Start of Winter Day

On November 7, the President of the Peoples Republic of China, Xi Jinping, and Ma Ying-jeou, the President of the Republic of China, commonly known as Taiwan, met in neutral Singapore for an historic handshake and closed-door meeting. If was the first such meeting between the leaders of the two nations in the 66 years since Mao Zedong and the Communists forced Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang to relocate to Taiwan from the Mainland.

Most Americans are taught that Taiwan is a sovereign state at the mercy of an aggressive China intent on colonizing it. In fact, that’s not a completely accurate depiction.

In 1971 the United Nations officially withdrew recognition of Taiwan and gave its recognition to the PRC. Today, only 21 UN member states and the Holy See maintain official diplomatic relations with the island.

China, for its part, officially considers Taiwan to be its 23rd province and the economies of the two are highly integrated. Taiwanese business people are one of China’s biggest investment groups and you will find Taiwanese businesses in abundance here.

Mainland China has long maintained that re-unification is a must and will use force if peaceful re-unification proves impossible. Today, however, China avoids any saber-rattling and is pursuing unification under the one country, two systems concept it has employed in Hong Kong and Macau.

Ma, for his part, likewise embraces the one-China principle and noted at the meeting that Taiwan’s constitution does not allow for the concept of two Chinas or one China, one Taiwan. While his position does face some opposition at home, it is difficult to imagine that those in a position of power will ever pursue an independence agenda.

For now, I suspect, both sides will continue their path of “cross-Straits ties”, as the relationship is diplomatically referred to.

On a completely unrelated but interesting note, the day following the historic handshake in Singapore was the Start of Winter, the 19th solar term of the 24 solar terms of the Chinese lunar calendar. Although the day has no real meteorological significance I acknowledge it because it is a day for eating dumplings, my favorite Chinese food.

Legend has it that at the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD25-220), a man by the name of Zhang Zhongjing, otherwise known as the Medical Saint, saved many people in Henan province from typhoid and frostbite by serving them dumplings. Today you will still hear people say, “Eat dumplings on Start of Winter Day or your ears will be frostbitten.”

And they are delicious as well!

So, changing gears yet again, here is the foreword to my latest book, “Understanding China:  There is Reason for the Difference.”  And I don’t mean A reason, I truly mean reason.

See if it’s for you.  It’s available in paperback and electronic versions.

FOREWORD

Many political and business pundits have predicted that this will be the China Century in the same way that the last century was the American Century. Being neither a pundit on much of anything nor a political handicapper, I offer no opinion on that prophecy

However the historians ultimately label the coming century, nonetheless, the Chinese are certain to have a major role in the drama. China is already the number one or two economy in the world, depending on how you measure it. They are a growing military power and home to one-fifth of the world’s population.

The rise of China has been dramatic and significant enough to cause the United States, the country behind the American Century, to “pivot to Asia.” Both Hong Kong and Macau, former British and Portuguese colonials respectively, were returned to its control in the last two decades, and China has increasingly engaged its neighbors in the many historical disputes over control of the South China Sea, through which one-third of the world’s ocean freight currently passes.

Some of that freight is of low monetary and strategic value—toys, apparel, and consumer electronics produced by China’s factory to the world, which has dominated the low end of the global supply chain for the last two decades, but which is moving quickly up that supply chain, a move that will have profound implications for global trade in the coming century. Much of the shipping that moves through the South China Sea, however, is energy and raw materials destined for countries in Southeast Asia other than China. According to globalsecurity.org, tanker traffic in the South China Sea is three times that of the Suez Canal and well over five times that of the Panama Canal.

I have lived and worked in Beijing, China, since August 2007. And being an old but ardent student of life and people, I have observed a great deal about China and the Chinese and the growing impact of both on the rest of the world.

I am an American, now sixty years old, who came not as a diplomat or academic sinologist, but because I was in need of a job, and a US multinational company offered me a good one if I would accept relocation to Beijing. Until recently, I managed a company of more than 450 people, and I was the only foreigner in my company, as the Chinese refer to us.

I write primarily for my daughters. I want to leave them some permanent record of who I am and how I think—the person I was. I suppose, by definition, that means I’m attempting to leave them my legacy. What I really want, however, is for them to simply know me.

Which leads to the one irrefutable and overriding message I can convey about my experience in China. The Chinese have taught me more about myself than I could ever teach them about anything. That, ultimately, is their great charm and their great influence. You can’t come here without developing a clearer understanding—good or bad—of the person you really are.

With time and patience I believe my extended time here in China has allowed me to figure a few things out. Many continue to befuddle me. But in almost all cases, I’ve at least learned which questions to ask.

