Monday, September 1, 2014
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China in the Eye of the Beholder

CLAREMONT – One of the most glaring, if unremarked, oddities concerning China nowadays is how perceptions of its leaders diverge depending on the observer. In the eyes of the Chinese public, government officials are venal, incompetent, and interested solely in getting lucrative appointments. But Western executives invariably describe Chinese officials as smart, decisive, knowledgeable, and far-sighted – roughly the same adjectives that they once used to describe Bo Xilai, the disgraced Communist Party boss of Chongqing, before he was purged.

It is impossible to reconcile these views. Either the Chinese public is impossible to please, or Western executives are hopelessly wrong. But, given that daily experience places Chinese citizens in an infinitely better position than Western executives to evaluate Chinese officials and their conduct, one would have to conclude that they are almost certainly right. And that means that Westerners who have spent considerable time in China and consider themselves seasoned “China hands” need to ask why they have gotten it so wrong.

One obvious explanation is that Chinese officials are extremely good at seducing Western businessmen with friendly gestures and generous promises. The same officials who lord it over ordinary Chinese people often summon irresistible charm to woo Western investors.

Another selling point for Western executives is that many Chinese officials have engineering backgrounds, in contrast to their Western counterparts, most of whom are lawyers. To businessmen, engineers are practical problem solvers, whereas lawyers are obsessed with procedural complexities and intent on exploiting contractual loopholes. Moreover, most Chinese officials have learned the jargon of Western business, and can speak intelligently about the problems that companies need to solve.

A more subtle reason for Western executives’ perceptions is their subconscious frame of reference when assessing Chinese officials. Senior executives of multinational companies tend to have pre-conceived notions of China as just another developing country, and thus evaluate Chinese officials by comparing them with those in other developing countries.

This unwitting comparison usually comes out in favor of Chinese officials, who are, as a group, better educated, more cosmopolitan, and more focused on business (because the ruling Communist Party uses economic growth and foreign investment as criteria for promoting officials). And, as an organization, the Chinese state is far stronger and more purposive than states are in more typical developing countries.

But, while it may be natural for Western businessmen to compare China with other developing countries, Chinese citizens have much higher standards, because they do not regard theirs as just another developing country. They view China as special, a re-emerging great power bound to join the ranks of the world’s most advanced countries, and the governance practices that their newspapers cite as models are invariably those of rich societies, not developing ones. Indeed, one sure way to insult the Chinese is to tell them they should feel lucky, because they have a better government than the Indians or Brazilians.

A third reason why Western businessmen get China wrong is that their admiration of the Chinese government is a reflection of their frustrations with their own governments. They have grown impatient with the messiness of the democratic process, stifling regulations, high taxes, and media scrutiny. By contrast, in China’s one-party state, they find it is easier to do business with officials who can make quick decisions and implement them almost instantly.

Of course, sometimes these executives do miss the rule of law that prevails in the West. But, compared with Chinese private entrepreneurs, representatives of large Western firms are a privileged group, and are not victimized as frequently by official corruption. As a result, they have little direct appreciation of the worst aspect of one-party rule: a rapacious, legally unrestrained elite.

The most regrettable aspect of Western executives’ misconceptions of the Chinese government is that they are likely to persist, at least among those who have no direct experience with the dark side of the Chinese state. They are successful, intelligent, and have a high degree of confidence in their political judgment. Moreover, Western corporations are hierarchical and autocratic, similar to the Chinese one-party state, so senior executives’ errors of judgment are rarely challenged directly by their underlings.

That is a real pity. Few Western executives understand the political consequences of their misperceptions. Their praise of Chinese officials’ quality and effectiveness is often held up by the Communist Party as an international endorsement of its policies and legitimacy – even if ordinary Chinese know otherwise.

Read more from our "China in Transition" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    George F. Kennan, an American diplomat, historian and political scientist, came to Japan in 1964. He said that Chinese politicians, officials and diplomats are very refined in their speech and manners but that we should not allow ourselves to be deceived by that. One such case of a highly intellectual and intelligent Westerner being fooled was a British philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell.

    If we read only a few books of Chinese history, we will have some good understanding or at least a good feel of China, its society and politics. It is as if China today is the replica of dynasties that rose and fell, and rose and fell. Gigantic political power in the hands of the elite, gigantic authoritarianism, gigantic ideology, gigantic lies, gigantic corruption, gigantic disorder...

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