, taking care on the job, and connecting to your inner self.
Good advice, but not likely to be followed by our friends in Washington. We can probably expect them to bounce from one crisis to the next for most of the year. The only saving grace is that the dog is not known for emotional stamina. Emotions will flare, die quickly away, and flare again. It may seem like a siege in the end, but rest assured that better days are coming.
This year, in fact, is really a setup for next year, the Year of the Yin Earth Pig. If we steady ourselves this year, it should be a year of light festivity and relaxation. While pigs are not considered intelligent by the Chinese, they are considered lucky. And it will all begin on February 5, 2019.
And what about all the red? Well, the legend has it that the Nian, the mythical monster that lived in the mountains, would come down into the village every New Year’s Eve to feast on the children. One year, however, one little boy was wearing red and the Nian left him alone. Voila, red it is!
And while you’re enjoying, please consider reading my latest book: We, Ourselves, and Us: Creating a More Just and Prosperous America. It’s now available on Amazon.
I guarantee my book will be worth your time. And if you agree, I would greatly appreciate it if you will take the time to post a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or whatever book site you enjoy. (It’s a binary world, after all. Authors, like everyone else, live by their clicks – whether they’re dogs or horses, like me.)
If a ship had 26 sheep and 10 goats onboard, how old is the ship’s captain?
This question made the rounds on the Internet recently. It went viral in the US, where netizens, one after another, marveled at the fact that such a difficult question had been given to 5th grade students in China. Is this some kind of new Chinese math?
It took me a minute, but having spent nine years living and working in China I got the answer fairly quickly. My Chinese wife got it immediately. (As I knew she would.)
The answer? There isn’t one. Or, more accurately, there are many. There is no single answer.
And, no, this isn’t a joke. My wife didn’t even smile. She just answered the question and left the room, after reading the original Chinese and verifying for me that the translation was accurate.
This question is the perfect explanation for why the future of technology is likely to belong to the Chinese and not Silicon Valley. Or maybe not.
The reason this school gave this question to fifth-graders is that there is concern among Chinese educators that Chinese culture fails to instill students with enough curiosity. And curiosity, they believe, is critical to achievement in a technologically advanced world. When I ran a glass factory in China I had the same concern. They’re right, but they’re wrong.
Chinese culture is built on a very inductive worldview. Inductive logic moves from right to left, from observation to speculation. That is why Confucius said, “Wherever you go, there you are,” and that makes all the sense in the world to the average Chinese fifth grader. (Ask your American fifth grader what Confucius meant.)
American culture, in contrast, is built on a deductive worldview. Deductive logic is the logic behind the scientific method and moves from left to right. For every cause there is an effect, and according to the laws of science it is the same every time. (In truth, it is not. Science is really about probabilities, not absolute truths.)
To put it in terms of the modern world, the machines in the glass plant I managed in China cost millions of dollars to build and were immensely complex. And when they broke down the Chinese mechanics at this plant could fix them in a fraction of the time that it took the mechanics at other plants around the world, including those in the US, to fix the exact same machine.
If you were to ask the Chinese mechanics what happened, however, they would surely respond: “The machine broke down.” And that drove our Western mechanics crazy. “Don’t they understand how important it is to understand why the machine broke down so that we can prevent it from happening again?” they would demand of me. The implication, of course, was, “What are you teaching them?” (BTW, this is where prejudice comes from, but that’s another topic.)
But the Chinese mechanics were, in fact, teaching me. “They don’t care why it broke down because while they were working to get it running again a different machine broke down and they felt it was a better use of their time to go fix the second machine than to waste a lot of time trying to answer a question that may have no answer or which more than likely has an answer the knowledge of which will do nothing to prevent it from happening in the future.”
American companies are infatuated with process because of their deductive worldview. And process can be a very good thing. It can also lead to excessive bureaucracy, a lot of extra costs, and terrible customer service. Process isn’t bad per so, but it can be.
So, too, can a lack of curiosity. Which is exactly what the Chinese educators were getting at with their question. They just wanted their fifth-graders to think about it. Instead of immediately assuming there is no answer, as older Chinese like my wife would be inclined to do, they wanted the students to wonder if there, in fact, might be a knowable answer.
So which way is better? Neither, of course. As in all things in life and the universe the truth is not binary. Real knowledge lies in the balance between the two extremes. In Silicon Valley they refer to these digital options as 0 and 1 (on and off). In China they refer to the same duality as yin and yang.
If you saw this question on the Internet you probably saw it referred to as a math problem. But it’s not. In fact, the Chinese character for math appears nowhere on the original document provided to the fifth graders. It is only we Americans who feel obligated to define it as a certain type of problem. And suggesting it is a math problem, of course, further reinforces the false assumption that there must be a solution.
To date, Silicon Valley has won the technology race, in large part, because a bunch of college dropouts were incredibly curious. And they quickly figured out that the 0’s and 1’s at the heart of the new technology is all about patterns. That’s what computer coding is, and Americans (and more than a few Chinese) proved very good at working with such binary patterns.
No one, however, will ever be better at working with patterns than the machines built from them. They are, after all, bigger and faster when it comes to patterns. It’s not in their DNA; it is their DNA. And, of course, as a result it is virtually inevitable that smart machines will soon program themselves. (They already are.) Being a computer coder will be about as valuable as being an expert blacksmith.
The economic race will then become not a coding challenge, but a race to tell them what to do, and, very importantly, to make sure they don’t do evil things; because, of course, neither a 0 nor a 1 knows what good and evil are.
Of course, curiosity will be a very valuable thing indeed in this digital world. What can I do with this technology? What is that machine basing its answers on? Does this make sense? Or is this machine acquiring a racist perspective?
