Tuesday, 4 September 2007

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 problem

This problem is attracting attention because of the Olympics.

6 China's infrastructure has major weaknesses

Bridges are collapsing. Even during the building process (Fenghuang).

Nice selection! What does it show? The news seems to be a strange combination of the official news in the Chinese press - for example the stories about corruption, about civilised behaviour - and the themes that the West wishes to see, like human rights. In combination it gives a strange picture...

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 place at a university or a house. So objectively, there is more reason for competitive behaviour in these contexts.

So I may have 'over-culturalised' my explanation, a danger inherent in all cultural explanations of human behaviour. On the other hand I may have underestimated the effects of cultural change. Talking about the cultural value of modesty, which used to be expressed in standard reactions to praise in the Chinese language, like 'not at all' (哪里), 'you praise me too much' (过奖呢) and so on. This pattern seems to be disappearing quickly among young urban people. As my Chinese teacher told me, the standard reaction to praise tends to become 'yes I am the best' or at least 'thank you'. Self-denial is no longer the norm. This may of course lead to problems of anti-social behaviour if not balanced by a new (individualist) ethics.

Conclusion: the phenomenon is complex and there are more sides to it than a simple cultural explanation can possibly cover.

Monday, 20 August 2007

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 places, you are confronted with a completely different pattern. Take the behaviour of people in railway and underground (metro, subway) stations. There seems to be only one rule: try to get on the train before someone else gets a chance. It is based on a more general rule: you must defend your own interest by blocking others. You also see this in traffic, where everybody tries to move on at the expense of others. But it seems to go further: in schools and universities, students act on the premise that fellow students are always a potential threat, because they are only trying to get the position that your are fighting for. As a result, there is not much solidarity in the classroom; competition prevails.

This behaviour seems to be situation specific rather than a personal characteristic. I experienced this as a professor at a Chinese university. The students who invited me to ritualistic dinners with their subtle rules of etiquette, who did everything to make me feel comfortable, were the same people who in the context of the course showed a high degree of fraudulent behaviour to serve their own individual interests, like plagiarism. In fact, it was the same pattern as in the underground station: getting on the train at the expense of others.

This egoistic tendency in Chinese culture is difficult to understand for people from the West, who are educated in norms of civilised behaviour that stress 'being nice' to other people in situations like getting on trains and buses, studying in universities, buying things in shops. In vertical, hierarchical relationships, being nice to the subordinate seems to be an exception in China. You do not hear 'thank you' a lot from the powerful people. Being thankful seems to be reserved for the subordinate who must thank the boss... This may be a stereotype, but is was confirmed by one of our guides. She preferred Western tourists to the Chinese, because the former usually treated her as a human being, were friendly and open, whereas the latter saw her just as personnel. They had paid, and she had to do what they wanted. Chinese tourists did not easily open up, would not show their feelings.

Why do many Chinese show these behaviour patterns which in a Western eye often seem rude and uncivilised? You might interpret them as the consequence of 'anomic' social change: people are losing their old values under the influence of the market and Western individualism. Although, this may contain some truth, I believe that what seems to be rude and uncivilised conduct is in fact a consequence of ancient Chinese culture, rather than the effects of its degradation. The combination of high power distances and loyalty to the own in-group (family and friends) in Chinese culture explains a lot. This pattern, which can be summarised as 'vertical collectivism', excludes the idea of solidarity outside the family and it excludes relationships based on equality. First of all, this seems to imply that you distrust outsiders, and the norms of behaviour that apply to what you do inside your group do not apply to your dealings with the outside world. Other people are not really 'fellow men', they are a potential threat, or, at best, you may use them. We, as foreigners, are at the extreme end of the scale: Chinese people may not consider us as fellow men with whom you may build up solidarity. I often experienced this when Chinese people asked us to be photographed together with them: we are an interesting phenomenon, almost outside the world of (normal) humans... On the other hand, we are rich and generally taller than they are: this gives us some power, and power brings respect in China - it does not seem to work the other way around. Powerful strangers, that is what we are.

