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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.