Curiosity, however, will only have value until it doesn’t. And the inevitable truth is that sometimes it will and sometimes it won’t. To even understand the problem and the opportunity, in other words, people will have to think holistically. They can’t think in the simple terms of left to right or right to left.
Right now the Chinese have the edge in training their students for that day. Chinese educators fully recognize that the student of the future needs to be both inductive and deductive. They must think bi-directionally.
Some American educators, I have to believe, understand the same thing. Their challenge is the same one, although it comes at the problem from the opposite direction.
The problem is that most American business, and virtually all American politicians, don’t recognize that a problem even exists. To them it’s all about their very simple and one-dimensional perspective on truth.
Think about it.
And while you’re thinking about it, consider reading my latest book: We, Ourselves, and Us: Creating a More Just and Prosperous America. It’s now available on Amazon.
It’s a book about the age of the captain on a ship holding 26 sheep and 10 goats. Or is it 26 goats and 10 sheep? Or two captains, perhaps, one of whom happen to be ______.
I guarantee my book will be worth your time. And if you agree, I would greatly appreciate it if you take the time to post a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or whatever book site you enjoy. (It’s a binary world, after all. Authors, like everyone else, live by their clicks—whether they’re sheep or goats.)
My two daughters, now 14 and 16 years old, live with their mother in Charlotte, North Carolina. They came to visit over the holidays, however, and, as always it was delightful to see them both, despite the frigid temperatures that have engulfed much of the northern US over the last week or so.
Because of the cold temperatures, we decided that shopping would be more appropriate than skiing or ice-skating on their first day here in Michigan. They both had a couple of gift cards that they received as gifts and were eager to spend them, so the plan came together splendidly.
Before leaving home, however, my oldest daughter and I had the following exchange:
“Dad, can I have some money for shopping?”
“I just gave you a gift card. And I know you have others. Why can’t you use them?”
“That’s true, but I have to buy some warmer clothes. And it was your choice to move to Michigan when you moved back from China so it seems only fair that you buy me some warmer clothes given that I’ve only come to Michigan to visit you. Doesn’t quite seem fair that I’d have to spend my gift money on clothes that I don’t really need in North Carolina.”
It was not an atypical conversation. My daughter is brilliant, clever, articulate, and very, very quick on her feet. She would make a first class litigator some day.
I was, therefore, in no way offended by the conversation. And while I’d like to think I don’t always give in, I thought it was a worthy performance, as it were, and I gave her a modest amount of money to buy some warmer clothes. Frankly, while I try to teach my daughters to be thoughtful, considerate, and respectful of others, particularly their elders, I was rather proud of her spunk.
My Chinese wife, however, while she showed no reaction at the time, was, I would find out later, aghast. She wasn’t angered by the conversation. The parent/child relationship is very special in Chinese culture and my wife wouldn’t presume to insert herself. She was, however, at a total loss to understand my daughter’s logic. She could not fathom a Chinese child ever saying such a thing to his or her own father. It wasn’t so much disrespectful in the Chinese worldview as it was simply beyond comprehension.
Filial piety is at the heart of Confucian obligation and Chinese culture. Aging parents, it is assumed in China, will live with their adult child. While the concept of Chinese obligation does not extend to holding a door open for a stranger or acknowledging a queue, it would be unthinkable for most Chinese to even consider putting a parent in a senior or assisted living home.
Having expressed her bewilderment that evening as we got ready for bed, my wife did not expect an explanation, and I long ago stopped feeling obligated to provide one in such circumstances. In the Chinese worldview many things just are and don’t warrant an explanation. And, in fact, they are often baffled that Americans spend so much time and effort in a futile attempt to explain the inexplicable and largely unimportant.
This, frankly, is one of the ways in which I think Americans and the Chinese can learn from each other. They’re right that we spend far too much time and effort on things that really aren’t all that important. And, as a result, we sometimes fall short on the stuff that really does matter.
On the other hand, it is our scrappy American curiosity and mental agility that has made the US the center of the technology universe. And while it is that same quality that has spawned the legal quagmire that we often find ourselves drowning in as a nation, the ability to articulate and defend your position is one of the most important life skills to have in the shrinking, integrated, and complex world of the 21st Century.
The ability to both project and defend your position is, in fact, increasingly important in the world of commerce and technology, particularly now that functional distinctions are disappearing and collaboration is the hallmark of most successful ventures of every stripe. We all have to sell in a world of ideas and apps. The ability to execute in isolation is rarely enough.
Collaboration, in fact, is essential to just about every profession today, including diplomacy. And, I believe, is the larger lesson that we can take from this little side story of filial piety—or not—into 2018.
When it comes to political leadership, power is really of secondary importance. How a government comes to power is subordinate to how it uses that power. And how it uses that power is typically defined by perceived obligation. As the men or women in power, on whose behalf do the political leaders of a country exercise their power?
Obligation, however, is itself a duality. On the other side of obligation is mutual obligation, or what might be more accurately described as deference. And, of course, deference is likewise a duality. I can defer to you because you have a gun to my head or because I, for whatever reason, choose to.
When the three components of politics and diplomacy—power, obligation, and deference—are in balance, there is peace and the world at least has the opportunity to progress, although there may be other influences (such as the ability to present/defend your ideas) as to how far the world progresses how quickly. When there is imbalance, however, progress stalls, and can, in fact, turn into destruction. (Think North Korea, Syria, Afghanistan—plenty of options.)
If we define a society in terms of its common governance, we all want to belong to a society in which the three elements of power, obligation, and deference are in relative balance. We might say that it is the most balanced state that best allows the energy of the society to be applied toward collective advancement.
When there is an imbalance, on the other hand, society does not progress because, as is true of all ecosystems in the universe, its energy is consumed with correcting the imbalance. As in the larger universe, balance is the ideal state which all energy seeks.