Inside the group - in the family, in the network of friends and business contacts - the Chinese seem to have strong ethical rules, often based on Confucian concepts of good relationships and authority. The powerful should not abuse his power, but must exercise his authority in accordance with the norms if respectful conduct. This difference between in-group and out-group exists everywhere of course, but is seems to be much more important in China than elsewhere. In public places you may observe what happens between people who are not in the same group, who do feel they should follow the rules of respectful behaviour inside the group. I observed conflicts on the street, and although my Chinese is not good enough to understand the - probably obscene and certainly offending - language that is being used, it is clear that conflict gets easily out of hand between strangers.

An important element in all this is the perception held by many Chinese that overpopulation is their major problem. There are just too many Chinese, and these 'too many' are of course not your own family or your own friends. It is all those anonymous people that you see on the street, in the railway station, on the labour market. These people want your house, your job, your income. This idea seems to be reinforced mechanisms of competition which are very old: in imperial times, the competitive system of examinations created the illusion that everyone could in principle become a public servant, but in reality only a very small group - with sufficient leisure time to invest in learning all the classical texts by heart - could really reach this level in society. Becoming successful meant being better than many others. You must work hard to get rid of them. This idea of competition is still reality, and has become increasingly important as China has been moving towards a market economy in which the egalitarian ideas of socialism cease to have a real meaning.

So, in this admittedly somewhat stereotyped view of Chinese culture, the causes of 'bad behaviour' lie in high power-distances, solidarity with the in-group and a high level of competition in society, reinforced by the idea of overpopulation. An interesting question is, of course, if this pattern will hold, if it will survive the changes taking place in Chinese society.

Change seems to be in the air. The Chinese government seem to be concerned about the public behaviour in the Chinese (see for example http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2006-10/09/content_704315.htm ) Traffic assistants have been appointed to teach the population the traffic rules, customs personnel learn to be friendly towards foreigners. The Olympic games stimulate a culture offensive, ranging from improving English translations in public buildings to discouraging spitting on the street. But more profound changes may be the consequence of pressures from the international economy. A number of problems with quality, including scandals over poisoned food and dangerous materials in toys, have uncovered a central problem in Chinese industry: a lack of consistent quality control along the value chain. Lack of trust and coordination among the various actors seems to be related to the specific combination of hierarchy an in-group mentality in Chinese business. For China to become a fully respected partner in the international business community, this pattern of group-centrism and irresponsible behaviour must change. In my view, it will happen, however, not because some foreigners like me think the Chinese are often behaving badly, but because the Chinese themselves develop a culture that is suited to deal with the complexities of modern life. Being nice to others, even if you don't know them, will probably be part of this culture.

Monday, 30 July 2007

Reflections on Yemeni culture

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 Muslim countries like Kuwait and Egypt at the extreme end: people show their emotions quite easily, or one could also say: find it hard to conceal them. China is at the other extreme. Holland is somewhere in the middle, but on the reserved side. I think the affective dimension of Yemeni culture made life easy for me: I could easily see how people felt and my experience in Italy in the past provided me with a model of how to deal with this affective culture. A complication in Yemen is the strict role division between men and women. I could only show my emotions directly to men, even touch them in conversations if needed.

Let's now come to the dimensions of Hofstede. High power distance, high uncertainty avoidance and low individualism lead to patterns of behaviour that are generally difficult for someone from an egalitarian, democratic, individualist country with somewhat more tolerance for uncertainty like the Netherlands. Also in the classroom you must expect the effect of these dimensions. Students will ask a lot of clarity and certainty from the teacher, depend on his guidance and show respect, at least in public. They will find it difficult to take responsibility for their own work, take initiative, criticise the teacher or even ask questions. That is the pattern I was quite used to by teaching in China. In Yemen it was different. The uncertainty avoidance was the same as in China: people need a lot of clear instructions to feel comfortable with the task. However, asking questions was much less of a problem here. Maybe this had to do with the quality of the students - these Yemeni students were quite good, certainly better than the MBA students I had taught in China - , but I suspect there is a different cultural attitude towards discussion and dialogue behind these differences. Knowledge has high authority in the Muslim world. This authority seems to be less personal than in China, where the teacher has a very high status. In the end, authority is derived from the authority of the text. The Qur'an (Koran) is the model. The text itself, directly communicated by God to the Prophet, has the authority, and not those who read the text. This emphasis on 'the word' which the Islam shares with the Jews and the Christians (especially Protestants), makes discussion on the correct interpretation of the word important. What I witnessed in class, seems to support this interpretation. The knowledge, not the teacher is at the center of the learning process and this makes it easier for me to teach in such an environment.
Nevertheless, high power distances are a reality in Yemeni society. In the family and clan based social structures of the Arab world, power relations seem to be relatively unstable, however, and constantly shifting. The idea of changing coalitions is central to the Arab view of power, which is quite different from the Confucian ideal of harmony in society by vertically structured roles and stable relationships. This well-known quote, often used in the Arab world expresses this idea of shifting alliances very well:

"I against my brother
I and my brother against our cousin
I, my brother and our cousin against the neighbors
All of us against the foreigner. "

The last sentence could be Confucian, but the first three sentences gives this its specific Arab flavour. In the Arab world, we do not find this emphasis on long hierarchies we find in China, but also in the Roman Catholic world. Instead the unstable nature of power struggles gets much attention. My experiences in Yemen confirm this image, although as an outsider I have not really experienced this aspect of society very directly.

Anyway, power distance as abstract variable refers to different realities. The same is true for uncertainty avoidance. We had interesting discussions about this concept in class. Yemeni people seem to accept a lot of risk and uncertainty in areas where we would panic. Take the traffic, where people do not drive according to the formal rules, but engage in an interactive game, in which the strongest often win, but everyone seems to accept the chaos as given. Likewise, the frequent black-outs in the electricity supply is accepted without much complaining. The typical word here is of course 'inshallah': if God permits. Some students saw this as uncertainty acceptance. I tend to see it as another dimension, which Hofstede does not mention: fatalism. Fatalism often goes together with a high degree of conservatism, a conviction that society will not change, whatever we do. The Islamic world seems to be high on this kind of conservatism, which is perfectly compatible with high uncertainty avoidance. I saw this uncertainty avoidance in class, in combination with the high power distance: students want to have unambiguous instructions, so that there wil be no surprises in the exam.

What the abstract dimensions do not catch is, of course, the content of the culture. Even if we are very different in terms of the Hofstede dimensions, the Protestant culture of Northern Europe and the Muslim culture of Yemen share many elements. First of all, we share the emphasis on the word, on text. Second, our religions have many concepts, stories and prophets in common. Based on the texts we share, we have a comparable monotheistc view of reality, allowing for only one set of values, quite differently from East Asian cultures in which multiple realities are accepted, like Yin-Yang thinking or different Gods in Hinduism. Of course, our histories have since long grown very far apart. Nevertheless, the commom roots make cross-cultural communication easy for whom takes the effort to see them.

Friday, 16 February 2007

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 management styles to the exigencies of the culture in which they operate. Culture is mostly understood as national culture or regional culture. The applied management literature likes generalisations: Asian culture, European culture, American culture. It also likes simple concepts and a limited number of dimensions, preferably in the form of dichotomies: ‘shame cultures’ versus ‘guilt cultures’, ‘uncertainty avoiding’ versus ‘uncertainty accepting’ cultures, ‘high-context’ versus ‘low-context’ cultures. Management researchers, consultants and trainers provide the international manager with an easy to use and simple frame of concepts to understand national differences.

Why so much attention given to national differences? Elias may have given the answer: national identities are increasingly becoming obsolete and this creates a situation in which people cling to their national identities, and emphasise cultural differences to create the cultural identities which are in fact becoming less clear every day. Managers who operate in this ‘global village’ increasingly find themselves in the company of people who were brought up in other parts of the world, were educated in different educational systems, maybe also look different in terms of physical appearance and clothing. However, they share many things, from organisational principles to accounting standards. This may be a confusing situation in which people may be tempted to create new cultural identities. Unintentionally, management consultants and business schools contribute to this process by offering crude generalisations of national cultural differences. Managers are given explanations for the difficulties they may experience in their contacts with ‘other cultures’, and they are provided with words to describe their own culture. So the confusing world of cross-cultural global management is reconstructed in familiar terms of the 19th century nation-state, where recognisable cultures belonged to ‘nations’ that coincide with the political unit of the state.

