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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Explaining Chinese gracelessness towards strangers: (Marxist) Theory vs Chinese Culture and History

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see." - Arthur Schopenhauer


With regard to the case in China where a toddler was run over by vehicles twice and ignored by many passers-by, a Marxist perspective would have it that Capitalism is to blame, since it encourages the satisfaction of one's wants and needs at the expense of other people's.

A revised Marxist perspective might be that in a nouveau riche society, social norms and mores have yet to catch up with economic realities, so Capitalism's predatory impulses are unrestrained and run amok.

Yet, Theory divorced of context is unlikely to lead one to correct (or at least complete) conclusions. An understanding of Chinese history and culture must inform our analyses, and in this case they are at least of a similar magnitude of importance:

"Traditional Chinese society was fragmented by particularistìc loyalties to family, personal networks, and native-place. Several powerful ideological and political glues, however. had held Chinese state and society together: Confucianism, the state monarchy and bureaucracy. and the common classical language. With their demise in the early twentieth century, social and political fragmentation created a Chinese society that Sun Yat-sen described as a “sheet of loose sand.’ Rapid modern changes only exacerbated this fragmentation, not just in particular communities, but especially between communities that experienced change at different rates: urban and rural, core and periphery, eastern seaboard and hinterland. As the search for the modern identity of China intensified, the emergence of new social groups marked by their own self-conscious identities—military, youth, women, urban laborers—accentuated the pluralistic nature of early republican society and culture. Even the vaunted values of the May Fourth period—science and democracy—promoted analysis. differentiation, and diversity. not synthesis, similarity, and uniformity...

Many of the experiments to create [social] cohesion spawned instead greater fragmentation and disharmony... the establishment of communes during the Great Leap Forward offered to some the fantasy that the search for social cohesion had at last been realized. Instead that particular experiment led to disarray, chaos, and ultimately the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution...

Culture, ideology, and history made the relationship between the center and the localities a crucial challenge. With cultural emphasis on family and ancestors, personal networks, native-place, and local gods, the natural focus of Chinese civilization was the local. Studies have shown that local loyal ties and identities (such as native-place) were not always particularistic but might he transformed to higher-level loyalties and identities (such as nationalism). Nevertheless, these local foci always had the potential to remain primarily local and parochial. The locality had played an important role in Sun Yat-sen’s nation-building ideas to which the Guomindang had sworn allegiance...

Like the Guomindang regime in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Communist regime sought to sink its roots deeply into the Chinese political landscape. The Guomindang’s wards, townships, villages, urban neighborhoods, and baojia units never succeeded in serving as the territorial-administrative national building blocks. The Communist government formalized the work, education, and residence unit (danwei) to enforce surveillance, control, political conformity, and ideological correctness at the lowest level of the polity. As an arm of the stale, the danwei was most effective. Nevertheless, it flew in the face of the revolution’s general search for ways to broaden social identities into larger constructs that could contribute to building the nation. Far from fostering social cohesion, the danwei promoted social isolation."

--- The Search for Social Cohesion in China / R. Keith Schoppa in Historical perspectives on contemporary East Asia

"The sheng-jen (stranger or mere acquaintance) category includes all those with whom one has no prior or current interactions. They could include members of one’s local community, fellow employees in a large company, or customers of a business with whom one rarely interacts and with whom no other connection is shared. Interactions with sheng-jen, if any, are superficial and temporary and are dominated by utilitarian concerns, focusing on personal gains and losses. The defining characteristic of this relationship is instrumentality without affection, unlike the relationship with chia-jen, which involves primarily affection, or that with shou-jen, which has both an instrumental and an affective component."

--- Management and organizations in the Chinese context / J. T. Li, Anne S. Tsui, Elizabeth Weldon

Ed: According to The dynamics of guanxi in Chinese hightech firms: implications for knowledge management and decision making., in Hanyu Pinyin they are Qinren, shuren and shengren

So 亲人,熟人,生人.

"Most Chinese do not feel comfortable or knowledgeable about dealing with strangers. A similar observation is made by Wallach and Metcalf in how Americans perceive the Asians’ attitude and behavior:

They [Americans] interact with Asians socially as well as at work and find them to be among the kindest, most considerate, and polite people they have ever met. Then, they meet other Asians in a public situation (on a bus, driving in traffic, in the market) and see them as rude, impolite, and inconsiderate. They wonder how people from the same culture can behave so differently.

Wallach and Metcalf’s observation is similar to one of the puzzles we posed in the introduction—why Americans greet strangers on the street and the Chinese don’t.

While these observations are quite accurate and even insightful, they do not explain what the root cause for such attitude and behavior is. With our analysis of rule-based versus relation-based systems, it is now clear that a major cause for of Chinese clearly distinguishing “insiders” from “outsiders” is that in a relation-based governance environment, people do not need to deal with strangers.

What is behind the culture of excluding and thus ignoring strangers is the political and economic institutions that forced people and firms to rely on other people and firms with whom they have a ciose relationship to overcome the “institutional holes” in the legal system."

--- Managing International Business in Relation-Based Versus Rule-Based Countries / Li Shaomin Li

One could also look at the Peng Yu case to understand why no help was rendered in these circumstances, instead of blaming everything reflexively on Capitalism.
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