Of all forms of governance that have existed over the course of history, it can be legitimately argued that American democracy has achieved a relatively high level of balance, which, in turn, allowed its social energy, shaped and directed by strong values of opportunity and achievement, to forge the American Century, from which the US emerged as the lone superpower, the world’s largest economy, and the primary architect of digital commerce and social media.
That is not to say that imbalance did not occur over the last two and one-half centuries. Those periods of imbalance, however, were largely, but by no means completely, corrected. While the Civil War, for example, helped to correct the imbalance resulting from the slave trade, it clearly didn’t abolish slavery per se. It was an important inflection point, to be sure, but it was a nudge in the end. Racism was not eradicated and continues to absorb much of our collective energy in non-productive and destructive ways.
Technology, which has impacted the world in so many ways, has, more than anything else, empowered a heightened awareness of imbalances between power, obligation, and deference around the world. Women, the LGBTQ community, the physically and mentally challenged, the uneducated, and the poor, have always been enslaved, to varying degrees, by the Western white male oligopoly of the modern era. And technology, more than anything else, has made that reality more transparent.
Technology has, however, also raised the stakes of the imbalance. The gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged has grown much wider, and the impact of that gap far more significant.
Consider, for example, in a strictly material way, what it meant to be enslaved in ancient Egypt or the early 19th Century South. There were huge differences in the quality and dignity of life, of course, but nobody had access to modern medicine, indoor plumbing, electricity, or efficient transportation. While the powerful lived in beautiful palaces and manor homes, the fundamental differences were not as great as the difference between the world’s poorest and most oppressed people today and the uber-billionaires who, quite literally, live in a parallel dimension of privacy and privilege.
This fundamental shift, largely caused by technology, has profound implications for governance in today’s inter-connected world. The more advanced an ecosystem is, the more it relies on balance, and the easier it is for that balance to be lost.
All of which leads me to wonder what 2018 will bring. Will we work collaboratively to instill a sense of global balance that just may save the planet and allow the collective “we” to enjoy peace and prosperity? Or will we fall back on traditional norms of power, obligation, and deference, that have historically divided and selectively oppressed us?
If we can learn from each other, as I hope both my wife and daughter can, I am personally optimistic. I am still out forty bucks, but that’s a small price to pay for so much food for thought.
You may contact the author at email@example.com
Visit my personal blog at www.gmoreau.com
On the Internet, fake news and spurious intent are all the rage. The Russians are allegedly promoting it. Congress is investigating it. The alt-right is accused of it. Antifa, too. All of the evil “-ists” are polluting the world with it.
And we have science to blame. Or, more precisely, the scientific world view, which I, to be clear, fully embrace.
The scientific method is the progeny of deductive reasoning. It is the world of cause and effect. Data, and the patterns that reside within it, are its fuel and its purpose. Gather data; analyze it; discern the patterns; and apply them to larger and/or related questions and issues.
We call it intelligent reason. And while it is just what it claims to be, it will ultimately bring down the Internet and the culture and the economy we have built around it. The global economy will collapse. Geo-politics will be in turmoil. Culture itself will implode. And, yes, anarchy will prevail.
It’s simple, really. It is the duality—the paradox, if you will—of knowledge and its role in the acquisition of power. Knowledge liberates and oppresses. Knowledge is both the beginning and the end of the human tragedy of domination and enslavement.
The promise of the Internet is the promise of universal influence—the liberation of the influenced; the powerful and unstoppable rise of the everyperson. Everyone, in theory, gets a voice. Even Barney, sitting in his pajamas in Four Bears Village, North Dakota.
It’s now obvious, however, that having a voice is not the same as being heard. Influence is peddled not by those with a voice, but those voices that hold sway over the crowd.
Knowledge is acquired. It does not emerge spontaneously. It is granted, passed along, and used to create an impression. It is the essence of influence. And it can be weaponized.
The idea of Russian propaganda operatives buying political ads on Facebook is easy to condemn, although it was obviously not so easy to detect and will be difficult to stamp out in the future. And this, in the end, will inevitably prove to be the tip of the iceberg of fake news and unsubstantiated influence.
Reasoned intelligence holds that knowledge is factual—it is both singular and all-inclusive. The reality of science, we believe, is one-dimensional; it can be discovered and shared through scientific discovery and affirmed through peer review.
What we call scientific truth, however, is often a false dilemma. Reality is seldom digital. It comes in many shades and can rarely be captured or expressed by either/or selections. And the fact that language itself is a mythical invention, not common to the universe like carbon and hydrogen, further compounds the problem and the risk.
Inevitably, the umbrella of fake news is expanded to include news that is misleading, unsubstantiated, or promotes a perspective that does not enjoy consensus. (Or it enjoys the consensus of the wrong people.)
Words become weaponized. And where there are weapons, there are armies. Information arms the conflict. And the world, via the Internet, becomes a battlefield without dimension or borders.
War ensues, and eventually the gatekeepers of information—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, etc.—are drawn into the battle. Divisions and defenses harden. The ante escalates. The apocalypse emerges.
It’s already happening. People are angry. They are disturbed. And it’s not some people, some of the time. It’s everyone, all of the time. Hate and frustration are 24/7. There are no holidays. There is no etiquette. Everyone and everything is fair game.
Facebook, for its alleged acceptance of Russian propaganda, is the current ground zero of the battle. But Google came under attack during the 2016 presidential election for allegedly helping Hillary Clinton through its all-powerful search algorithms, potentially influencing public opinion in a way the Russian propagandists can only dream of. (Google denies the accusations.)
