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Tom Doctoroff

Tom Doctoroff

Posted: July 17, 2008 08:57 PM

The China Code: From Robotic Depersonalization to Epic Ambition


When 500,000 foreign visitors descend on Beijing during the Olympics, they will roam about a land that both inspires and frustrates. Their emotions will likely swing from admiration and awe to rage and then back again. They will experience a kaleidoscope of contrasts -- some maddening, others glorious -- that disorient and confuse. But a basic appreciation for China's fundamentally different world view can help make sense of it all. How do we explain the co-existence of the a magnificent new Beijing airport, star-reaching athletes, economic resurgence and the genuine warmth of Everyman with loud burping in public, stone-faced Apparatchiks, Draconian visa regulations and surface-to-air missiles surrounding the Olympic stadium?

The dichotomy, in fact, makes sense.

Chinese are not one-dimensional. They are conflicted -- to Westerners, seemingly bi-polar -- Confucians. They want to both protect themselves within a regimented social structure but, at the same time, move forward to achieve greatness. Depending on whether one's immediate circumstances are safe, dangerous or somewhere in between, he will behave differently. It's a continuum, from cocooned immobilization to bold ambition. What follows are are twelve distinctly Chinese behavioral characteristics that run a gamut from ultra-rigid to ultra progressive. (A priori apologies for making sweeping generalizations.) They are, in brief:

1. Ritualistic Observation: We often believe Chinese are superstitious, their rituals irrational. Why do such smart people talk so much about lucky numbers, amulets and feng shui? But, to the Han, all this is perfectly logical. Every so-called superstition preserves or extends natural order. The most rudimentary Confucian imperative is that of "li," or "ritual," pre-cognitive subservience to a prescribed natural order that manifests itself in automatically conditioned behavior. No matter how modern, Chinese are instinctively obedient to Spring Festival rituals - i.e., the New Year, the most important time marker. No sweeping; no washing hair; no vulgar language. If the family is not reunited, heavenly mandate has been violated. Tomb sweeping festival must be observed, lest omnipresent ancestor ghosts howl. Even if liberated by an American Express corporate card, every Chinese is ceremonially correct during important life junctures - new job, marriage, birth and death.

2. Robotic Depersonalization: Why do Chinese cut in lines without even a hint of embarrassment, belch in crowded auditoriums, or urinate against the walls of lovely buildings while passers-by look straight ahead? Why are their apartment complexes such Orwellian nightmares, identical mammoth eyesores that go on for miles and miles? Why are passengers herded onto airplanes and the forced to wait hours on end before air traffic control authorizes take off? Why is customer service, except in the toniest venues, an blank-faced oxymoron? The frequent -- but certainly not universal -- absence of civility is rooted in a primal belief that people you don't know are dangerous. This is the country's most anger-inducing trait. It's a baseline default mechanism, triggered by the absence of opportunity or even the most modest advancement.

3. Hierarchical Regimentation: Adherence to secular hierarchy is the first, and most fundamental, imperative consciously accepted by all Chinese. Hierarchy is everywhere: within the family, father always knows best; in schools and universities, teachers brook no dissent. Even Buddhism has been "corrupted" to conform to China's regimentation instinct. There are more Buddhas than summer fire flies, each with his own rank and power. But the Chinese are not imprisoned by hierarchy; in a sense, it liberates them, providing enough security to advance within it. Hierarchical clarity is the starting line of forward momentum. The rules of progress are crystal clear, inculcated from birth. The journey of success is a scaled ladder. Progress is achieved by mastering convention.

4. Anxious Self-protection: Hierarchical societies are, in some ways, safe. They ensure order and lessen the guesswork required to maintain smooth interaction. Given a dangerous world, Chinese protect themselves, vigilant to threats beyond the horizon or behind one's back. No one takes physical safety for granted (which is why the nation will rally to defeat bird flu, SARS and any other virus), everyone is suspicious of unfamiliar people (which is why the Chinese won't initiate conversations on airplanes) and, while the new generation is optimistic, no one has faith in the future (which is why Chinese will always save more money than Americans and even the most rational engineer trots to the fortune teller every six months, more frequently than he visits the dentist).

5. Trust Facilitation: China lacks institutions that protect individual interests. It is a dog-eat-dog society with 10,000 executions and 110,000 highway deaths every year; trust facilitation, therefore, is a key element of social intercourse. Gifts are not bribes; they are trust enablers. Chinese men don't like alcohol but they love drinking games, which lubricate trust by easing the sharing of "real feelings." Titanic was a huge hit in China largely because Leonardo DiCaprio's smooth features conveyed his true passion for Kate Winslett. The Chinese detect microscopic trustworthiness clues; when a Chinese feels safe, he will begin to forge his life path.

6. Pragmatic Elasticity:
Once the coast is clear, denizens of the Middle Kingdom are spectacularly pragmatic. Their elasticity can be both awe-inspiring and disconcerting. In an "ambitiously regimented" society, clever resourcefulness is the most prized personality attribute. Everyone charges ahead while managing to abide by social convention. Barriers are everywhere - life is a game of dodge ball -- but the successful evade them. Culturally, foreign influences are tolerated - even embraced - if they serve Chinese interests. The Han even accepted "barbarian dynasties" as long as governance was rooted in Confucian stricture. When Starbucks opened in the Forbidden City, the nation was not offended; it applauded a savvy integration of East and West -- until, that is, the nationalistic blososphere fringe started making noises.

