Hui Yin Bi: The last 20 years

In her last column for Australia China Connections, Cecilia Fan reflects on the changes she has witnessed in China over the last two decades.

Most of us have little memory (or none at all) of times when slow cyclists, crowded buses and the occasional donkey cart passed in front of Chairman Mao’s portrait opposite Tiananmen Square; a time when there was fear of generating individual thoughts and an even greater fear of letting those thoughts be known. A few of us have unforgettable memories of the late ‘80s during the period when free debates were permitted on all kinds of issues, shortly followed by the deadly silence after 1989. More of us have vivid memories of China’s booming economy in the ‘90s, when foreign investment and international trade and collaboration became an inseparable facet of the Chinese economy.

While in the last 10 years, has it became apparent to wide audiences that a key link in the chain of success of a business is the degree to which culture manifests itself in the operations of corporations and individuals. Internal thoughts of the mind determine business success as much as the external business environment, thus it should not be ignored.

The business environment has seen dramatic changes, and depending on who you are operating with, and how you are playing the game, these changes may have made doing business easier or harder.

To most of the business operators, the good old days of getting things done through a couple of handshakes and connections – is gone.

Guanxi is still important, but it requires a much larger network at multiple levels making it harder to maintain. Amateurs are giving way to professionals, while professionalism is not a guarantee of winning a market position. Small businesses often get squashed or swallowed by bigger players while some large multi-nationals are risking becoming “iron rice bowls” surpassing state-owned enterprises in their placid acceptance of low performing employees.

During the last two decades, there were more studies than ever written on conflicts between Chinese and Western cultures. A renowned Chinese academic, Professor Liu Yang’s simple but astonishing visual illustration summarized a few fundamental differences in individual versus group thinking, equality versus hierarchy, and direct versus roundabout communication styles. These works are outstanding and progressive academic theory, but many individual businesspeople, managers and executives, still need to find their own ways of applying these to their business practices in an international landscape.

Knowledge accumulated within the Australian community is definitely worth keeping. Early accumulated knowledge can serve as “corner stones” of the intercultural business thinking foundation. However, “China Veterans” need to be continually capturing the pulse of China today to avoid building a skewed picture based on outdated philosophies.

More initiatives have been taken to study issues relating to intercultural business. This said, much of the research has been conducted by members of academia with no pre-requisite of Chinese history, business or culture. Much of the research has been conducted within a very small Australian-Chinese circle – the broader network of the core Chinese business network and the mainstream of Chinese thinking has unfortunately been rarely touched on in many cases.

Generally speaking, Australians still have a long journey ahead in order to understand China’s non-linear thinking, ambiguous conversations, the two-way guanxi flow, and the difference in treatment amongst “distant” and “close” relationships. Australians need to continually keep mastering the skills of “self-analysis”, making “self-adjustments” through a journey of “self-criticism”, to allow a closer alignment with the Chinese culture and the Chinese way of thinking.

There are continuously new issues occurring. In particular, reverse cultural adjustments when a western culture merges with an eastern culture. The era of China envy, and even worship of everything coming from the West is long gone. China now has established its own new-found stride which leaves it in a much better position to create a hybrid culture, despite its occasional tendency to display over-confidence.

After the miracle speed of development over the last few decades, China needs to start slowing down for a re-charge, to let its old culture breathe and let is new culture settle.cecilia_uni_web

Many stories in China can be experienced, but not easily told. Many Chinese expressions can be understood but not translated… The “Chinese Mind” will remain a mystery for many decision makers and researchers for many years to come. The journey is long, the world is small, we shall all be connected with the past, and share the future.

*Cecilia pictured first left with room mates in 1991 pre-graduation.

*After seven years with Australia China Connections, it’s time for me to move on. I would like to sincerely thank all of you readers for sharing your thoughts and providing encouragement over the years. This column has allowed me a small voice to reflect on cultural issues in the midst of experiencing the waves of economic growth. The waves continue to come and go — I am sure we will meet again. Cecilia Fan, Hui Yin Bi.

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