Twitter has now joined the fray, recently blocking a video ad of Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) because of its “inflammatory” reference to her opposition to the sale of fetal tissue for medical research. Amazon, for its part, allegedly removed customer reviews of Hilary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, that were unfavorable, driving the average customer rating for the book, which had hovered just above three stars in the early hours of public availability, up to the maximum five stars (4.8), where it remains.
To be clear, each of these companies states adamantly that they are politically neutral and, in the case of perceived censorship, are merely enforcing clear and established policy. And there is little doubt that they could, and likely will have to, mount an effective defense of their actions in a court of law.
But the court of law is not the court of public opinion. Will the sheep see the shepherd and his dog for what they are. And what will be the shepherd’s reaction? Will he give the sheep freedom or will he train another dog?
None of which has anything to do with evil intent. All intent is dichotomal. It is neither good nor bad; it is merely intent. The giant tech companies are NOT evil empires. They simply can’t help themselves and are likely unconscious of any corporate bias and influence. We have simply and voluntarily given them a degree of power that no person or institution in history has been able to wield without favor and bias. It is beyond our abilities. We are, by nature and nurture, creatures, both personal and institutional, drawn to influence—as both givers and takers.
At the heart of all things online is the algorithm, named after the ninth century mathematician, Muhammad ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi. The magic of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter is the magic of algorithms, digital computations that provide answers to questions like those asked of a search engine or used to determine a ranking. They are not calculations, however, in the same sense that 2+2=4 is. They can answer a question but they are not inherently truthful. They can approximate truth, but hold no dominion over it.
Franklin Foer, the author of the seminal book, World Without Mind, makes the astute and far-reaching observation that, “The problem is that when we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to the organizations that run the machines.” All people have a perspective; all coders are people; all algorithms are inherently biased in one direction or another.
In the case of the Internet, moreover, the algorithm and the potential bias it empowers is hidden away from public scrutiny under the guise of intellectual property. Google does not tell us how it conducts its searches. Facebook doesn’t tell us the whole story as to how it loads our news feed or populates our potential friends list.
The bias feeds on itself. The meaning of words becomes more and more rigid and more partisan. Opinions harden. We seek shelter not just from aggressive behaviors but from thought that makes us uncomfortable or we do not wish to hear. We run for the shelter of safe places and safe friends who see the world just as we do. We demand that content providers provide trigger warnings so we can easily avoid content that we may not find comfortable to even be aware of.
It is no surprise, really, that social media is no longer social. A Tweet is both a witty meme and a cudgel with which to shame and destroy. Facebook is a community both to enjoy and to manipulate.
Reality isn’t even real any more. Selfies are staged and digitally altered. Even the social celebrities themselves complain that reality has been lost. Kim Kardashian, photographed while on holiday and allegedly without the services of her digital stylists, complained on national television recently that the picture taken and posted online is not of the “real” her. It’s her face and body, but it is not the allegedly digital body that her notoriety is built upon. “Like, I literally don’t look like this!”
The problem is not fake news. The problem is that technology has unleashed artificial forces that will eventually spiral out of control. Reality will become less and less real. Divisions will be hardened. The tech giants will more and more be forced to take sides. Divisions will harden further. Language and visual media will be further weaponized. The government will not have the courage or the political capital to step in.
Social media will implode. The stock market will crash. The world economy will come tumbling down. The post-apocalyptic dystopia, once the stuff of Netflix and video games, will be very real indeed.
If you doubt that, I challenge you to this simple test: Identify one single person who has a workable way to keep unsubstantiated information off the Internet. It can’t be done. Truth is, more often than not, a false dilemma. You will have your truth; I will have mine; but at some level each will be half of a duality.
In an article dated October 7, 2017, Bloomberg quoted Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, saying “It’s very difficult to spot fake news and propaganda using just computer programs,” warning that the fake news problem is far more complicated and dangerous than the public thinks and Congress would have us believe. Adding people, of course, otherwise called censors, will only make the problem worse.
If we need more evidence we have only to look at the challenge facing China, which already has one of the most heavily regulated and censored social media spaces in the world. According to Bloomberg, “the country’s [China’s] social media employ technology and armies of vetters to scour its services for undesirable content, which in China’s case goes beyond rumors and unsubstantiated claims to include any and all information deemed harmful to social stability. Yet even the best-funded online operators have difficulty keeping up…”
“The problem persists despite China having some of the strictest rules aimed at preventing the spread of ‘false news,’ ” Bloomberg continues. The Chinese government, in reaction, has established regulations forcing forum-posters to register with their real identities and threatening jail time for posting defamatory false information, two fairly straight forward regulations that seem unfathomable in the US.
Fake news is a problem with no solution because the digital space, in the end, is not organic to the universe. The Internet is a human convention in the same way that language is. We made it up.
In the case of the online world, however, there is only one and it spans the globe, empowering friend and foe alike. And we have integrated it so far into our economy, our culture, and our institutions of learning and commerce, the inevitable exposure of its fallacy will bring everything crashing down.
As a human convention, the Internet is, by definition, a scientific fraud. It is built on a human consensus that has no basis in the natural universe. Within such a world, truth itself is ultimately a false dilemma that will eventually be exposed for what it is; a convention of human thought that exists in a context; and which context is defined by an unavoidably biased perspective.
The promise of the Internet was that it would overcome the manipulative power of influence. In the end, however, it has merely empowered it. And it will continue to empower it to the point where influence brings about its own destruction.
The Internet has nuclearized influence. The post-apocalyptic dystopia cannot be far behind.
header photo credit: iStock.com/mediaphotos
You may contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit my personal blog at www.gmoreau.com
Dr. Daniel A. Bell, a Canadian-born Caucasian scholar who has lived and worked in China since 2004, speaks Mandarin, embraces Chinese culture, and is married to a Chinese woman, recently wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal lamenting the fact that his Chinese friends and colleagues, despite all of these facts, do not consider him to be Chinese. In the eyes of the Chinese, he concludes, “… to be Chinese is to belong to a race.”