So what happens in management is comparable to what Elias saw in Africa: people use anachronistic images to interpret what is happening to them in this rapidly globalising world. Managers even get help here from management consultants and researchers who are working within this obsolete paradigm. This paradigm will not be very useful, however, to deal with a reality that cannot adequately be viewed in terms of a clash between national cultures. An alternative is needed.

For such an alternative, it may be useful for management to pay attention to the work of those sociologists who deal with the emerging ‘multicultural societies’, where, as a result of migration, people with diverse cultural roots (must) live together. The cultural problems of the multicultural society cannot be understood as a clash between static (national) cultures, like conflicts between Turkish and Dutch culture in Holland. To understand what happens between groups with various cultural backgrounds, we must understand the processes in which identities are constructed, how cultures change in this process, how the dynamics of processes of intercultural communication determines their outcomes. In an interesting chapter on cross-cultural communication, Shadid (1998) shows that current concepts of culture cannot deal adequately with cross-cultural communication in multicultural society, because cultures are defined in terms of national and regional differences and communication processes are completely explained by culture, without paying attention to the context and the persons involved. His alternative is an approach that focuses on how people construct culture in communication processes, in which unique persons are involved in a specific context, could be very useful for management. Managers in the global village are not fundamentally different from the multicultural population of Western Europe: they too are creating culture in communication processes with people with various cultural roots. If this becomes a ‘clash of cultures’ or something more creative, depends on how they define that situation! Consultants and researchers in international, cross-cultural management have the responsibility to contribute to a situation in which the construction of defensive and nostalgic identities can be avoided.


R. Shadid (1998), ‘Interculturele Communicatie’, in: Rinus Penninx, Henk Münstermann en Han Entzinger, Etnische minderheden en de multiculturele samenleving. Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff, 1998.

Saturday, 27 January 2007

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) do, whereas what people do with these elements in practical situations is not determined by them. People do have the freedom to interpret and change the rules of the game, but they cannot play without rules that are shared to a considerable extent. Culture is an indispensable resource to shape social interactions, which then also becomes a constraint or even a barrier to innovation. To paraphrase the social psychologist Karl Weick: people are like spiders who get stuck in webs of their own making.

So, culture is not just something in our heads that can be changed by thinking differently. It is a social phenomenon: in order to participate in a society you must use rules, concepts, language and so on in a way that others will understand. Culturally competent people know how to do this. This does not mean, however, they are culturally programmed, like a computer that passively uses the instructions of its software. The shared software of the human mind is constantly being rewritten by those who use it.

This brings us back to the 'reified', defensive idea of culture that is now so popular. This denies these processes of interpretation and redefinition in which people change the culture while they are using it to shape their interactions. It denies the degrees of freedom that people have in filling and expanding their cultural space. This can lead to destructive, even dangerous interpretations, including the inevitability of conflict and the impossibility of dialogue. Stereotypical interactions deny the role that people play in creating the cultural conflicts of which they are part and a view of 'culture as a solid thing' does not help to restore the responsibility of the actors for the situation in which they find themselves.

The failure of the 'multi-cultural society' of countries like the Netherlands seems to be related to this theme. The idea of a society consisting of neatly distinguishable 'cultures' with separate ethnic roots creates an illusion of solidity and permanence and reduces cross-cultural communication to communicating across solid walls which themselves are not debatable. While such a strategy of cultural apartheid could be a useful stage in development, it can lead to a dangerous reification of cultural identities. The same would apply to developing managers in global business: if each culture is seen as solid, unchangeable and distinct, cultural development is excluded.

So, we may conclude that culture can indeed be a dangerous concept, if it is coupled to a reifying view of social reality. Viewed differently, however, culture is a creative concept that can help people to find new productive human relationships and build new organisational forms. People from different cultural backgrounds have access to different bodies of 'cultural knowledge', including different sources of 'wisdom'. These resources can be used to create innovative rules of the game in cooperation in business and society. The focus of this cross-cultural cooperation should not be on cultural differences, but on solving problems of cooperation. Maybe the best way to transcend cultural differences is to stop talking about culture.

