By Steve Kelman

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An aspect of Chinese culture you don't hear much about

Reading a recent article in the Financial Times of London on protests in China ("Unrest Escalates Over Development Site") reminded me of a big difference between Chinese and U.S./western European cultures that I don't think gets much attention in discussions of China.
The protests are about land sales to local real estate developers who bring big profits to government and party officials. What caught my eye is how police reacted to the protests, in many cases beating demonstrators with their bare hands.
It reminded me of a book I read last year about the famine in China at the time of the Great Leap Forward in the early 1960s. According to the book, village officials often beat peasants who weren't working hard enough, sometimes to death. But it also reminded me of other things I have learned about Chinese culture in recent years. There is virtually no Chinese student whom I have asked about this who does not report having been periodically beaten or hit by their parents when they were growing up. (Think of a more extreme version of the recent "Tiger Mom" book.) If you watch Chinese movies, people in authority are frequently seen screaming at underlings, or at a minimum speaking in what to Western ears at any rate sounds like a very gruff, impolite tone of voice. Many Chinese I know appear more or less terrified of their bosses.
There is some discussion in cross-cultural literature on organizations describing the Chinese work environment as a "high power distance" culture -- a fancy word meaning there is a big gap between bosses and subordinates in Chinese culture. But the undertones of violence seem to go beyond that.
I'm not sure if I'm right about what I'm saying. It's based on personal impressions, and it's not something that appears in the primers on Chinese culture to my knowledge. Any Chinese people or China experts want to comment on this? (For the benefit of any Chinese readers who might find the above to be perfectly normal and to wonder why I am writing about it, I will say that everything I describe above would be unusual in contemporary American culture.)
It is even more speculative to ask whether, if this is true, what implications it has for dealings between western countries/cultures and the Chinese government or businesses. At the risk of being on really thin ice here, I wonder if this implies some version of "weakness won't be appreciated" -- that is, that people expect leaders to be strong, and if you're not strong, people won't think you're a leader. Comments on this would be appreciated as well.

Posted on Sep 29, 2011 at 12:09 PM


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