Tag Archives: Confucius

It’s a Stumper – Or Not

photo credit: iStock.com/vandervelden

If a ship had 26 sheep and 10 goats onboard, how old is the ship’s captain?

This question made the rounds on the Internet recently. It went viral in the US, where netizens, one after another, marveled at the fact that such a difficult question had been given to 5th grade students in China. Is this some kind of new Chinese math?

It took me a minute, but having spent nine years living and working in China I got the answer fairly quickly. My Chinese wife got it immediately. (As I knew she would.)

The answer? There isn’t one. Or, more accurately, there are many. There is no single answer.

And, no, this isn’t a joke. My wife didn’t even smile. She just answered the question and left the room, after reading the original Chinese and verifying for me that the translation was accurate.

This question is the perfect explanation for why the future of technology is likely to belong to the Chinese and not Silicon Valley. Or maybe not.

The reason this school gave this question to fifth-graders is that there is concern among Chinese educators that Chinese culture fails to instill students with enough curiosity. And curiosity, they believe, is critical to achievement in a technologically advanced world. When I ran a glass factory in China I had the same concern. They’re right, but they’re wrong.

Chinese culture is built on a very inductive worldview. Inductive logic moves from right to left, from observation to speculation. That is why Confucius said, “Wherever you go, there you are,” and that makes all the sense in the world to the average Chinese fifth grader. (Ask your American fifth grader what Confucius meant.)

American culture, in contrast, is built on a deductive worldview. Deductive logic is the logic behind the scientific method and moves from left to right. For every cause there is an effect, and according to the laws of science it is the same every time. (In truth, it is not. Science is really about probabilities, not absolute truths.)

To put it in terms of the modern world, the machines in the glass plant I managed in China cost millions of dollars to build and were immensely complex. And when they broke down the Chinese mechanics at this plant could fix them in a fraction of the time that it took the mechanics at other plants around the world, including those in the US, to fix the exact same machine.

If you were to ask the Chinese mechanics what happened, however, they would surely respond: “The machine broke down.” And that drove our Western mechanics crazy. “Don’t they understand how important it is to understand why the machine broke down so that we can prevent it from happening again?” they would demand of me. The implication, of course, was, “What are you teaching them?” (BTW, this is where prejudice comes from, but that’s another topic.)

But the Chinese mechanics were, in fact, teaching me. “They don’t care why it broke down because while they were working to get it running again a different machine broke down and they felt it was a better use of their time to go fix the second machine than to waste a lot of time trying to answer a question that may have no answer or which more than likely has an answer the knowledge of which will do nothing to prevent it from happening in the future.”

American companies are infatuated with process because of their deductive worldview. And process can be a very good thing. It can also lead to excessive bureaucracy, a lot of extra costs, and terrible customer service. Process isn’t bad per so, but it can be.

So, too, can a lack of curiosity. Which is exactly what the Chinese educators were getting at with their question. They just wanted their fifth-graders to think about it. Instead of immediately assuming there is no answer, as older Chinese like my wife would be inclined to do, they wanted the students to wonder if there, in fact, might be a knowable answer.

So which way is better? Neither, of course. As in all things in life and the universe the truth is not binary. Real knowledge lies in the balance between the two extremes. In Silicon Valley they refer to these digital options as 0 and 1 (on and off). In China they refer to the same duality as yin and yang.

If you saw this question on the Internet you probably saw it referred to as a math problem. But it’s not. In fact, the Chinese character for math appears nowhere on the original document provided to the fifth graders. It is only we Americans who feel obligated to define it as a certain type of problem. And suggesting it is a math problem, of course, further reinforces the false assumption that there must be a solution.

To date, Silicon Valley has won the technology race, in large part, because a bunch of college dropouts were incredibly curious. And they quickly figured out that the 0’s and 1’s at the heart of the new technology is all about patterns. That’s what computer coding is, and Americans (and more than a few Chinese) proved very good at working with such binary patterns.

No one, however, will ever be better at working with patterns than the machines built from them. They are, after all, bigger and faster when it comes to patterns. It’s not in their DNA; it is their DNA. And, of course, as a result it is virtually inevitable that smart machines will soon program themselves. (They already are.) Being a computer coder will be about as valuable as being an expert blacksmith.

