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.
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