The Burden of the Past

MMACredit: Shanghai Daily

I posted a comment on a recent article in the New York Times.

The article titled “M.M.A. Fighter’s Pummeling of Tai Chi Master Rattles China” was published on May 10, 2017. To read it, click on Article. 

The reaction to the recent contest between the past (wushu) and the present (MMA) can be felt in China almost every day. Does the past define us, or should we consider the realities of the world we live in? 

Confucius, who lived 2,500 years ago, is advocated in China as the source of inspiration for the present, even if he had no constructive role for women, a high respect for the status quo and a belief in a highly hierarchical society. His philosophy is used by the current leadership to justify their approach on how to run China. 

TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) squares off against Western medicine, with the government heavily promoting TCM. Western medicine is heavily influence by the scientific method, while TCM believes in energy flows in the body that have yet to be proven scientifically.  

The 5,000-year old history of China might be a burden to the society as it excuses practices that should be questioned and in need of a scientific validation. The Age of Enlightenment has yet to reach China.  

This kerfuffle proves again the challenges of China to accept a scientific experiment against historical beliefs.

The value of time

Recently in a hotel, I asked an attendant at the front desk to call a taxi.

WalkingSource: Google Map

She asked where I was going. I told her the name of the temple I wanted to visit.

She replied that I did not need a taxi as it would be “only” a 40-minute walk.

Walking - Road Source: Unknown

It is amazing how different cultures measure distance and value time.

I ended up walking to the temple.


Cultural gap between China and the USA

As the leading nations of the world, China and the USA need to interface frequently in order to discuss problems, and hopefully reach an understanding and finally an agreement.

In any discussion, the individuals from one nation will try reaching out to their counterparts from the other nation. Unfortunately, the framework of mental reference, not to mention the verbal and body languages, can be serious impediments to constructive communication. Therefore, it is important that the interlocutors be aware of these mental and behavioural differences, are able to recognize them and finally adjust to them.

Frustration MountFrustration mounts when we don’t get understood. Source: Reuters

Let us look at this cultural and behavioural gap that exists between nations, and particularly between China and the USA, and more broadly between the East and the West.

Since the 1970’s a series of studies have been conducted that try to characterize the average national cultural features. Three of the most commonly used models are from:

  • Geert Hofstede, a Dutch psychologist from Maastricht University in The Netherlands
  • Fons Trompenaars, a Dutch organizational theorist and management consultant
  • GLOBE (Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness Research) Project.

All these studies aim to characterize cultural behaviour across nations through a variety of aspects. At the core of each of these studies are a series of key behavioural dimensions that are graded towards two opposite poles. An example would the pairing between individualism and collectivism, where each country would be rated on this individualism-collectivism spectrum.

There are many shortcomings in these models as they do not intend to represent the whole range of human behaviours in a nation. They are only an approximation of key social behaviours. But, at the same time, these measurements can be the beginning in understanding the cultural gap that can exist between two nations.

We will use the model developed over the last 40 years by Geert Hofstede ( to assist in our understanding of national behaviour. The data originates from a study done in the 1970’s of IBM managers located across the world.

Over the years this model was refined and extended to other countries. From the 4 dimensions, it has been expanded to 6 dimensions. The model also allows people to easily compare countries in order to identify potential behavioural challenges. By using the Hofstede model, comparing China with the USA, we obtain this graph.

Comparison of China and the USAComparison of China with the USA as per the Hofstede Cultural Model. Source:

We can clearly see that of the 6 cultural dimensions studied, 3 have major differences. These might cause misunderstanding between individuals who might not be aware of them. Let us look at what each dimension aims to evaluate. All material quoted is from

Power Distance index: “This dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. The fundamental issue here is how a society handles inequalities among people. People in societies exhibiting a large degree of Power Distance accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. In societies with low Power Distance, people strive to equalise the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power.” Russia here achieves a score of 93 making it a highly hierarchical society.

Individualism versus Collectivism: “The high side of this dimension, called individualism, can be defined as a preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families. Its opposite, collectivism, represents a preference for a tightly-knit framework in society in which individuals can expect their relatives or members of a particular in-group to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. A society’s position on this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we”.” It is to be noted that the USA at 91, has the highest score for the Individualism dimension among the 102 nations studied.

Masculinity versus Femininity: ”The Masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented. In the business context Masculinity versus Femininity is sometimes also related to as “tough versus tender” cultures.” Often, the following analogy is used: in a high masculine society, people tend to “live to work”, while a low masculine society (i.e. feminine) people tend to “work to live”. Japan scores 95, while Sweden scores 5.

Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI): “The Uncertainty Avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen? Countries exhibiting strong UAI maintain rigid codes of belief and behaviour and are intolerant of unorthodox behaviour and ideas. Low UAI societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles.” Russia scores high again at 95.

Long Term Orientation versus Short Term Normative Orientation: “Every society has to maintain some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and the future. Societies prioritize these two existential goals differently. Societies who score low on this dimension, for example, prefer to maintain time-honoured traditions and norms while viewing societal change with suspicion. Those with a culture which scores high, on the other hand, take a more pragmatic approach: they encourage thrift and efforts in modern education as a way to prepare for the future. In the business context this dimension is related to as “(short term) normative versus (long term) pragmatic” (PRA).”

Indulgence versus Restraint: “Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having fun. Restraint stands for a society that suppresses gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms.” This is where Mexico scores high with a 97.

The Hofstede model allows an easy cultural comparison between any nations. It can be used by corporations who are sending people to work around the world, as well as by governments who need to interface with other nation’s government.

Other individuals have tried to visually represent the differences between the western and eastern approaches. A book was written in 2015 by Yang Liu on that topic: East meets West. Originally from Beijing, the author has studied in Berlin, worked in Singapore, London and New York, and now teaches at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. As a graphic designer, she was able to visualize the differences between the eastern and western worlds.

Problem-solving approachApproach for problem solving in the West and in the East. Source: Yang Liu.

After looking at the overall group behaviour, we can also try to understand what motivates individuals, and this is where the work done by A. Maslow can assist us. A university professor, considered a leading psychologist of the 20th century, studied motivation in western individuals.

He developed a theory called the Hierarchy of Needs. This theory is taught in all business schools. If the same basic principles established by Maslow are used to determine the desires of individuals in an eastern society, we arrive at a different approach in how best to impact people’s behaviour.

Comparison of the Hierarchy of NeedsComparison of the Hierarchy of Needs between the West and Asia. Source: Unknown

The cultural gap between China and the USA is substantial and can be challenging. But, if our goal is to live in harmony, the leaders of the world will need to work together, and that means understanding how the other party naturally tends to behave. This gap must be bridged, and both parties need to work at it.

Bridging the Gap


Netflix, Not in China

Netflix is in every country in the world except North Korea, Syria and China. For North Korea and Syria, it is easy to figure out why, but for China it is more complex. Let us have a look at what has prevented Netflix from entering China.

Netflix Around the WorldCountries where Netflix was offered in early 2017. Source: Business Insider.

Early on, Netflix knew that they had to proceed carefully with their efforts to enter China. They communicated extensively with the national government, interfaced with the proper government departments and studied the business landscape. They were determined to try to find a way into China with its population of 1.4 billion. Unfortunately, they encountered challenges that could not be resolved.

The first hurdle was regulatory. The Chinese government, similarly to western governments established a series of rules that govern what cannot be shown in films, on TV and through on-line streaming. Topics related to health (smoking, drinking, etc.), and sexuality have been extensively regulated in a large number of countries, including Canada, Europe and the USA. China, through SAPPRFT (State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television) has established a more comprehensive series of regulations. Here are the categories of topics that are banned:

  • Does not meet the national conditions and social systems, to the detriment of national image, endangers national unity and social stability
  • Damages ethnic groups unification
  • Violates the state policies on religion
  • Promotes feudal superstitions contrary to science
  • Exaggerates terrorist violence, or shows ugly behaviors that potentially induce crime
  • Contains pornographic or vulgar content
  • Distorts ethnic cultural traditions
  • Harms public morality, adversely affects minors

For each category, comprehensive details were provided resulting is many topics normally covered in shows produced in the West coming into conflict with these rules.

Like so many regulations in China, there is substantial leeway in their interpretation, making life more challenging for companies that need to meet those regulations.

These guidelines were tightened in early 2016, and affected foreign companies like Disney and Apple who both had been able to develop a market for their online entertainment content. Both saw their online services permanently interrupted.

Netflix could not find a way around these comprehensive regulations.

Netflix Regulatory ChallengesNetflix faced regulatory constraints in China. Source: Bidness Etc.

