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Readings and other Conversations

Over the last month in Shenzhen not only have I been blessed to have a very cooperative and generous host company allow me to observe their daily work, but I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to interview another 15-20 individuals, foreign and Chinese, about their own personal experiences with Chinese Business Culture (中华企业文化). People have literally given me hours of their time and shared personal and professional insights that I never would have considered on my own.

I’ll share a couple of their insights from others, mingled with my own analysis.

On Govt. Chinese Engineer/Businessman, leading a publicly listed tech company.
You have to follow the money in China—and it’s all coming from the govt and being directed into specific places. The good part of this is that specific industry and sectors and regions that need help are targeted and develop faster then they otherwise would. The bad is that there are govt gatekeepers guarding the money (and making profit off of access) and that the there are limited funds in the economy for other developments. Uneven development, and over-interest in targeted sectors is the result. Corruption too.

On Chineseness. Taiwanese Businessman, working in a Chinese company (5+ years).
There is a certain cachet in being foreign in China—Taiwanese included. He can use his foreignness to get out of some difficult situations, but nothing like Westerners (occidentals) can. While he can get out some legal situations because it’s too much trouble for public employees to deal with a “foreigner,” at other times, especially in social situations (after hours work drinking activities) or informal business transactions (“gifts” to gain access) he is expected to be Chinese. Like a taxi drive told me yesterday, “You’re a foreigner, You just don’t get it.” I have a built in excuse for not participating in some activities. As a Taiwanese citizen of Chinese descent, he does not have the same degree of leeway.

On Tech. Ex-Chinese Military Engineer, leading a successful tech company.
Despite the fact that he’s spent his life in this company, he’s putting his money in foreign baskets—literally. He’s moved his family to the US and made sure that his investments and retirement are there too. He’s here to make money, but doesn’t expect this (the rapid growth of China) to last and is concerned about the instability and other issues here (pollution, corruption, censorship & control). He tells me that I don’t have any idea how deep the connections between the private sector and the military extend. Much of the tech industry in the country is originally “borrowed” from the West, improved and then re-copy righted (not new). But why it’s allowed, he says, is because it (“borrowing from the West) is supported by the govt so the tech can be sold back to the military via a vast network of related and intermediary companies.

On organizational culture and relationships. Chinese Educated Foreigner, working in a Chinese company (10+ years).
Rather than there being large differences in organizational structure here, this guy talked about how interpersonal relations color professional interactions here in significantly different ways. Ideas and methods for both dealing with relationships and problems are different—understanding what’s actually happening (vs what is being said) is the key to understanding Chinese corporate culture, he thinks. “Managers” are hired because they have connections and/or seniority, rather than professional skills. This works fine when they are in Chinese companies as the expectations are for them to “manage” relationships rather than “do” work. But foreign companies either don’t get the relationship management aspect of Chinese business or the need for “managers” to be hobnobbing with big-wigs more than creating spreadsheets. Conflict often ensues when expectations and reality do not align.

On Gender Roles. Foreign Professional Women, working in a Chinese company.
Chinese women’s’ social and professional roles in China are different from both Chinese men’s and Western women’s, even though Chinese women are now equally well educated and many have not taken time off for children (no career breaks). Even among women, the expectations for other women is different than what is expected of/for men. For example, she noted that Chinese women can be “cute” for much later in life than can a man—and that she doesn’t fit this ideal-type is noticeably off-putting to superiors. Dress and hobbies can be relatively less (relative to the West) mature for women without impacting their social status in a professional office. This extends to different standards for dress as well. While the white/blue dress shirt, slacks and leather belt/shoes/bag combo for men is almost mandatory, almost anything goes for women—from shorts, to mini-skirts, to prom dresses, to club-wear, to casual dresses—all are common office attire.

Two of my own thoughts

The fluidity of the Chinese individual amidst so much seeming chaos. People, traffic, calls, family, work, more people, constant WeChat conversations, and still more people makes business here seem to me to be more overwhelming and fast-paced than it was just a few years ago when I was here full time. The concentric focus of priorities (recognizing both where power/influence comes from and what can actually be controlled/accomplished) is emerging as a key to managing time, relationships/hierarchy, and responsibilities. Without the ability to actively ignore much of the chaos that surrounds individuals in China, I think that distraction and inefficiency would result.

