The Chinese Character Part Three: Work, Family and Country


So the next installment is to talk about the Chinese family and work ethics and then the difference between China, Hong Kong and Taiwan in these troubled modern times.  These answers can all be summarized fairly quickly, so here goes.  You must listen to and look after your family at all costs.  This especially means you must add your own children to the family.   Secondly, you must be at work for as long as feasibly possible on any given day.  If you can be there longer than that, then you should.   Next, Hong Kong is an outpost of English Chinese people and Taiwan is an outpost of American Chinese people.  Allow me to go into this a bit more to put all of this into some context for you.

The Chinese work ethic is famous worldwide already; falling fairly under the ‘good fortune’ philosophical mainstay.  Seeing some particulars on how it works in the homeland was quite interesting, everyone really wants an office job, but its not anything to do with the work.  It really doesn’t matter.  The competition in the office job is who can sit at their desk longest on a daily basis.  You could be doing nothing at all, surfing the web, sorting the same paperwork a thousand times, it also doesn’t matter.  You just have to be there and be seen to be there longer than everyone else.  Since the idea of a true meritocracy flies in the face of the guanxi principle we’ve already seen, I can tell you which is in active operation; guanxi wins every time.  So if you get noticed for always being at work, you become a ‘good worker’, if someone higher up labels you so, then your guanxi status improves.  Everyone else wants to know you and hopes for the same labeling, so they can increase their guanxi stakeholding.

The idea of individuals actually doing the best job in the shortest time simply never occurs to anyone.  Why would you do that?  Many people are paid by the hour, so why finish work quickly?  Even when you’re on a salary, promotions are a hundred times more likely to come from guanxi connections than actual talent; so again, why bother?  The thing you want to spend your time doing is cultivating your guanxi connections in any way you can.  The first way to do that is by hanging around at work longer than anyone and trying to get noticed for doing it. Managing to do favours for people in higher positions is pure gold, your real aim at work is guanxi status, not actual work.

So is guanxi another name for corruption?  Well, yes, in many ways it is.  This is a huge mechanism for corruption and nepotism, hard cash is the other most common means to achieving your ends.  However, since your average chinese citizen simply doesn’t have that much hard cash, guanxi is easily more common.  I remember reading a fascinating story in a chinese news publication that kind of ties a lot of these ideas together.  So the first thing you need to know is that technically prostitution and brothels are illegal in China.  So when a medium ranking public servant walks out of a brothel into the arms of two undercover police officers, an interesting situation occurs.  They agree to let him go if he pays a ‘fine’ (bribe) of 5000 kuai (just over AUD$900).  He manages to bargain the ‘fine’ down to 2300 kuai; demonstrating the chinese bargaining instinct hard at work.  He then calls a friend of his who has the money to come and bail him out.  The friend arrives and after some further confrontation, it turns out the ‘police officers’ are just a pair of guys trying to make some quick cash.  There’s a scuffle and everyone separates with no money changing hands.  The friend turns out to work for the police and quickly recognised the criminals.  In all of that we see corruption working at a couple of levels, firstly everyone knows its illegal to visit prostitutes, but its very common to do so.  The criminals recognise this as nobody wants to be officially punished for visiting a prostitute and will pay moeny or favours to escape it.  If you are officially punished you lose a lot of your personal face and guanxi as well – people dont want to be associated with a criminal.  He uses his own guanxi to escape punishment, firstly with money and secondly with his connection to a police officer.  Either way he knows he’s safe from real punishment.

So by this time you’re probably thinking how damn backwards they are for still behaving like this.  You’d be wrong.  The overall behaviour is largely identical to corporate behaviour worldwide.  Anyone who’s worked for a multinational, or just a very large company, should recognize everything I just described.  Playing golf with the boss, cultivating a group of influential friends you have coffee, lunch or beers with or just flirting with all the boss’s secretaries to get better access to the decision makers.  So what am I saying?  That the Chinese people operate on a cultural basis like one enormous corporate entity? Yup.  Some people from every country work this way, here it forms the basis of shared understanding of life for everyone.  Guanxi makes life a corporate challenge.

So even people who don’t work in an office environment follow the rules.  From street hawkers to builders, bus drivers to tourist site workers, life follows the same pattern.  Everyone understands it and follows it relentlessly. In fact, following the plan particularly relentlessly will earn you respect and further guanxi.  So what is the plan exactly?  You have to take every opportunity afforded you by your family to apply the principles of good fortune and good health to yourself and your children.  Family is still king, the family unit is extensive and normally strong, but is a changing form in the aftermath of the single child policy.  Instead of also competing with a host of brothers and sisters for family favours, it’s very common for the only child to have been endowed with anything that the family could provide.  This will be the best education they can afford, connections with the best other families that they know for marriage partners and all the support they can give.

