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China in the Newspaper

Coming back from our holidays in China, I found a pile of unread newspapers. I was curious to find out what these papers would have told the Dutch reader about the country where we had been travelling. Here is the result.

1 China produces dangerous articles of low quality

The most important stories were about toys containing poison and the responsible owner who committed suicide. The quality of exports must be improved, says the government.

2 Basic Human Rights are still not guaranteed in China

Anomymous blogging is forbidden. One of the scarce opportunities of free speech is now blocked. Protest movements are repressed in the wake of the Olympic games. Slave labour exists in China. The Communist Party accepts no open criticism.

3 Corruption is a serious problem in China

Death penalty me be an effective answer to this problem, according to the government.

4 Chinese must learn to behave in a civilised way

Spitting is forbidden in Beijjing now.

5 Environmental pollution is a major…

Culture or Economic Development?

My blog on uncivilised behaviour in China led to many reactions. Many people recognised the reality of uncivilised behaviour, some people found my explanation very sophisticated, but some doubted if I had really understood the phenomenon using the abstract variables of power distance and collectivism (in combination: vertical collectivism).
I also began to doubt my own explanation, when people pointed at our own past. Not long - say 40 or 50 years - ago spitting on the streets, fighting for a place in public transport and other forms of 'rude' behaviour were quite normal in the Netherlands, some older people told me. A person from China, who now lives in the the United States, agreed with my analysis but emphasised the economic dimension that was lacking in my analysis. Many things are simply scarce in China and that is the cause of the competition. Underground trains in Beijing and Shanghai are full most of the time and getting a seat is not easy. The same is true for a plac…

Why do many Chinese behave so badly?

Seventeen days in China, travelling with my family as a tourist, have shown a lot of 'Chinese culture', not only in the sense of beautiful Taoist and Buddhist temples, impressive buildings and statues from the imperial past and the subtle beauty if Chinese calligraphy, but also in the form of the behaviour of the Chinese in public places. This behaviour often shows us the less attractive side of Chinese culture, which to the Western eye seems to be based on a lack of respect for other people and a total neglect of rules of civilised conduct. It is difficult to understand, since it contrasts with the high degree of self-control, respect and subtle ritual that foreigners observe in their contacts with Chinese business people and public officials. Saving and giving face, making the other person feel comfortable, modesty and avoidance of confrontational behaviour and rude language seem to be the rule in this sort of situations. However, once you have met Chinese people in public p…

Reflections on Yemeni culture

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Ten days of teaching Organisational Behaviour in Yemen provided me with a lot of impressions that were in some way related to 'Arab' or 'Yemeni' culture. If we look at Hofstede's dimensions, the Arab world is often seen as
- high power distance
- low individualism
- high uncertainty avoiding
- rather masculin.


These easy labels do not tell too much about the culture though. China, for example, has comparable scores. Yet, teaching in Yemen was much easier for me than in China. Why?

There are at least two reasons. First, Chinese culture and Arab culture differ on dimensions not accounted for in the Hofstede model. Second, the same dimension means different things in different cultures, so similarity of scores does not tell us the whole story.

Let us begin with a dimension that we do not see in Hofstede's model, expressive versus reserved, also called neutral versus emotional or affective versus neutral. Looking at the data of Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner, we see Musl…

Global Management: a Clash of Cultures?

It was in the late 1980s, when I heard the old sociologist Norbert Elias (1897-1990) present a lecture about global civilisation and national identities. He explained that the growing nationalism and tribalism in parts of the world like Africa was an expression of a global civilisation process, in which nation states were increasingly becoming obsolete as cultural and political units. So the growing emphasis on regional, national and tribal cultures should be seen as a rearguard action of groups who try to cling to a cultural past in their quest for identity in an increasingly global world. This idea came to my mind when I was reading about the globalisation of management. There is a tension between ideas of ‘globalisation’ and ‘localisation’. On the one hand management is becoming uniform across the globe, and on the other we see how management practices continue to be rooted in local cultures. Managers are told to learn about other cultures and to adapt their management tools and ma…

Is Culture a Dangerous Concept?

Culture has become a very popular word. When cooperation is bad, we assume cultural differences. When we feel threatened by the power of others, we emphasise our cultural identity. When business negotiations in China fail, it is their culture that made us lose the deal and problems in mergers between companies are the consequence of a failing cultural integration process. Culture explains everything.

The problem of this popular use of the term 'culture' is its highly defensive nature. By blaming the culture, we do not have to take the responsibilty for the conflicts we engage in, the mistakes we make in negotiations and our inability to merge two companies into a new organisation. Culture is to blame.

But what is culture? Is it some solid thing that obstructs our path? Can it be seen? Can it be destroyed or changed? There are no simple answers to such questions, but it is evident that culture - in the form of concepts, rules, recipes, ideas - does shape what people (are able to…

Chinezen kijken (Chinese-watching)

Bespreking van

Bettine Vriesekoop, Bij de Chinees: Gewoonten en Gebruiken in China, Amsterdam: Thomas Rap, 2006.

Toen Bettine Vriesekoop in 1981 voor het eerst in China kwam om daar van de Chinezen nog beter te leren tafeltennissen dan zij al deed, viel ze van de ene verbazing in de andere. Vaak voelde zij zich er niet op haar gemak en volledig op zichzelf teruggeworpen. Zij had ontdekt dat China een moeilijk land was voor een Hollander, Europeaan, Westerling. Het land bleef haar echter fascineren. Zij ging Chinees studeren, ging er later als correspondent van NRC-Handelsblad zelfs wonen.

In 'Bij de Chinees' laat ze de lezer delen in het inzicht dat zij inmiddels in het gedrag van de Chinezen heeft ontwikkeld. Daarbij combineert ze haar eigen ervaringen van meer dan twintig jaar geleden met haar recente ervaringen, interviews met Nederlandse zakenlieden en inzichten uit de Chinese filosofie. Deze combinatie, luchtig gestructureerd rondom acht thema's - acht omdat dit in Chi…

Chinese Culture

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Is China a Collectivist Country?

One of the standard images of the difference between 'Western' culture and 'Chinese' culture is in terms of the dimension collectivism-individualism. The Netherlands would be highly individualistic in these terms and China would be collectivistic. On the basis of this difference it has often been predicted that Chinese will be better team players and cooperate in groups more easily than the Dutch, the Swedes, the Americans. From my own observation, this is not true. (See also http://www.cbiz.cn/NEWS/showarticle.asp?id=2227)
What we often see in Chinese groups - in school, in business - is a very high level of competition between individuals. We also see a a lot of opportunism and low trust. It seems as if each individual person wants to become number one, a process that blocks open communication and cooperation. This very individualistic behaviour seems to be linked to the special type of collectivism in China, sometimes labeled 've…