Second, What are “Chinese values” today. This phrase is in the news almost daily. President XI mentions it all the time. Many think it’s the “cause” for Chinese business success (ironic since it was seen as the cause of China’s lack of economic success prior to the 80’s). It’s much easier, I think to list of what are not current Chinese values today than what are. If pressed, I can list off the traditional Confucian values of propriety, filial piety, thrift, patriarchy, and likely add in guanxi to manage external relations, as well as wuwie (or inaction) for dealing with conflict. But do those values resonate today? I’m seeing A LOT of change in current professional environments. How does conspicuous consumption fit into “Traditional Chinese Values?” How does the ubiquitous WeChat (distant and somewhat impersonal communications) mesh with the need for close interpersonal relationships? How has the population policies and increasingly western entertainment/professional environments affected the traditional family and persona roles?

If you want to comment, I’d love to hear from you—what do you think of Chinese Corporate Culture (中华企业文化)?

Reading Recommendations:
Since I’m here doing research I’ve had and increasing number of people ask me for book recommendations. I’m not always sure that what I’m reading is of much interest to others but in case it is, here is a list that I’ve started to put together after multiple requests over the last month. These are mostly books that I have remembered I really like or have used in my own research (as examples and/or sources).

Books about the Chinese Business Environment:
Capitalism with Chinese characteristics, Huang
Wealth into Power, Dickson
China’s Cooperative Capitalists, Dickson
Marketing Death, Chan
Capitalism without Democracy, Tsai
Factory Girls, Chang
Chinese Capitalisms, Chu

China history:
The Search for Modern China, Spence
Chinese Lessons, Pomfret
China: Fragile Superpower, Shirk
The Tian**men Papers, Liang, Nathan & Link
All 4 books by Peter Hessler (especially River Town)
China goes West, Backaler
China’s Second Continent, French
Age of Ambition, Osnos

Chinese Anthropology:
Chinese Modernity and the Individual Psyche, Kipnis
Social Connections in China, Gold
Anxious Wealth, Osburg (“real,” on the ground stories/experiences)
Chen Village, Chan (why I decided to study Chinese Anthro)
Gifts, Favors, and Banquettes, Yang (my favorite book on China)
Elite China, Lu
From the Soil, Fei
China’s Emerging Middle Class, Li

Other Social Sciency Stuff:
Golden Arches East, Watson
The Geography of Thought, Nisbett
Sacred High City, Sacred Low City, Heine (my FIU MA advisor)
You gotta have Wa, Whiting (baseball in Japan, a fun read)
Globalisation and Japanese Organizational culture, Mitchell
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn (social science theory)
The Constitution of Society, Giddens (social science theory)
Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk (Thailand), McDaniel
Impact of China’s Rise on the Mekong Region, Santasombat

You might also want to be listening to the Sincia Podcast (Supchina). Also, if these guys at Sinica and Caixin would put their business podcast on iTunes, I’d recommend that one too.

Fiction and US History (really the only things I make time for other than research and family are Triathlon training, the NBA, US history, Crime fiction, Chocolate, and documentaries):
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, Larsson
Anything by John Le Carre
The Monuments Men, Edsel
Lost in Shangri-la, Zuckoff
Unbroken, Hillenbrand
Team of Rivals, Goodwin
The Book of Basketball, Simmons
EVERYTHING! by David McCullough
Anything by Malcom Gladwell
Anything by Michael Lewis
Anything by Joseph J. Ellis
Alexander Hamilton, Chernow

ALL Documentaries by Ken Burns (new Vietnam doc coming out this summer)

Awfully Chocolate (dessert shop from Singapore, used to be in SZ, now 3 stores in HK and also GZ).

Current Summer Reading List (heavy on SEA):
Chinese Society in Thailand, Skinner (classic)
Chinese Encounters in Southeast Asia, Nyiri & Tan
The Overseas Chinese of Southeast Asia, Rae and Witzel
New Asian Emperors, Haley, Haley & Tan
Unlocking Leadership in Thailand, Roongrernsuke & Liefooghe
The Way Thais Lead, Persons
China’s Disruptors, Tse
Global Body shopping, Xiang