The Chinese really are different. Their culture, the sum total of their beliefs and behaviors, is truly and fundamentally different from Western culture. It’s obvious the minute you step off the plane, an observation that often turns to terror when you take your first hair-raising taxi ride to your hotel.

Many excellent books have been written that outline those cultural differences with great clarity and in great detail. Should you ever decide to visit China, even for a holiday, I strongly suggest you read one of them so you know what to expect.

This book is not one of them.

Before coming to China, I read many books about Chinese business etiquette and Chinese customs. They were helpful in preparing me for what I was to encounter. After a few months, however, I became frustrated at my inability to understand the why behind the what. I understood the custom or the behavior, but I didn’t understand why it was what it was. That made the difference from my own customs often feel like irritations or frustrations. Something just didn’t feel right. There was less joy to the experience than I felt there should have been in such an exotic and high-energy environment.

Even more important to my work as a businessman, I felt lost. I could avoid offending my colleagues or my customers, but I could not influence their behavior. And in the end, isn’t that what business is all about—influencing behavior?

Eventually I realized that it was not enough to understand the differences between Chinese and Western culture. That merely allowed me to react to the Chinese in much the same way that a leaf floating down a fast-moving river reacts to the currents and the eddies.

To truly enjoy China and to know success in its commercial world, I had to learn to anticipate. And that, I knew, meant I had to understand the why behind the what. I had to understand not just how our cultures differed, but why they differed. What gave rise to these different beliefs and behaviors?

Only then could I find comfort in the chaos. Only then could I overlook the behaviors so many Westerners find offensive or uncivil. Only then could I be effective in my work. Only then would I really know China.

I looked far and wide to find books that could help me unravel this mystery. But while I found hundreds of insightful histories, how-to’s, and anecdotes of personal experience, I found no book that addressed the fundamental question of why all these other books are even relevant or came to be. I found nothing that probed the question of why—why is Chinese culture so different from the culture of the West?

That gave rise to the idea for this book. It has been penned over the long journey of my personal discovery. To share, of course. But also to help me along the journey. I have a passion for writing, but more than anything else I have an obsession with thinking. And that is why I write. Writing is merely the symbolic expression of thought. And since the power of the alphabet will never equal the power of the mind, writing forces clarity of thought. It disciplines the mind.

So, who should read this book? Certainly anyone who has a diplomatic or commercial interest in China. Even if it merely validates what you already know, there is value in validation, and if you really do understand the insights forthcoming, you will recognize that value without hesitation.

What if you are merely visiting China on holiday or are part of a tour? Whether you read this book or not will depend on whether or not you want to enjoy the trip. Would you prefer to be enlightened or frustrated? Both come to Westerners in abundance when they visit China for the first time.

The real reason to read this book, however, is the point I made above. No single experience in my six decades of life has taught me more about myself than my time in China. It is an education, I say with confidence, I would not have received if fate—and the need for a job—had not brought me here to the Middle Kingdom.

The book is divided into several parts. The first is fundamental to the others. It is the core exploration of the why behind the what. Why have China and Chinese culture evolved in a way so distinct from that of the West?

The second relates more directly to the business climate within which foreign companies operate here. No X’s and O’s, however. I will spare you the normal jargon, business analytics, and dry strategic language of most business literature. I will look strictly through a personal lens, one full of a passion for understanding, a lot of irony, and hopefully a little humor. Which is why, I believe, this section will also interest those who have no interest in commerce or business.

The third section is an exploration of what it means to live in China. I have had the chance to see China during an amazing time in its long history from the ground level. I have worn its dirt on my hands, its soot in my eyes. I have seen the gleaming cities and the impoverished countryside. I have driven on its highways of insanity and ridden on its overcrowded buses and trains. Some of what I have seen is sad, some is downright funny, but it is all exhilarating and inspiring.

Lastly, I will look at the ins and outs of China’s politics and what I believe to be its real geopolitical ambitions. I will make every attempt not to repeat what you’ve heard on the evening news or the Sunday morning talk shows. Most of that I disagree with anyway. Instead, I will attempt to give you a broader, more personal perspective.

Whatever your reason for picking up this book, and even if you had none originally, I strongly suggest you read all sections. You will ultimately see that each reinforces the other. Because that’s the way it is in China. There is no beginning and no end. Everything exists in relation to everything else. Business, family, marriage, career are all intertwined. Not intermingled per se, but coexisting, hopefully, in harmonious balance.

To understand what I mean by that, however, you’ll have to read the rest of the book.

Enjoy the journey!

Gary Moreau

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Copyright © 2015 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 glassmakerinchina@gmail.com