The other challenge that Netflix encountered was the strong desire from the national government to support local champions. Over the years, China has endeavoured to develop local companies in support of a “Made in China” policy that it frequently advocates. This policy is applied firmly particularly if the foreign company has no capabilities to improve the Chinese society. In this area, Netflix was not able to demonstrate that it possessed technology that would be of value in the Chinese market. Even if it had, Netflix would have had to follow the challenging content rules in order to obtain an operating permit.

Netflix - AlibabaNetflix and Alibaba squaring off in China. Source: Bidness Etc.

So, as with many other foreign internet companies like Twitter, Google, Facebook, eBay; Netflix will not be operating in China. Netflix has elected to license in-house developed programs to Chinese companies. But these will bring only modest revenues compared to being able to serve this large market. Instead, Chinese companies, like Alibaba and Tencent will continue providing on-line video streaming services as Netflix had nothing to offer that was of interest to the government.


Note: For further details on the regulatory requirements, refer to:, or to the original site in Chinese where one can use Google translation to obtain it in English:

Round 1: China 1 – USA 0

In a previous blog, I discussed the China-USA dynamic in the Trump era. After the first month of the Trump administration, it is most interesting to see what is happening on the world stage in regards to the dynamic between these two hegemons.

walmart-in-china        Source: China Daily

In its rapport with the USA, China has built on its cultural strength based on its long history, and has come on top of this game. Over 2,500 years ago, a Chinese sage put in writing the fine art of power. Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War, which is required reading at military academies around the world.

The Chinese have put in practice this long rehearsed skill. No wonder the Trump administration was bamboozled.

A recent article in BBC News details the strategy and accomplishments of China over the last few months. The totally amateurish Trump administration could not stem the “charm” and “power” of China.

Welcome to the new world order where cunningness trumps strength and brashness.


BBC News Link:

Ballet at a crossing

Rush hour at the Wulumuqi Road and Changle Road crossing in Shanghai in the late afternoon of a fine autumn day as pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, cars, buses and trucks dance with one and other to get through.

3400Can I get through?

3401Going against the flow?

3403Lets go for it!

3405I know that I am on the red light.

3409Business attire required.

3412Squeezing by.

3414All means of transportation accepted.

3415Keeping the place clean.

3418We are loaded.

3420Getting through.

3427Don’t touch me.

3428Just crossing.

3432Whizzing through.

3438Let us get on with it.


Note: Photos by author

The omnipresence of Western culture

In the West, we discover Chinese culture through our enjoyment of Chinese food and the occasional exposure to philosophers (Confucius), medicine (acupuncture), martial arts (Kung Fu) or films (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Otherwise, little is experienced of the culture of the Middle Kingdom.

chinese-movieSource: IMP Awards

On the other hand, when Westerners arrive in China, they are surprised to find Western culture so pervasive. Let us explore the extent of this cultural presence.

Upon arrival at the airport, one will note that the male or female models used on billboards are often from the West. Frequently it is to promote a Western brand, but quite often it is used for Chinese products. The use of a Western model can often be explained by the desire to position the product or service at a high-end level, enticing Chinese consumers to achieve the material wealth and ease available in the West.

As the person journeys further into China, the names on a substantial number of stores will be familiar. Often Western companies have identified the Chinese market of nearly 1.4 billion potential consumers as a market that is worth pursuing, in spite of the many challenges that they will encounter. American and European labels will lease many locations in shopping malls, at times occupying more than 25% of the retail space.

hmSource: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg News

American fast food brands have a strong presence across China as well, with KFC (>5,000 locations), McDonalds (>2,000) and Starbucks (>1,600) leading the way.

kfc-mcdonaldsSource: Wikimedia

As the days go by, one will notice the less obvious manners in which Western culture is present. Western music will often be played in public locations, even in Chinese restaurants. Western artists will tour the largest cities to capitalize on being well-known and liked. Billboards will advertise the latest Hollywood action movies. These movies will generate hundreds of millions of dollars annually in a market that will become within a few years, the second largest market, after the USA.


Source: AFP Photo / Frederick J. Brown

One will also be amazed at the number of people who have a decent notion of English. It is estimated that around 300 million Chinese are learning English. Some in a formal setting like schools (public or private), while others will do it on their own. Their goal will be to capitalize on Western opportunities, might they be work related or personal.

As one stays longer in China, further cultural influence will be experienced starting with the introduction of Western holidays. For Halloween, stores offer masks and outfits. On the evening of October 31, thousands of adolescents disguise themselves and go for a walk in the downtown core of major cities. In late November, it is common to see retail stores or banks posting “Merry Christmas” signs. Stores like Walmart and Carrefour offer Christmas trees and decorations. Commercial streets are lit up, encouraging shoppers to purchase gifts for family and friends.

