Successful or Good at Business?

A friend recently told me a very sad story about a young woman known to her son who had been attending university but had become depressed and dropped out to return home. After isolating herself in her parents’ home for several months she announced that she was feeling much better and wanted to return to university.

All of the necessary arrangements were made and her mother took her back to the dormitory where she shared a room with several other young women. Only students were allowed in the living area so her mother waited outside for her daughter to take her things to her room and they could go to dinner.

Upon reaching her dorm room on the ninth floor, however, the young woman set down her bags and jumped out the window, landing not far from where her mother waited.

It’s an awful story and I still lose sleep over it. And it has made me think – a lot!

There is, of course, depression and suicide in China, just as there is elsewhere in the world. But while I have seen no statistics on the issue it has always struck me that the Chinese are, on balance, a happy people compared to most Western cultures. Seldom is there rage in the air, even on the highway, where I’ve often thought that road rage shootings would be the most common cause of death were people to drive in the U.S. as they do here.

One distinction has occurred to me, however. The U.S. likes to think of itself as the Land of Opportunity – a meritocracy. And, to an extent, it is. Work hard, get a little lucky, and you have a good chance of getting ahead in life.

As a result, however, we tend to both personalize and be a little judgmental about career success. The mere fact that we call people who have acquired wealth ‘successful’ is itself telling. It suggests that their success is both personal and earned.

Unfortunately, of course, the reverse can also be true. Poor people are often characterized – consciously or not – as somehow deserving of their poverty, either through a lack of effort or natural talent.

The Chinese have a very different perspective on the issue. For starters, they don’t personalize wealth. “He’s rich” is simply a statement of fact; not a personal judgment. People who have acquired wealth are considered simply “good at business,” not accomplished. It’s not a pejorative assessment. Nor is it a statement of personal respect or admiration, however.

Part of the reason for the difference, of course, is the simple fact that wealth is relatively new to China. Among my own generation, everyone was poor. There were no financial distinctions.

Even today, despite the appearance of Ferraris on the streets of the major urban areas and proliferation of sleek glass office towers and upscale apartment buildings, there remain hundreds of millions of Chinese who continue to live in difficult, impoverished conditions.

Economic development, of course, brings many benefits. But it likewise brings many challenges.

The young Chinese of today are under enormous pressure to perform well in school, get into a good university, and move into a promising career. The fact that the care of the elderly is considered a family obligation only adds to the pressure.

And yet there will ultimately be the realization that opportunity is not the same as economic equality. Most Western democracies, and particularly the United States, continue to have highly stratified divisions of wealth and income distribution and the problem is getting worse, not better.

We’re already getting glimpses of the trend. As I have written before, I, like many Chinese, believe the protests in Hong Kong were more about economic opportunity than democracy. Young people simply aren’t seeing the opportunity they have always been told would be there. Housing costs are skyrocketing and there is more and more competition for the best jobs.

Ditto for Taiwan. While the Western media have universally labeled recent elections there as a black eye for Beijing and a result of a surging desire to maintain Taiwan’s political independence, that is not the narrative I hear from the Taiwanese business people I interface with every day.

The political integration of Taiwan and the Mainland is a fait accompli. It’s already happened. Taiwan is a de facto Hong Kong.

What these elections were about, according to this alternative narrative, is frustration among the young people of Taiwan about the polarization of wealth and the lack of universal economic opportunity.

The Mainland is beginning to face similar social challenges. There are now 7 million university graduates in China every year. And without the double-digit growth China has known for the last two decades, the economy is straining to employ them at the level they expected when they literally devoted their childhoods to the grueling lifelong process of getting into the best universities.

The undeniable reality of the world is that there are no pure meritocracies. There are only degrees of meritocracy. Some degree of social acceptance of this reality, for whatever reason, is essential to civil order.

As I’ve noted many times, this, I believe, is why President Xi Jinping refers so often to the Chinese Dream. And why he is so diligent about rooting out government corruption and the appearance of government waste and insensitivity. Marxism is a conceptual counter-weight to the excesses of unregulated commerce.

The West has deductive logic to thank for its relative civil order in the face of polarizing wealth and income (although cracks, under different names, are appearing more frequently). This deductive perspective has enabled the cause and effect thinking that is essential to the acceptance of a black and white moral code that, ironically, creates some tolerance for injustice and inequity.

At the same time, however, to the extent that deductive Western culture encourages people to personalize wealth and career success we are planting the seeds of our own civil unraveling should we not address the growing problem of income and wealth disparity. “Now it’s personal” is a great enabler of anger and retribution.

For the Chinese, it is the cultural tendency not to personalize wealth and success that holds society together. This is why, I believe, the government feels it so important to strengthen the Party and why so much effort is currently being placed in re-educating government officials, members of the media, and ordinary citizens in the core ideals of Marxism. At the end of the day, one of the core tenets of Marxism is the depersonalization of wealth and financial success.

When the Chinese start saying, “He is successful,” rather than, “He is good at business,” the tide will have turned and the risk of civil dissatisfaction will be greatly enhanced.

For now, however, other than in the cultural outliers of Hong Kong and Taiwan I see little evidence that this is happening. The people I drive by every day, most of whom lead difficult physical lives, are nonetheless smiling, happy to be who they are and, notably, very happy to be Chinese.

One of the things I enjoy most about China is that people, no matter what their job or stature in life, feel lucky to be here.
One of the things I enjoy most about China is that people, no matter what their job or stature in life, feel lucky to be here.

Copyright © 2014 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.