Regular readers of this blog know that I devote a lot of print to the difference between the inductive reasoning that is at the core of Chinese culture and the deductive logic behind most Western culture. It goes straight to the heart of the differences.
Said more simply it is the difference between the emphasis on harmonious balance that is the goal of Chinese society, governance, and commerce, and the near-spiritual belief in cause and effect that is behind the processes and rules at the heart of American social norms, governance, and business.
This often frustrates American companies that venture to China for the first time. Chinese employees are driven by results, not processes, and will hesitate little to work around the system if there is a more expedient way to achieve the desired result.
This, of course, can lead to erratic performance, introduces a certain level of risk to the system, and can result in outright fraud or malfeasance. On the other hand it is one of the primary reasons Chinese companies can produce things for so much less than their Western counterparts.
American companies, on the other hand, operate with a great deal of predictability and are generally less prone to catastrophic risk. (Anyone who knew anything about China had to know that some merchants on Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant who made an historic IPO on the NYSE last year, were likely selling fake goods. Now that this is coming to light, however, American investors are aghast and the stock is suffering.)
On the other hand, American companies often feel the need to undertake massive initiatives to ‘put the customer first,’ for the simple reason that many American workers are not so much managing a commercial relationship as they are maintaining a rigid corporate process.
On the governance side the same distinction holds. As a businessman in China I find it refreshing to work with local government officials who are always seeking balance in our relationship and willing to work with us using what my father would have called ‘common sense’. U.S. institutions like the IRS and SEC, on the other hand, are often less likely to show any degree of meaningful flexibility or willingness to compromise.
For the central Chinese government this often leads to great frustration because their decisions and directives are not implemented at the local level in the way they would prefer. The U.S. federal government, in contrast, has few such frustrations. What they say goes. There are rigid rules and processes in place to make sure it does.
Neither is the perfect solution, of course. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes, however, the excesses of each system can take on an air of the absurd.
I was reminded of this just this past week.
As you may know, I am married to a widowed Chinese national with a twenty year-old son and an aging mother. It’s a legitimate marriage, I assure you, fully recognized by the U.S. government.
And this summer we decided to take our vacation in the U.S. where I could visit relatives and show her some of the wonderful attractions America offers.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing, however, refuses to give her a non-immigration visa. She’s not asking for a green card, mind you. We have no intention of moving there any time soon. She just wants to visit for a couple of weeks.
But they won’t allow it even though she is married to an American citizen who works for a U.S. multi-national company, who has no criminal record whatsoever, and who enjoys a stellar credit rating.
Well, the consular officer who performs the interview is under no obligation to explain his or her decision so, in the end,we have no idea. It would appear, however, that she was denied the visa because she does not own a home in China and, therefore, might decide not to return.
But of course. She lives with me, her husband, and as an ex-pat I am provided housing by my employer, just as every ex-pat working at the U.S. Embassy is.
It’s particularly absurd because anyone with even a modest understanding of Chinese culture would fully understand that a middle-aged Chinese mother would never abandon both a son and an aging mother. It would be the ultimate loss of face.
And since the officer knows from my job title that I have a very good job why would she ever give up that lifestyle to toil in the fields and commercial kitchens of America as an illegal immigrant? It simply defies logic.
This is not about logic, however. That smacks too much of harmonious thinking. This is about rules. This is about cause and effect.
I certainly mean no personal criticism of the officer involved. He has a thankless job, I’m sure, and has about 90 seconds to make a decision whether to grant a visa or not. He is as much a victim of the obsession with rules and processes as my wife is.
Unfortunately, there is no right to appeal. She can apply again in the future but has expressed no interest in doing so having felt so humiliated by the experience. “If they don’t want me, I have no interest in going there.”
Too bad for me, of course. And too bad for all of the merchants, restaurant owners, and hoteliers that would have benefited from her presence. (And, of course, their employees who would have enjoyed just a tad more job security and the IRS which would have enjoyed a little more tax revenue.)
I am extremely proud to be an American and feel truly blessed to have had the good fortune to be born in a land of such opportunity.
I do believe, however, that we sometimes take cause and effect to an unproductive extreme and waste a lot of time and resources on rules and processes that just don’t provide any meaningful balance between risk and reward.
Harmony. The Chinese use the word a lot. And while there is some downside to the discretion that makes harmony possible, it’s not a bad way to go really. Just ask my wife.
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Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China
Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.