7. Incremental Progression: Once trust has been established and the landscape has been surveyed for pitfalls and opportunity, the Chinese are ready to start moving. Forward progression is meticulously charted and always incremental, not "breakthrough." (The Mandarin word for "breakthrough" is tu pou, or "penetrate barrier," already conveying a hint of the forbidden.) China's universe is a rotating crystal palace in danger of shattering. Today, entrepreneurialism has complicated matters, but men still progress with precision through key life markers - buy an apartment by the age of 28, get married by 35 - and any deviation from this trajectory is suspect. Political transitions and currency appreciations are similarly choreographed, and even medicine must relieve symptoms incrementally.

8. Released Repression:
Incremental progression, while productive, happens within regimented social and political hierarchies. While the New Generation has more opportunity than at any time in China's history, in a Confucian society, individual expression is forever taboo. So youth, are drawn to activities that channel stifled ambition: voodoo dolls are all the rage; video-games are much more violent in China (and Korea) than in the U.S. and Europe; titles such as "War of Worlds" flood large cities and small towns. Aggressive discharges, while occasionally hostile, are rarely rebellious and never challenge the system, the stability of which is essential for pressing forward in the first place. Innocuous, calming oases of relief for pent-up anger are ubiquitous: massage, spas and karaoke parlors, both PG-13 and X-rated, are everywhere, as are old-style, sofas with huge cushions.

9. Confidence Projection: Once a Chinese starts to move forward, however incrementally, he must display progress to both himself and society. In a culture where anti-individualism reigns, self-esteem is inextricably linked to external acknowledgement. Success is not "real" until other people recognize gains, so every Chinese flaunts triumph. Those with less experience - i.e., new players desperate to move ahead - do it gaudily, blazing bat signals in the sky. With names like "Build the Country," "Glorious Universe" or "Brilliant Warrior," guys do not walk. They swagger, with one arm weighed down by a gold watch. Pride is directly correlated to office size. Big bosses love to give tours of their lair, including private bathrooms and me-with-Ministers-XY&Z photos. The working class also needs to project status. Since I am a foreign CEO, my driver ranks pretty high in the chauffeur pecking order. The brand of the company car matters seems matter more than his marriage.

10. Epic Ambition: Once the launching pad has been cleared of debris, the Chinese prepare for take off. An explosion of new opportunity plus age old Confucian drive has created the most aggressive nation in history. The Chinese will stop at nothing to get ahead. Parents, particularly since the single child policy, lavish princely sums on the little emperor who is half toddler, half long-term investment. One magnet school recently advertised "MBA training" for three year olds. The "Win!" ethic is internalized by adolescence, job hopping is endemic by 25. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are lionized only for grabbing, not going for, the gold. Even on the road, competition is fierce. In any city, crossing the street is a death trek. Drivers honk and weak, careening around corners, flooring the pedal to beat yellow lights. Pedestrian right of way is a theoretical abstraction. It's a dog eat dog world. Everyone wants to "get there first."

11. Scaled Mobilization: Scaled mobilization - individual ambition aggregated on a national level -- is perhaps China's greatest competitive advantage. Throughout history - from the (re)building of the Great Wall and Grand Canal to today's Herculean Olympic project - the country knows how to amass great resources for the collective good. With the fear of chaos always looming in the background, they are willing to embrace a strong central government. For them the choice is stark: a strong, ordered, authoritarian China, managed by a legion of technocratic engineers, or implosion. The nation serves as surrogate identity for the striver who, on a daily basis, is forced to march in line. (This explains the virulently nationalistic reaction to the pro-Tibetan demonstrations that took place in the West.)

12. Joyful Celebration: When safety is assured and progress is real, China lets the good times roll with gusto. When the PRC landed the Olympics, the entire country erupted with glee. The flipside of an insecurity-based world view is appreciation of minutae. Small-scale twinkles are as glorious as fireworks. Parks are full of happiness. Old men bond with their chess-playing buddies, laughter spreading over nothing in particular. Boyfriends and girlfriends embrace, unconcerned by the gazes of passers-by. The bionic click-clack of mahjong tiles, muted by the buzz of gossip, is a cacophonous delight. A midnight bowl of noodles can beat sex. (Chinese almost prefer eating to making love.) The blogosphere is irrationally exuberant. Friday afternoon's milk tea break is genuinely appreciated.

So there are two Chinas, Rising China and Falling China. The latter is scarred by blank faces, passive aggressive resistance, numbers on name tags, automated elevator greetings, horrifying provincial airports where the concept of "the customer" simply does not exist and unreformed SOEs, kept on life support by expiring state organs. The former is wonderfully alive, expressive, fun, funny and filled with spunk. It's "modern" China. It's the PRC of advertising agencies, Shenzhen entrepreneurialism, intellectually aggressive think tanks, high-tech resourcefulness and ambitious climbing up value chains and, yes, a forward thinking central government.

The whole world will be watching China this summer. Let' s hope we finally open our eyes and begin to make sense of it.


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