As one talks to Chinese friends, a key topic of discussion is the education of their child (i.e. 1-child policy). Chinese parents take this topic very seriously, and as a consequence, foreign schools are often a preference, if the parents can afford the substantial annual fees, often equivalent to one-year salary of a well-paid individual. American and British schools and universities have established Chinese locations that use the curriculum and teachers from their home countries.


Source: Shanghai American School

In the field of literature, it is frequent to see a book or a play in its original version or translated in Chinese. Through these, Chinese people are exposed to Western values portrayed by the likes of Shakespeare, Molière, Dickens, Hugo, Hemingway and others.

shakespeareSource: British Council

As one further expands its reach into the Chinese society, Western culture becomes more subtle. The presence of many multinationals operating in China and the actions of multiple NGO’s (Non-governmental agencies) further spreads the cultural influence of the West.

Where is the cultural dynamic between China and the West heading? The first observation is that at this time, the flow of cultural influence is highly unbalanced in favour of the West. This has been the case for as long as China and Western countries have interacted. How will this change in the coming years and decades? At this time, it is reasonable to believe that the material wealth, creativity, openness and social dynamism of the West will probably continue to exert pressure for the continued dominance of the West. For this balance to be more equal, substantial changes would need to occur in China.

Meanwhile, the government is fully aware of the cultural dominance of the West and is taking actions to regulate the inward flow. Strict rules have been placed on the number and the content of films allowed in the country. For foreign corporations, a series of rules clearly delineate their areas of activities, while the Communist Party of China monitors their activity through their presence within each of these corporations. For NGO’s, recently issued regulations constrain their operations.

So the approach is if China cannot match or stem the Western cultural influence, China will contain and constrain it. One must wonder if it will work.

It is to be noted that as the Chinese culture is strong, there is no chance that Western culture will subjugate it. The Western cultural experience will remain a veneer on the Chinese culture. The Chinese will continue to live with the beliefs and the behaviour that have been at their core for centuries.

Pierre Brunet

Mandarin as lingua franca?

With the growing power of China, will Mandarin (Putonghua (i.e. national language)) replace English as the language used across the world?

Whenever people in a nation desire to communicate with people another nation, a language that both parties understand needs to be found. Historically, the language of the nation that had the largest economy or greatest military power was used.

As the means of communication and travel evolved, the process used to select the language changed. Originally, the distance of communication was relatively limited. As the means of transportation increased in speed and reach; from horse, to ship, to plane and finally to electronic, the distance and the number of countries covered increased.

latin-as-lingua-francaLatin was the lingua franca during the Roman Empire and subsequent centuries. Source: Wikipedia

What was a regional requirement became an international need. If we travel back in time, common communication languages were based on regional powers. All this changed in the 17th century with the establishment of colonial empires.

The first universal language, commonly called lingua franca was French. It was replaced with English in the late 19th or early 20th century because of the substantial colonial empire and the economic might of England, compounded with the economic power of the USA.

Chinese language was the lingua franca within its sphere of influence (Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Mongolia) until the late 19th century. With the weakening of China due to foreign presence, English displaced Chinese.

Now that China is on the ascendance again, with its economy being the second largest, probably overtaking the USA in the coming decade, it is probable that some countries will feel the need to interact with China in Mandarin in order to ingratiate themselves towards China.

In international bodies, English and French are the most common languages used, with Mandarin rarely recognized as an official language.

The key point that changed in the historical dynamic used to determine which language will be used as the international lingua franca is electronic communication. This has forced parties to rely on the power of the word, compared to a face-to-face interaction. In an environment where time is money, compounded by high pressure to rapidly respond to questions or situations, it is important that the language retained be clear. This implies that the language has a low level of contextual relationship to be understood clearly (i.e. that the words can be taken at face value); in addition to being relatively easy to learn. And this is where the Chinese language stumbles, as the words (or characters in this case) used are not precise in their meaning, particularly if any legal recourse is pursued. In addition, learning Mandarin is time consuming as it is complex.

The following graph illustrates the extent to which English is currently spoken around the world by non-native speakers, compared to Mandarin. This numerical advantage of English is substantial and almost impossible for Mandarin to surpass.

non-native-speakersRelative importance of native speakers to non-native speakers. Source: Transpacific Project

Therefore, it is probable that the English language will remain for the foreseeable future, the lingua franca of the world, as the most commonly used international language when people interface across boundaries.