The over-riding point of the article is that China would benefit by embracing a leadership meritocracy without regard to ethnicity in all arenas, including politics, science, academia, business, and medicine. It’s a valid point, of course, that applies to virtually every country, including the US and Canada. And, as he insightfully notes, China has done just that at certain high points in its long and storied history.
It is his lament over remaining a foreigner in the eyes of the Chinese that appears to have received the most attention, however. And, not surprisingly, many commentators have taken him to task for confusing, in their opinion, race and ethnicity with identity. He might appreciate Chinese culture, they argue, but he can’t fully appreciate the historical Chinese identity because his own historical identity is one of white European privilege.
Having lived and worked in China for almost a decade I understand Dr. Bell’s sense of eternal foreignness. I’ve written about it many times in this blog and in my books. I don’t, however, share his pain. I, too, have a Chinese wife and have a great appreciation for Chinese culture. In her eyes, however, she is married to a foreigner and that will be her perspective until the day she dies. To my Chinese friends I am likewise a friend, but a foreign friend nonetheless.
I am more than accepting of that reality—I actually applaud it—because I don’t believe the perspective has anything to do with race, ethnicity, OR identity. I think it comes down to the fundamental difference between Western and Eastern culture.
Western culture is based on a linear world view and the deductive logic that is at the heart of both science and monotheistic religion. More than anything else, Westerners believe in the linear and singular linkage of cause and effect, which is why a Westerner like Dr. Bell might lament non-assimilation. To our way of interpreting reality there has to be a reason for it, and in the case of cultural non-assimilation, it has to be a prejudicial one.
The same is true in reverse. There are many Americans who believe that foreign assimilation is the cornerstone of American greatness. If only the foreigners spoke our language and adopted our customs, their thinking goes. If only they were more like us everything would be fine.
The Chinese, quite simply, don’t have that perspective, but not for the reasons Dr. Bell suggests. They don’t understand the question. Their model of logic is much more circular. They do not put so much emphasis on the singular and direct linkage of cause and effect. I have a big Gallic nose and round eyes and was born in the US of Caucasian parents of French and Irish descent. Of course I am a foreigner. What else would I be?
The good news is that while a foreigner will always be a foreigner in the eyes of a Chinese person, that is a statement of reality, not a judgment of character or worth. It is no more pejorative than my observation that a dog is a dog.
There have surely been Chinese over the course of history that held foreigners in low esteem. There are some still. I’m not sure that came from our facial features or our language and place of birth, however. The fact that a colonial foreign power flooded their country with opium in the 19th Century, and even went to war to insure a trade their own country had outlawed, or that foreigners have repeatedly invaded their country, pillaged their land, and treated their people in sub-human ways, surely has something to do with it.
Frankly, I would question my wife’s mental health if she started to refer to me as her Chinese husband or herself as my American wife. I certainly wouldn’t cheer it as a victory for American assimilation. American greatness is a mindset and a set of shared values. It is neither ethnicity nor identity.
We should classify people in the ways that really matter. The way you look, the color of your skin, and even your historical or cultural identity don’t really define who you are. Identity politics doesn’t promote identity issues in the end. It takes identity off the table of public discourse. The lines of identity are hardened, not erased.
There is much about American history, including slavery, Vietnam, the McCarthy hearings, Japanese internment, and many of our historical attitudes about race and gender, that I don’t identify with. That doesn’t make me any less American any more than my shared identity with much of Chinese culture makes me Chinese.
I hope my wife and Chinese friends never judge me by how I dress, or the language I speak, or even my admiration for China and its rich history. I would much rather be the foreigner with the big nose who is a person with strong personal values of integrity and compassion that they are proud to call friend and husband.
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My two daughters, a freshman and junior in high school, spent some time with me over the July 4th holiday. Among many other activities we spent a day at the Detroit Zoo, where we sat down to a basket of chicken fingers in the shadow of the Polar Bear exhibit. (The Polar bears, unfortunately, were all asleep in their caves and nowhere to be seen.)
We were reminiscing about the house we had lived in at the time of their birth and, quite randomly, the conversation turned to feng shui, the Chinese philosophical system of harmonizing our physical surroundings with the invisible forces of qi that many Eastern cultures believe binds the universe and everything in it.
Feng shui is closely related to Taoism and has millions of followers worldwide, including the US, where you can hire feng shui consultants to help you choose and decorate a new home in places like California and New York. I am not a disciple. After living on this earth for more than six decades, however, one of them among the Chinese, there are few belief systems I dismiss out of hand.
I noted, as a result, with no intention of defending the idea, that our previous family home had very bad feng shui because it was located at the tip of a poison arrow—it sat atop a “T” in the road it fronted. While feng shui had little to do with our choices in landscaping the property, I playfully joked that we had planted a large tree in front of our front door to dissipate the negative energy before it could enter the house.
While I thought the conversation was all in good fun, however, my daughters immediately jumped to judgment. “How can you believe in such nonsense?” my eldest daughter asked with obvious incredulity. “The blood of a tree is sap, which is water filled with nutrients and minerals, not some mystical force that can’t even be seen with a microscope.”
Fair enough. But I am a card-carrying contrarian and my own sap is filled with curiosity. I was intrigued and decided to pursue the conversation. “Why,” I asked, “do you dismiss something simply because you can’t see it or touch it? Wouldn’t science itself suggest neutrality? The existence of qi, after all, has not been disproved, and there is no logical reason that nutrients and qi can’t co-exist.”