Thursday, 18 January 2007

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 China een geluksgetal is - van de Chinese cultuur en acht hoofdstukken van 'De Kunst van het Oorlogvoeren' van Sunzi, biedt de Nederlandse lezer een speelse introductie in de de Chinese cultuur en maatschappij. Daarbij komt heel veel aan de orde van waar iedere Nederlander vroeg of laat tegenaan loopt: de indirecte stijl van communiceren, het belang van ritueel en gezicht, de schijnbare tegenstrijdigheden in het handelen van de mensen en de eigenaardigheden van de taal.

In die zin is het boekje zeker geslaagd: het geeft de lezer alvast de ervaring die hij zelf ook zal krijgen als hij eenmaal met 'de Chinezen' te maken krijgt: de ergernis, de verwarring, de verwondering en heel soms ook de bewondering voor de vreemde cultuur. Daar ligt dan ook meteen de beperking. Het blijft in de meeste passages van het boek de typisch Hollandse waarneming van het vreemde, het exotische dat 'de Chinees' biedt. De Chinees is daarbij de afwijking van de norm en de (Hollandse) norm blijft een vanzelfsprekendheid. Het leuke van interculturele ontmoetingen is echter dat die ook kunnen aanzetten tot verwondering over de eigen cultuur: wat zijn wij Hollanders toch vreemde mensen! Een stap verder is dat je de stereotypen van 'de Hollander' of 'de Chinees' loslaat en toch weer mensen ziet, in plaats van vertegenwoordigers van een cultuur. Dat punt bereikt Bettine in haar boekje helaas bijna nergens. De pagina's staan vol met uitspraken over 'de Chinezen', en dan overwegend met de bijklank van 'die vreemde Chinezen'. De schaarse passages waar Bettine Vriesekoop over die grens heengaat en over concrete Chinezen schrijft met wie zij een relatie heeft opgebouwd, zijn daardoor meteen een stuk interessanter, zoals waar ze over haar trainster Liu schrijft. Dan gaat het boek over mensen in China, niet over 'de Chinees'.

De interviews met de Nederlandse zakenlieden in China zijn leuk om te lezen, zij het tamelijk oppervlakkig. Waar de auteur de wereld beschrijft die zij zelf bij uitstek kent, de sport, worden beschrijvingen levendiger en interessanter. Vooral de combinatie tussen de behendigheid in het spel, de beheersing van de eigen emoties en de manipulatie van de tegenstander worden overtuigend beschreven. Aan de lezer het oordeel of de toepassing van deze inzichten op andere gebieden, zoals zakelijke onderhandelingen, hout snijdt.

Monday, 1 January 2007

Chinese Culture

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 'vertical collectivism'. In school, in business, in sports, each individual represents his or her own family or group of friends. Loyalty is not primarily to the school, the business or the sports club, but to the own social circle. This pattern is very old: in Imperial China, the impersonal selection system for government jobs created a high degree of competition between families and individuals for the small amount of open positions. In principle, the system was always achievement-based: anyone, poor or rich, could become a civil servant. In practice only those with time to invest in study would have a real chance.

So, is China collectivist? Yes, in a special sense it is, but it combines loyalty to the ingroup with fierce competition and low trust vis-a-vis outsiders, resulting in something Westerners would rather see as individualist, opportunistic behaviour.

So, as Tony Fang from Stockholm university suggests, there are really two contrasting sides of Chinese culture, which are expressed in different contexts, and whose mutual relationship shows a yin-yang logic. On the one hand, there is the Confucian ethic, focusing on harmonious relationships inside the family, inside social groups. On the other hand there are ideas and principles which emphasise personal skill, energy, tactics to deal with opponents, like the Daoist (Taoist) tradition in martial arts, character writing and traditional health practices. Much of the Western literature about China seems to focus on the harmonious, collectivist and 'light' (yang), side of the culture. However, to understand the culture, we must pay attention to the 'dark' (yin) and hidden side of the culture, in personal manoeuvring, tactics and tricks.

A 'monocular' view of China as a collectivist country does not do justice to its 'binocular' culture, where everything can be seen from two points of view.