In the U.S. we used to put great importance on ‘saying what you mean.’ It was a proxy for honesty, trust, and integrity. And in American culture, which is a culture built on absolute values, those qualities mean a lot.
Chinese culture, on the other hand, is built on the interplay of opposing forces, commonly known as yin and yang. If American culture is a straight line, Chinese culture is a circle. Because Chinese culture is built on a foundation of relationships, and the obligations that flow from them, absolutes give way to relativity.
In China, therefore, the American notion of ‘saying what you mean’ might be interpreted as ‘doing what is expected.’ While that sounds quite different to the Western ear, both sayings come down to the same thing – be genuine. Don’t pretend in the ways that really count.
As I watch the 2016 U.S. presidential election unfold, I, like most Americans, am stunned and, frankly, a little embarrassed, by how divisive this election is. Supporters of each of the candidates in either party don’t so much favor their candidate over the others, as they truly dislike the opponents.
A lot of this vitriol comes off more as a question of trust than anything else. But it’s not so much trust in the sense that he or she will embezzle from the national treasury as it is trust that the candidate is genuine – that he or she is telling us what they really mean.
That would explain why there is so much energy being devoted to attacking what a candidate said in the past. A change in position, no matter how well reasoned, becomes an attack on character. The worst political insult that a candidate can endure is that he or she will say whatever it takes to get elected.
On the surface, it would be hard to argue that any American politician isn’t guilty of that. Why else would candidates and their parties spend such obscene amounts of money on polling data? If they were genuine in the true meaning of the word they would simply say what they believe and let the electorate decide if they agree.
But, of course, there is simply too much power and money at stake to let that happen. Special interests, in particular, like the way things are so long as their candidate wins. Maximizing the chances of that, therefore, seem logical – and worth the investment.
And therein, of course, lies the problem with modern democracy – it’s driven by issues, not character. It’s a tectonic shift driven by the introduction of obscene amounts of money into the political process, as George Clooney agreed after hosting a high-stakes fund-raiser recently, and the extensive and immediate reach of modern media, both social and traditional. (Which is what draws the money.)
Which is precisely why, in my observation, the average Chinese wants nothing to do with American-style politics. It has little to do with the idea of the popular vote. (The Chinese do, by the way, elect a large percentage of their lower level government officials.) It has everything to do with the results of the process.
One of the things I admire most about the Chinese is that they remain, in this modern world, consistently genuine. That’s not to say that they say what they mean in a mid-20th Century American sort of way. That’s not how their culture works.
They do, however, consistently say and do what is expected of someone steeped in their culture and tradition. They are, in short, quite genuine in their behavior.
The problem is that you have to understand the differences in American and Chinese culture to appreciate that. And in that regard many Western foreign policy analysts and decision-makers seem to have a tin ear (and not read my book). They interpret what the Chinese say and do through their own lens rather than through the Chinese lens.
In the end, the difference is that the average Chinese citizen can tell you precisely what their government’s priorities are and how it will behave under various circumstances. But no one, Americans included, can tell you how any of the U.S. presidential candidates would actually behave if elected.
That’s why I vote for genuine. I’m no longer sure, however, which candidate that is.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org