Patrick Stringer, Commissioner – Greater China for the Victorian Government, discusses business engagement on the ground in China.
Increasingly our governments and corporations are working on strategies and initiatives to bring us closer to China, a country that will feature strongly, if not dominate our international trade relations for the coming decades.
And yet at the basis of all this effort, I detect an undertone that suggests that Western economies and corporations, and a good number of academics believe China must and slowly will come around to fall in line with Western concepts of commerce, ethics and business norms.
Well, I don’t think this will ever happen, at least not any time soon.
A number of years ago I had the great privilege of meeting and having my entire way thinking challenged to its core by a famous and remarkable Victorian, Dr. Michael Hewitt-Gleeson. Michael has been an advisor to US Presidents and corporations such as GE and IBM, and was the first ever person to complete a Doctorate on lateral thinking under the tutelage of Cambridge University Professor Edward DeBono.
What Michael taught me first and foremost was that in life, it was “arrogant” to believe that there was only one “right” answer to any given problem, and that no matter how correct we think our view, no matter what we think the facts to be, there was almost always a “better view of a situation” to be found.
This is a lesson to be learned in China almost daily.
In this place you often hear business people from Australia and other Western countries talk of laws, regulations, business practises as being “grey” rather than black and white. While this is true to some degree, I actually believe that there is a better explanation.
According to one scholar at Peking University, there are more than 35,000 Chinese words or phrases that cannot be properly or completely translated to the English language. Surprised? Now if we consider that language is the primary medium through which a culture communicates and exercise concepts, we can start to understand that Chinese culture is full of concepts and traditions that have no equivalent in Western “Plato truth based societies”, as Hewitt-Gleeson would call them.
There are many Chinese concepts that play an important role in everyday life and business, including siren, qìzhì, and the example I like most to use, is the untranslatable concept of guanxi.
I have heard many expat China experts say that Guanxi simply means “relationships” and I have even heard them claim to have Guanxi with this Chinese person or that Chinese organisation. Other more cynical observers say Guanxi is more like “nepotism and jobs for the boys” combined, and in more recent years many Western observers have been even more dismissive of the concept branding it synonymous with corruption and malpractice. The truth is that none of these comes close to describing the concept of Guanxi.
Entire books have been written on the concept of Guanxi. I am therefore not going to define it here, but I will do better than the efforts in the previous paragraph. Guanxi is central to Chinese society. It is a concept involving networks of mutual and reciprocal obligations, which emanates from China’s high context, Confucian, family-based social order. Guanxi is a moral code by which those inside the guanxi network live, work and socialise together, without strict laws or contracts. Guanxi is normal behaviour, corruption is norm deviated behaviour.
In our rush to increase trade and commerce with China, too little effort, emphasis and investment is placed on the softer issues of understanding language, cultural concepts and history. Most government postings are typically limited to three years, corporations post key staff often for even shorter periods and yet there is overwhelming evidence to illustrate that the longer people stay in China the more successful they are likely to become.
This is the point in the article where most CEOs and other leaders switch-off since these issues are highly irritating and inconvenient to Western C-level execs driving three-year ROIs and quarterly outcome measures.
But just as Western practises and concepts of business are born from our own histories and traditions, our practices and language do not reflect or accurately render Chinese practises. In the same way it is “arrogant” to believe that Chinese language simply conveys western meanings in an impenetrable foreign tongue, so too is it flawed to believe that an entire commercial civilisation will abandon its traditions and values adopt Western norms. There is a “better view of the situation” to be found.
In September, the Victorian Premier, Ted Baillieu will lead Australia’s largest ever Trade and Investment Mission to China. At the same time, the Victorian State Government is very significantly increasing its commitment to language and other cultural exchanges with China, and actively seeking lasting ways to enhance the softer ties at multiple levels with government, industry and academia.
It’s my belief that these are the investments that will truly pay dividends for Victoria and Australia in the long-term. ■