“Don’t draw. Write!”

A few days ago, I was sharing with my students the limited progress I had made in understanding Chinese characters. I had started my learning through observations (like all visual learners do); adverts, subway signs, product instructions, etc. I was progressively seeing recurring patterns.

I began exploring some of the few basic patterns I had seen: man (人), wood (木), day/heavens (天) and rice (米); mouth (口), sun/day (日), moon/month (月) and eye (目).

After drawing the above characters on the blackboard in front of the class, I had no response. I suspected the students were thinking on how best to respond to my efforts. I also noticed that I was not getting through in conveying the beginnings of my understanding of Chinese characters.

chinese-caligraphySource: Hao Xian Tang

After a brief exchange, a student from the front row said “Don’t draw. Write!” This said so much to me, in so few words.

What at first had appeared to me as a series of straight or curbed lines must not be drawn randomly. My hand movements were wrong. I needed to follow a series of sequential steps in generating the Chinese character.

In English writing, we all have our own ways of scribbling a letter. Yes, in school we might have learnt the proper ways of forming it, but this is generally abandoned over the years to reflect our ease or preference in tracing a letter or a word. And everyone is okay with that individual approach.


What I learnt that day, was that I needed to learn the proper way of writing a character, with each component drawn in the proper sequence, and in the proper direction. Then and only then, would I learn how to write Chinese. The free flow and creativity of English writing would have to disappear, and I would have to conform to a set of rules.


What I saw at that moment is the way the Chinese brain is formatted from an early age in their ways of thinking, particularly in their need to have order in the assembly of a complex system. I also read into the manner in which a Chinese character is written is the need for a system where the whole society conforms to a method of generating a character. One should NOT change the order in which a character is formed. Unlike English where we can deviate from the “suggested” way of writing.

No wonder it is far easier for me to mark handwritten exams in China than it ever has been in the West as Chinese students will write the English letters and words the same way. They are applying the method in generating a Chinese character to their English writing.

Will the way the brain has been formatted by learning to write Chinese characters impede their creative thinking? Good question for which I do not know the answer, but it is important if you relate it to the economic future of China.


Problem resolution in China

Often, when Westerners deal with Chinese people, we hear them commenting about the challenges of jointly analyzing a problem and arriving at a solution. Westerners don’t understand why Chinese people don’t see what is obvious to them. Westerners find that the search for a solution simply takes too long. The level of frustration mounts on both sides.

In a book published by Taschen in 2015, a Chinese artist who has lived in Germany for the last 26 years created a series of illustrations that convey some of the differences between the Western and Chinese approaches in dealing with a problem.

Let us build on some of these illustrations to convey the stress a multicultural group might face.

  1. On how the situation is discussed

taschen-opinionLet’s get to the point” is often heard in Western meetings. Participants will directly discuss the issues that are key. That is not always the path used by Chinese people as they reflect on the environment and the context in which the issues are to be discussed. This hesitancy might result in comments such as “Stop beating around the bush”.

  1. On company hierarchy

teachen-bossIn the West, when discussing a topic, we generally regard our boss as a person with whom we can be frank and share our thoughts openly. Chinese people will be careful not to contradict or steal the limelight from their supervisor. Authority must be respected and deferred to.

  1. On speaking one’s mind

taschen-telling-the-truthWesterner will generally speak openly about their thoughts, while Chinese people will ensure that they communicate their thoughts in a manner that will not clash with the people they are working with. If this means that they need to adjust their comments, they will do so in order to preserve group harmony.

The above points represent some of the cultural challenges that need to be addressed if we are to bridge the gap with China. Major progress has been accomplished over the last 2 or 3 decades to train people in understanding the cultural differences and the resulting gap. More education needs to be done as China will play a greater role in the world. Unlike Japan, which did not engage the world in the 80’s and 90’s when its economic might could have allowed it, China wants to play that role. If the West is to succeed at working constructively with China with the goal of developing win-win situations, we must bridge this cultural gap. A clash would raise some nasty prospects.

Various models have been designed to illustrate how culture varies from country to country. One of the most popular models is from Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede, who is a professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. His model is based on 6 cultural dimensions. If you are interested in exploring his findings, visit his website at You can even evaluate the cultural distance between two nations.


Reference:  Liu, Yang. East meets West. Taschen, 2015.