Our recent Plastics News China Forum in Chicago sparked some interesting discussion, especially on Harris & Moure PLLC's excellent China Law Blog Web site. In particular, reports of the comments made by our lead-off speaker, consultant Janet Carmosky, spurred lively debate, and merit some analysis here.
Carmosky, who runs the consulting business China Prospects Inc. in upstate New York, kicked off our conference with a talk on “understanding the Chinese mind-set.” She offered insights into why many Chinese think the way they do, and why so many Westerners misinterpret the actions of the Chinese, often with disastrous results.
While it is risky to generalize, Carmosky's credentials make her views worth listening to. She has straddled both cultures for two decades. A career China specialist who lived and worked in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Xi'an, China, from 1985-2003, she was married for 18 years to a Chinese CEO, and is fluent in Mandarin.
Carmosky makes no excuses for inappropriate behavior. She says “the Chinese can be infuriating,” and stresses, “I don't approve of or think we should put up with intellectual property theft, a second set of books, a secret shift or endemic kickbacks and bribery. I do not.” But, she continued, “I want us all as Americans to understand how everything works in China so we end up winning a little more, and losing our shirts and our patience a little less.”
She went on to offer what she termed “brutally honest” insights, based on what she has found to be consistent in the Chinese mind-set. Among these she emphasized the Chinese belief in the cyclic nature of time, which differs from most Westerners' more linear line of thinking. The prospect that “everything begins again tomorrow” helps explain why one needs to grab opportunity when it presents itself, perhaps even at the cost of previous agreements (or contracts).
She stressed that few Chinese operate independently, that they function within large, multipoint networks and trust only those who are part of their network and respected within it.
Perhaps partly for that reason, she says the Chinese currently see little value or benefit in transparency, and hence prefer to keep their thoughts and actions largely to themselves, except among close colleagues.
Perhaps her most controversial comments dealt not with her own beliefs but with her assessment of how many others perceive the Chinese: “As Americans, we tend to get very upset. We say that the Chinese lie, we say that the Chinese steal, and that they conceal information, and that they don't keep their word. And we see ourselves as being very ethical and moral people, and this infuriates us. We have a lot of trouble respecting people whose values aren't the same as ours.”
This set the China Law Blog alight, with a few careless readers posting comments attributing those assertions to Carmosky herself, and proclaiming how insulted they were that anyone would make such stereotypical generalizations. What wasn't initially reported was her follow-up comment.
“But,” she continued, “I would like to say right here that I have been treated ethically, with incredible consistency, by Chinese people my entire time there.” She went on to say that “ethical conduct is guaranteed” as long as you are a respected member of a relationship.
That, I think is pushing it. There are lying cheats here, there and everywhere — in business, government and elsewhere — and there is always the risk of someone breaking his word or taking advantage, no matter how respected you may be. But I take her point — that bringing something of value to the table, that respecting cultures and differences, that being flexible — is likely to gain you better treatment at the hands of the Chinese.
But what makes that unique to China? Being a valuable member in a network of business contacts has as much potential value in North America or elsewhere. Carmosky contends that differing philosophies of life and time cause many Chinese to believe that Americans are too rigid and simply detached from reality, since we fail to grasp that life is cyclic and fluid and changes from day to day.
For example: “Why do we think that a contract is the last word? … A contract is an articulation of the best understanding between the people who negotiated it at a certain point in time. Everything changes … [so] why do we think that that [a contract] solves everything?!”
Let's face it: As Westerners, we are mystified, and perhaps somewhat terrified, by this powerful land far away, with centuries of history and its 1.3 billion people communicating in an unintelligible (to most of us) language.
Carmosky makes this interesting point: “Americans are really out of our element when we go to a place that operates just fine without us. We fall for people who flatter us. We engage in wishful thinking, and we decide that the people we meet really are as competent and as powerful as they say they are.” Too often, she suggests, we just go with those people who are open to us, without fully exploring all options.
“The Chinese do business because they invented it.” To them, she suggests, “It's the ultimate sport.” And, on top of that, many Chinese think that Americans are spoiled, have had an easy time of it (relatively speaking, in the course of their history), and are overly impressed with themselves.
Given this context, it is easy to see how misunderstandings can occur, and how business relationships can flame out. Carmosky recommends taking time to “build a map of the people you plan to work with.” Try to find out who is in their network, who is respected, who really has power, what motivates them, who they are beholden to. Sort of like you would be wise to do with your future partners or customers in Chicago or Toronto, Mexico City or … you get the idea.
Robert Grace is editor, associate publisher and conference director of Plastics News. (Note: Download or listen to Janet Carmosky's 24-minute China Forum talk at www.plasticsnews.com/chinaforum/presentations, or read the entire thread of 50-plus posts on the topic by going to www.chinalawblog.com and searching the archives for “Chinese Mindset” to find Dan Harris' Nov. 16 posting.)