The economic race will then become not a coding challenge, but a race to tell them what to do, and, very importantly, to make sure they don’t do evil things; because, of course, neither a 0 nor a 1 knows what good and evil are.

Of course, curiosity will be a very valuable thing indeed in this digital world. What can I do with this technology? What is that machine basing its answers on? Does this make sense? Or is this machine acquiring a racist perspective?

Curiosity, however, will only have value until it doesn’t. And the inevitable truth is that sometimes it will and sometimes it won’t. To even understand the problem and the opportunity, in other words, people will have to think holistically. They can’t think in the simple terms of left to right or right to left.

Right now the Chinese have the edge in training their students for that day. Chinese educators fully recognize that the student of the future needs to be both inductive and deductive. They must think bi-directionally.

Some American educators, I have to believe, understand the same thing. Their challenge is the same one, although it comes at the problem from the opposite direction.

The problem is that most American business, and virtually all American politicians, don’t recognize that a problem even exists. To them it’s all about their very simple and one-dimensional perspective on truth.

Think about it.

And while you’re thinking about it, consider reading my latest book: We, Ourselves, and Us: Creating a More Just and Prosperous America. It’s now available on Amazon.

It’s a book about the age of the captain on a ship holding 26 sheep and 10 goats. Or is it 26 goats and 10 sheep? Or two captains, perhaps, one of whom happen to be ______.

I guarantee my book will be worth your time. And if you agree, I would greatly appreciate it if you take the time to post a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or whatever book site you enjoy. (It’s a binary world, after all. Authors, like everyone else, live by their clicks—whether they’re sheep or goats.)

click here to go to Amazon now

Is Corruption Really the Issue?

I recently finished reading a very good book by another American who also lived in China for eight years. In his case, however, he was a journalist so he lived in a very different world than I have as a businessman.

He did, however, raise a very interesting question that every foreigner in China – every Chinese, for that matter – must inevitably face: How do you balance the incredible successes that socialism with Chinese characteristics has achieved with the shortcomings that have – perhaps inevitably – come with it?

China has lifted 300 million people out of poverty in one generation, the greatest economic miracle in history. Life expectancy in China has increased from 36.3 in 1960 to 75.5 in 2013. The number of students graduating from the country’s universities has increased ten-fold in less than fifteen years. It is now the number two economy in the world and the largest global market for automobiles.

But with that progress has come environmental degradation and an unsustainable inequity in wealth and income, in part fueled by unconscionable levels of corruption that has both skewed the distribution of the spoils of success and put the public at risk by allowing unsafe building practices, incomplete research and testing, and ineffective oversight and regulation of both industry and the food supply.

There are solid arguments for biases in one direction or the other, but ultimately neither can be ignored. In the end, everyone got what they asked for whether they knew they were asking for it or not.

I’ve pondered this question for a long time. The skillful author of the book I just finished, however, made me realize, with crystal clarity, that this is the ultimate question that will determine where China goes from here. It will either become one of the greatest examples of civil and economic advancement in history or it will completely unravel, emboldening the Western liberal democracies in their belief that theirs is the only way.

Something tells me that the end result will not fall in the vast middle. With their inductive worldview the Chinese are prolific gamblers who are comfortable with risk. And the political and economic systems they have built reflect that. They are ‘all in’, as they say.

I honestly don’t know any more than anyone else how the future will unfold. I do have a couple of observations, however, that I believe are relevant.

When I first arrived in China in 2007, I, like many of my fellow ex-patriates and other assorted China-watchers, assumed that as China developed it would concurrently Westernize. Subconsciously, I suppose, I arrogantly assumed that their ultimate aspiration was to be like us.

I no longer hold such a belief. China will modernize in a uniquely Chinese way. They may drive the same cars. They may wear similar clothes and increasingly talk in the familiar tongue of English. But they will not become Westerners. There will be exceptions, of course. In the end, however, I believe they will maintain their unique Chinese worldview and their culture and ways of conducting affairs of state and business will continue to be very different from our own for many years to come.

For the most part I have to admit I have reached that conclusion largely on the basis of intuition, that indefinable collection of experiences and observations that we all take to bed with us at night.