You’ve already heard the rest of the conversation I’m sure. This proved to be just one of many discussions in which my daughters—already my oratorical equals—took exception with my reservations about one-dimensional notions of cause and effect. The best I could hope for in any of these debates was an exasperated draw. I seldom moved the needle into the zone of doubt, much less acceptance of alternative interpretations of commonly held Western beliefs.
In the end, to be honest, I actually agreed with most of the positions they took. I am a bona fide Westerner. I was quite unnerved, however, by the certainty with which they took them.
Many of my readers will quickly dismiss all of this as merely another example of the challenge of living with teenagers who are constantly testing the boundaries of their knowledge and identity. If not a false parenting rationalization, however, it is a dangerous one. When we start stifling curiosity and fortifying the mind against healthy doubt, we sow the seeds of social and personal stagnation, if not destruction.
But isn’t that what we—the adults of the world—are currently doing? Are we teaching our children anything quite as consistently and fervently as we are teaching them by our example to be certain in their beliefs?
As I write this world leaders are wrapping up the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. And despite my earnest attempts to stay abreast of developments at this very important gathering, I know virtually nothing about what really transpired. Nearly all of the “reporting” I read from both sides of the political divide could easily have been written well in advance.
The problem with certainty, of course, is the problem with any myopia. You may be right or you may be wrong. Certainty, however, makes it certain that you will never know. Understanding, like knowledge itself, is a continuum, not a destination.
Certainty is a noun. And it is self-fulfilling. Once we believe something with certainty everything we observe tends to reinforce that certainty because we inevitably filter all observation and thought in the interest of efficiency. We see and hear, in the most literal sense, exactly what we expect to. Our certainty, as a result, fossilizes.
Certainty, in fact, is the breeding ground of the contemporary notion of “fake news” that is so hotly debated in the US political arena these days. Fake news may or may not be factual in any literal or narrowly defined sense. It is inevitably misleading, however. It’s weasel news.
“Weasel words” is a term coined by author Steward Chaplin in 1900, and popularized by Theodore Roosevelt. They are the words and phrases that suck the meaning out of claims, much like the weasel sucks out the meat of the egg while leaving the shell intact. By compromising the context within which a claim is made, they provide cover for those who wish to mislead or misinform without being blatant about it.
In the context of news, words like “many”, “few”, “might”, and “suggest”, are typical weasel words; suggestive but not dimensional. “Many experts,” for example, is somewhere between a handful and a boat full.
Politicians and the news media use weasel words all the time to make things that aren’t supported by fact sound like they are. In the narrowest sense, the words are factual. The intent, however, is far from neutral.
Weasel news typically employs weasel words but is slightly broader in context. Typically honest words can become dishonest when used in a certain order that may not violate the formal rules of language but compromises clarity and camouflages subjective innuendo.
When reporters noted that violent protestors greeted Trump’s first G20 meeting, you might assume that the protestors were there because of their anger toward the US President alone. That, of course, may or may not have been the case in any verifiable scientific sense. If challenged on the implication, however, the newscaster can claim that the observable violent protests took place at a meeting that was, indeed, Trump’s first.
Confidence, of course, can be a good thing. Every parent wants to build confidence in his or her children. Confidence gives us the strength to do the right thing in the face of choice. And it contributes to the efficiency of our actions and behaviors, allowing us to do the right thing more often.
Life is a dichotomy, however, and the state of certainty is no exception. Certainty is also an essential element of hate, racism, and ignorance. It is a medium, used consciously or not, for disinformation since we all know from experience that the presence of certainty itself enhances our willingness to fall for undocumented innuendo.
Both the members of the G20 (Referred to as the G19 by one news outlet, in yet another example of “fake” but technically defensible reporting.) and my daughters are all back home now. And while I have no opinion about what progress may or may not have been made at the G20, I am saddened that my daughters do not greet me in the morning, at least until their next visit.
Whether or not my daughters ever accept the existence of poison arrows, I love them dearly. Of that I am certain. And flipping the dichotomy of certainty once again, genuine love is the best kind of news there is.
Contact: You may reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Another sample from the author’s latest book, Understanding Business: The Logic of Balance, available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.
So, while it is true that a company must actively manage its employees in the interest of performance, it is equally true that dehumanizing employees to the extent that relationships and connections are inhibited is counterproductive. Some balance between the recognition of our individual humanity and the need for collective performance must be struck.
On June 1 China began the implementation of a new cybersecurity law that is already being labeled “controversial” by the Western media. The context of this story, I think, is illuminating on many fronts.
That the Internet has become a scary place for citizens, corporations, and governments alike seems beyond debate at this point. Every government on the planet is taking steps to protect its national secrets from foreign hackers. China would be imprudent not to follow suit.
There are three provisions of this new law that appear to be the source of most of the anxiety in the West.
The first is that the law is relatively vague. This, of course, is by design and reflects the polar opposite approaches the US and China take to regulation. In the US the law would be spelled out in mind-numbing detail. And would-be violators would hire an army of lobbyists to craft loopholes and lawyers to exploit them.
The Chinese, in contrast, leave much of the interpretation in the hands of the regulators, not the lobbyists and lawyers. In this way, they largely eliminate the very existence of loopholes.
There are cons to every pro, of course, and the question of which approach to regulation is ‘best’ is no exception. On balance, however, while the Chinese approach opens the door to inconsistent enforcement, the American approach clearly favors those with the money to pay the best lobbyists and lawyers.
The second objection is that the new law requires all state secrets to be stored on servers within China. Many American companies operating in China now keep their servers and their IT on American soil, despite the fact that the IT industry in China is generally on a par with the West.
It’s easy to understand why the Chinese government wants to see this change. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to believe there is a reasonable chance that the US government has access to any server sitting within its borders. Perhaps it’s official; perhaps not. It’s not unreasonable to assume the risk exists, however, particularly given the US government’s openness about using IT to protect its own national security interests, both defensively and pro-actively. (To say nothing of private or foreign government hackers finding their way in.)