The pressure to be married and raising children is still enormous and only grows with age.  To be unmarried at the age of thirty is considered a family tragedy, doubly so if you’re a woman.  The curious thing is I met quite a few unmarried people in their mid to late twenties who had no particular plans on marriage or children for years.  The problem for the family is this child knows they are the only way the family can continue, so they can do as they damn well please.  This is one facet of what I hear they call ‘little emperor syndrome’.  The second facet is about the status of women in society.  Since most families preferred to have boys as their only child (and would do pretty well anything to ensure this), the result is that today there are too many men in the community competing for the attention of the women.  The women know this and have high requirements for any potential partner.  Good job, good family, good fortune, good health.  So the system is driven even harder for men now.

Now all of those comments about family and the single child policy only apply strongly to the city dwellers.  These are the people who have a higher chance for receiving a good education and the opportunity to find jobs that pay well.  The country Chinese people have a different fate.  Apparently the single child policy wasn’t enforced so strenuously out there, so many of the old rules still apply.  The difference between country and city dwellers is one of money and opportunity, which explains why urbanization is happening at an incredible rate.  I, however, spent little time talking to people from these regions, since I can’t speak Chinese.  The vast majority of locals I met and spoke with were from the privileged educated middle classes, so you should take that into account with everything I’m saying.

So back to the question of Hong Kong and Taiwanese culture.  In Hong Kong most people have British English accents and a largely English outlook on the world that is layered over the first two parts of this series of posting.  They’re cynical, very aware of the global community and constantly operating with the knowledge that the existence of Hong Kong as a financial giant is limited.  After I’d being in Shanghai, which feels like a young man just turning twenty, filled with energy and opportunity; Hong Kong feels like a middle aged man.  The pace is slower, but more refined.  The Chinese government has signed the death warrant with the phenomenal development of Shanghai as the new financial heartland of the Eastern world.  Whether you think it is now, or will be in ten or twenty years, we can all see the inevitability of it.  So what’s the point of keeping a hold of Hong Kong?  My main suspicion is the Chinese government have used Hong Kong as a living experiment to learn from.  They’ve learned about global business, global trading and how to make the whole thing work from an office in the middle of south east asia.  They’ve learned first hand how the British were making the place so astonishingly successful.  Now they’re finishing the learning phase and heavily applying it to Shanghai.  Been nice knowing you Hong Kong.

I was informed by a few people that I might have trouble getting work teaching English in Taiwan.  The problem is my accent is all wrong.  Not American enough.  Perhaps if I worked on sounding more American I’d have a chance.  In mainland china the requirement to teach English is to have white skin.  This means that vast majority of English teachers I met in China were not native speakers, rather Europeans enjoying a working holiday.  In any case, Taiwan’s status as an American outpost is everywhere.  Hallowe’en and thanksgiving are well known, Christmas is celebrated in exactly the same frenzy of commercialized bollocks.  The Americans aimed to have buffer states around China and all I can say is ‘mission successful’.  This isn’t to say that I don’t like the Taiwanese people, on the contrary, they’re my favourite Chinese subculture.  They don’t have the naivety of the mainland Chinese when it comes to believing the media and they don’t have the intensity of the pursuit of money that I found in Hong Kong.

They are very globally aware and a lot more relaxed than the mainlanders.  The pace of life just doesn’t have the frenetic desperation of the permanent pursuit of good fortune.  The quality of life is good and they know it.    They’re very familiar with foreigners visiting the country, especially Americans, so foreigners hold no special status.  In mainland China there were many times when I’d be stared at in curious amazement by older people.  Chinese mainland women who could speak English would make a point of talking to me almost anywhere.  Many Chinese women want a foreign husband, mostly ‘good fortune’, but white skin is a huge requirement – its considered very attractive.  However, in Taiwan, you’re just another person.

One of the most consistent conversations that came up while I was in the country was how long it would be before they reunified with mainland China.  Estimates ranged from five years to twenty five years.  I think ten to fifteen years is the mark.  There’s some hints the government is moving that way, they’re starting to change the English versions on signs everywhere to use only pinyin – the mainland standard.  They’re also looking to shift to using the simplified Chinese characters the mainland adopted some time ago.  Things that used to be a sign of Taiwanese independence are now slipping away as an impediment to progress.  A couple of people commented they’re really waiting for the older generation to die or relinquish their jobs and influence.  Once mainland China’s feet are firmly planted as the economic heartland, the Taiwanese people will follow the call.  After all, at the end of the day, it’s a move for good fortune.


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