There is some tangible evidence to support the prediction, however. In a recent poll of Chinese citizens 84 percent of those surveyed indicated that corrupt government officials were their biggest concern. At one level this is no surprise. But this isn’t the most telling part of the story. The most revealing part of the story is that the people polled were specifically concerned about public corruption. Only 20 percent voiced concern over corruption in the private sector. (Pollution and income inequity were the 2nd and 3rd biggest concerns.)

The fact is that corruption and graft is just as prevalent in the private sector as it is the public sector. It is woven into the very fabric of the economy. Vendors collaborate to rig bids and control markets; kickbacks are routinely paid to buyers; competitors still steal each other’s intellectual property, although with less frequency; and false rumors are as much a part of marketing as the holiday sale.

To be clear, it is not the form of brutal, in-your-face corruption that you may find in a third world dictatorship. It’s just the way things are done. In all of my years here I have never been openly asked for a bribe in my work or my everyday life. It lies below the surface, but it is there nonetheless.

So, why the difference in concern over public and private corruption? The difference is not the form, or even the amount, of the corruption. It is the impact. If a vendor bribes a buyer to earn a supply contract at an inflated price, the cost of the product or service ultimately provided will go up, but the consumer will either pay a higher price or some company along the supply chain will accept a lower margin.

If the milk inspector looks the other way when dairy producers add melamine to their milk to reduce their costs and still meet the national protein standards, however, children die. When brand new bridges collapse, when trains experience what should have been an avoidable collision, when schools collapse in a serious earthquake, confidence is undermined and society suffers in a very direct and tangible way.

Corruption, in other words, is a moral issue but it’s not a moral value in an absolute sense as we in the West often think of it. The moral issue is government accountability and its impact on the quality of life.

There is, even today, corruption in every country. Countries such as the United States have known periods of incredible corruption (e.g. Prohibition) and still suffer from it today, often in legal forms (i.e. loopholes). Absolute values are often just a setup for hypocrisy, as many religious leaders and politicians have shown in their ultimately disgraced personal behavior.

To me, therefore, the future of China will depend less on the elimination of corruption than it will the enforcement of accountability. Rooting out corruption and graft, which President Xi and the Party are actively doing, will certainly help.

But it won’t be enough.

As Confucius so accurately noted, if leaders are not virtuous in their beliefs and their behaviors, no one will follow the virtuous regulations they put in place. Voluntary restraint and cooperation is essential to both economic and social development – much less peace and safety. Government hypocrisy is public enemy number one whether that government was voted into power, appointed by party leadership, or assumed it at the point of a gun.

The conceptual form of the political system, I have come to believe, means little. It is only the government’s behavior, which is, in turn, defined by its collective values and beliefs, which drive social development or decay.

The challenge is that leadership virtue must itself be voluntary. All of the disciplinary committees in the world won’t instill it on their own. There must be a voluntary belief system that promotes virtuous behavior and the accountability to the public good that follows to build upon.

Unfortunately, the Cultural Revolution wiped out much of the religious physical and conceptual infrastructure, including Confucianism, which held China’s leadership virtue in check during its centuries of global supremacy prior to the Century of Humiliation that began with the Opium Wars.

Confucianism is being publicly resurrected today to help fill this void. In the end, however, I believe it will be the success and the context of President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream that will determine whether or not the seeds of sound leadership are sowed. Pride and nationalism will not be enough. There must be an element of what the European monarchies called noblesse oblige – the obligation of those in power, however they got there, to lead with virtue.

Personally, I believe President Xi Jinping understands this and that he will ultimately succeed. The drumbeat of society has changed dramatically in my time here. When I first arrived everyone was in a mad dash to make money. Little else mattered. Now, however, I increasingly hear my Chinese friends and colleagues openly reflect on the speed of China’s development and whether or not the price paid has been too great despite the success achieved.

They are not, however, looking to the West for answers or solutions. They want virtue; but that may look a lot different than Western morality. It will be virtue with Chinese characteristics. Which is why it is perhaps appropriate that when the Party investigates graft it never refers to it as corruption; it refers to it as a “serious violation of Party discipline.”

The end-game, however, will be the same – government accountability for sustaining and improving the quality of life for all of society. If they achieve it there will be little question as to which perspective – a focus on the successes or the failures – the citizens will take.

Gary Moreau's latest fictional novel written under the pen name of Avam Hale.
Gary Moreau’s latest fictional novel written under the pen name of Avam Hale.

Copyright © 2015 Gary Moreauschools, etc 146

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