The third objection is that the law will require American hardware and service providers to open their products and services to some level of government scrutiny. The fear, one assumes, is that these companies will be circuitously giving their own secrets to their Chinese competitors. It could happen, in theory, although one has to wonder if it would be worth the risk for China. And isn’t there always a cost of entry, even to the US?
These are the most vocally noted objections of the West, but I think there are a couple more issues at play, consciously or not.
The first is one I’ve referred to many times. It is the importance of the Chinese Century of Humiliation in the mindset of the current Chinese government. China was invaded and pillaged by foreign powers for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And there is a national commitment not to let it happen in the future.
No one is currently attempting to force the import of opium or seeking land concessions. And there are no foreign troops on Chinese soil. Many foreign companies, however, have gone into China over the last three decades to reap the rewards of the second largest economy in the world, but left many of their best paying jobs at home – including many IT jobs.
There is nothing illegal about that. Perhaps nothing even unfair or underhanded given the risks for IP theft that exist in a country that admits it has a less stringent legal system currently in place than in the West. Nonetheless, the line between a legitimate reason and an excuse is drawn with perception. Is President Trump’s proposed immigration law aimed at Muslims even though that word is never actually mentioned in the regulation?
The biggest issue here, however, is what I believe ultimately prevents the West from really understanding China and its motivations. It has nothing to do with government suppression and everything to do with culture.
In the US we put individual rights and freedoms above all else. That, we believe, will result in a free and progressive society and there has been a lot of historical evidence to support that conviction, although a quick perusal of the daily news would suggest that argument might be fraying a bit at the seams.
The Chinese, on the other hand, have much more of a collectivist worldview. They believe that protection of society as a whole will, in turn, maximize individual well-being.
As Westerners we automatically attribute the Chinese perspective to the presumed oppression of a one-party political system (i.e., the Communist Party). That, however, is a bit of an over-simplification. There are many collectivist societies around the world that have no Communist Party. And even many Americans are beginning to accept that even dictatorships aren’t all bad when it comes to keeping a nation prone to civil war and ethnic exploitation at peace. The implosion of much of the Middle East and North Africa has obviously weakened the doctrine of “give them democracy and peace and prosperity will follow.”
The Communist Party came to power in China in 1949. For thousands of years prior to that, however, China was a nation of warring factions. There are fifty-six officially recognized ethnic groups in China today and, depending how you define them, hundreds of different languages and dialects. (Although Mandarin is the one official language, dozens of these languages are unintelligible to each other.)
While the Chinese I have met over the years are just as quick to criticize their government as most Americans are to criticize theirs, as a result, there is a general consensus among the Chinese that China requires a strong central government to insure progress – whether you define that in terms of law and order or economic opportunity.
In other words, the individual rights of the citizens in China are legitimized through government authority acting in the best interests of the collective society. In the US, by contrast, government authority, in theory, is legitimized through individual rights and freedoms.
There are two sides to every argument, of course. And most Chinese, I believe, openly recognize that there are both pros and cons to socialism with Chinese characteristics, as the Chinese refer to it.
I wonder, however, if we aren’t losing sight of that inescapable duality in America today (i.e., the duality of pro and con), and if that isn’t at the core of much of what ails us politically. When we start seeing the world as one-dimensional, whichever dimension that is, and whichever interest we put first, are we not creating exactly what it is we denigrate elsewhere in the world?
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When it comes to this blog I admit to being in my worst funk since I launched it in 2013. It’s not that I have anything less to say or any less passion to say it. It’s more like, what’s the point?
They say that globalism is dead in the US. What’s really died, however, is any form of civil public dialogue. It’s engagement that’s dead. And it’s not the people who voted Trump into office that killed it. It’s the people who should know better. It’s exactly the people with the skills and the experience to facilitate an informed and open public discourse that have apparently abandoned any responsibility to do so.
If you are like me you paid scant attention to Trump’s first overseas trip this past week. There was nothing to pay attention to. All of the coverage had to do with Trump feeling at home in the golden palaces of the Middle East; the “I don’t want to hold your hand” incident; Melania’s wardrobe; the “shove”; the handshake; the turned back; the whatever. Who cares? Or, more to the point, why should anyone care?
And the Russians?
I grew up at the height of the Cold War within twenty miles of a US Air Force Strategic Air Command base that kept B-52s laden with nuclear weapons in the air 24/7. They flew over our house every day on approach and take off.
My grade school held frequent drills in which we were required to practice huddling under our desks with our hands cupped behind our heads. Except for the kindergarteners. They weren’t disciplined enough for that so they huddled together under a large blanket in the middle of the room and made a game of it.
Our next-door neighbor built an elaborate underground bomb shelter stocked with a warehouse worth of provisions and a dry chemical toilet. The neighborhood kids used to play hide and seek there. But even to the children – perhaps only the children – it was a bleak place indeed. It felt more like a haunted house than a monument to American grit and perseverance.
And as a boy of eight I remember observing my parents watching the Cuban Missile Crisis unfold on television. They were both veterans of WW II and, as was their custom when it came to such matters, didn’t say much about it. Even a young boy, however, knew the stakes were high.
I don’t believe, in other words, I need to be told much of anything about the Russians. I certainly don’t need to watch the endless political posturing about who talked to whom (I certainly hope someone is talking out of public view.) and whether or not anyone tried to influence the election. (Of course they did. The US has been doing it for decades.)
And what about China? As I had hoped, Trump did back down on Taiwan. And he hasn’t started a trade war. Nor has he done much to dissuade China out of its ambitions in the South China Sea. (And he won’t.)
