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 ) 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.