Trump does take some credit for getting China to take a firmer hand with North Korea although there are few visible signs of that and, in the end, to the extent China has done anything it has done exactly what it believes is in its best interests. That’s okay. That’s the way the world works. The US doesn’t have a monopoly on self-interest. As Freud said, all of life is personal.
Diplomacy, in the end, is not a matter of negotiation. It is a matter of engagement. As an American businessman working in China I learned that firsthand. I dealt with government officials nearly every day. And, yes, there may come a time for negotiation. But you can’t negotiate with someone who is not engaged with you or your issues.
I am not a Chinese apologist any more than I am a Russian apologist. I am, however, someone who has seen and experienced much of the world and who believes that, like it or not, we are all in this together. Hiding in our shell and closing our borders is like grade school children hiding under their desks.
There is no first or second in this race. There is only win or lose – for all of us. We have to start thinking less about bending others to our will and focus more of our efforts on defining and implementing our collective global will.
To be honest, I don’t care, as is pointed out to us daily, how much the US government is spending on protection for the Trump family. It’s chump change and it goes with the job. How much are we spending on Congressional pensions and healthcare?
And I could not care less what coat Melania Trump wore outside the Chierici Palace in the town of Catania, Italy, when posing with the G7 entourage. (Have you seen the pictures coming out of Cannes?) There is not a US politician who can throw a ‘tone deaf’ rock at that glass house. (A twenty-minute speech at a big investment bank could easily pay for a coat like that.)
I don’t, in fact, care so much about the debate over ‘globalism.’ It’s a debate of little meaning in today’s world. That horse is long out of the barn.
I do, however, care about the polarization of wealth in America today. It will bring the country down. It always has.
Mostly, though, I care about engagement. I want to engage with my children. I want to engage with my wife. I want to engage my neighbors of every background and ethnicity. And I want to see our leaders engage with China, Russia, Mexico, and the rest of the world. There may come a time for blame. There may come a time for negotiation. There may even come a time to be forceful. How on God’s green earth, however, will we know when that is if we don’t engage first?
Contact: You may reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
In my book, Understanding China, I proffer that a lot of the difference between Chinese culture and Western culture can be traced to the fact that Chinese culture is built on an intellectual foundation of inductive logic while Western culture is built on an intellectual foundation of deductive logic. The Scientific Method is a deductive methodology for decipering reality. Conjecture, on the other hand, which starts with an observation and speculates cause, is inductive.
And in a classic test of chicken and egg that I will leave to the theologians, it should be no surprise that the monotheistic religions of the West are all deductive in structure. The Eastern religions, by contrast, including Taoism, Buddhism, and Chinese folk religion, are more inductive. Taoists, for example, believe that the universe is simply too complex for the human mind to comprehend.
The deductive/inductive distinction, however, goes well beyond helping to explain the differences in Eastern and Western cultural norms. It further provides a conceptual framework for explaining the sheer intensity of the resentment and division that plagues Western societies today.
Just as science has shown the universe to be in a constant state of expansion, deduction is not a static worldview. It feeds on itself. As time passes the deductive worldview inevitably seeks to become even more deductive, setting the stage for an even stronger belief in the linear relationship of cause and effect that is at the heart of deduction.
Opinions, in other words, naturally get stronger and ultimately morph into something approaching either passion or hate. We don’t just disagree; we despise.
To the deductive thinker every relationship is both linear and measureable. One attribute of the deductively logical mind, therefore, is the desire to rank things. We incessantly rank our sports teams. We rank the best places to retire; the best public schools; the best cars, and the best travel destinations.
I was reminded of the extreme lengths we are willing to go to rank things when U.S. News and World Report, in partnership with Y&R’s BAV Consulting and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, recently unveiled its 2017 ranking of 80 countries on 65 attributes.
The “best” country overall was Switzerland. With a population of only 8.3 million, which a relatively small portion of the world’s population has ever visited, I suspect, Switzerland scored well in the categories of “Citizenship” and “Open for Business,” but only reached #20 in the category “Adventure”, perhaps because it scored relatively low in “Sexy.” Brazil, which ranked #28 overall, ranked #1 in “Adventure” on the back of strong rankings for “Fun” and “Sexy.”
The United States ranked #7 overall – after Switzerland, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, and Sweden – with a #1 ranking for “Power”. It scored only #35, however, in both “Adventure” and “Open for Business,” the former probably because of a paltry score of only 0.6 for “Sexy.”
China ranked #20 overall despite top-5 rankings in “Power” (#3) and “Movers” (#4). It ranked #59 in “Adventure,” however, with only a 1.3 score for “Fun”.
And who determines what is “Sexy” and what is “Fun?” Well, there’s the telling catch. The ranking is based on the perceptions of 21,372 online survey participants, all of whom hail from only 36 of the 80 countries ranked. More than half of the respondents were classified by the survey’s authors as “informed elites.”
What I deduce from all of this is that this ranking is yet another hierarchy of perceptions. And perceptions are subjective. They are opinions. While they may be informed opinions, they nonetheless don’t carry the weight of fact.
And therein lies the problem with today’s public discourse. In our quest to shape our deductive worldview we have lost the intellectual discipline of deduction itself. Our leaders of every stripe no longer seek to contribute to debate so much as they seek to win it – to dominate and crush those of an opposing view.
The ultimate lesson, I believe, is that deduction, despite the appearance of absolute objectivity, is not linear in the end. It ultimately folds back on itself and all sense of balance is lost. The fact-centric become the opinion-centric. The tools of deduction become the weapons of division and derision.
It is a slippery slope. And, yes, that is an opinion induced from observation and proudly acknowledged as such. I may be wrong. And I, for one, find that immensely liberating.
Contact: You may reach the author at email@example.com. 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.
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.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.