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Looking Out Airplane Windows In China Is For Grizzled Old China Hands ONLY

Posted in China Business

I did a post the other day, entitled, “Planes, Trains And Automobiles: The China Way,” extolling a James Fallows piece comparing “the Chinese way” with “the Japanese way.” Yesterday, I got a call from my friend and fellow Grinnell College alum, Paul Midler, who wanted to let me know he would be doing a post on his blog, The China Game, taking issue with Fallows. Midler’s post, entitled, “James Fallows Turns On His Television Set,” is now up and I am writing this post to take issue with it.

Real writers observe things others do not. Real writers see the same thing we all see and tell us about it in a way that makes us “see” it more clearly. Real writers tell us things we already knew but could not express. James Fallows is a real writer, yet despite this, or actually more likely because of this, Paul Midler does not like him writing about China. Writers say things I am thinking but have yet to crystallize or am incapable of conveying. Midler does not like writers, he only likes experts. Midler is of the view that only those who have lived in China forever should be writing on China:

James Fallows, the Atlantic Monthly reporter who recently moved to China, has written at his blog about how disorienting it can be to turn on the TV and find so many unfamiliar faces. Can it really be, he wonders, that the Chinese have their own TV stars?

Midler is apparently bothered by Fallows’ lack of Chinese sophistication, but I embrace it. I have never known Fallows to pitch himself as a China expert and I would be the first to agree he is not. But so what? We have plenty of so-called China experts writing on Chinese business, law, politics, culture, food, transportation, manufacturing, internet, marketing, schooling, healthcare, etc. Fallows writes about the China he sees and he does a damn fine job of it. The China Fallows sees is that of a writer clearly happy to be writing about one of the most exciting places on earth and his fresh perspective on it is both different from and an oftentimes welcome respite from the experts by which Midler swears.

Midler demands expertise, not just vision and creativity:

Dan Harris over at CLB waxed enthusiastic about a piece that might as well have been titled “James Fallows Looks Out His Airplane Window”. The journalist had the opportunity in Japan to watch while ground crew did a rather professional job of refueling an airplane on the tarmac, and he compared the experience with a much more haphazard refueling effort by workers at the airport in Changsha (they had to improvise in China with a siphon, presumably because the proper equipment was not available). Fallows summary on the differences between China and Japan:
“Japan is all about the way of doing things. Practice, ritual, perfectionism, as much fanatical attention to the process as to the result. China is all about finding a way to do things. Improvisation, little interest in rules, putting up with whatever is necessary to attain the result.”
The conclusion on China hardly squares with my own experiences in a country where at nearly every turn I am told that one thing or another must, or must not, be done because of a certain “guiding”, or rule. Luckily, though, we have Richard Spencer at The Daily Telegraph, who wrote an article titled, “Chinese Learn To Clap And Chant For Olympics”. In that one piece, he paints a curious piece that shows a country very much in love with rules. Nearly anyone who has lived in China for an extended period of time – Spencer has, Fallows has not – knows that the Chinese love protocol. I’m sure Fallows is a nice guy, but he’s not a China guy. He admits time and again that he is just getting his feel for the place. Many of his blog posts read like a letter sent home by a foreign exchange student. “I think I’m acclimating!” was the title of one recent post.

Fallows is writing on China as a newcomer, but newcomers too have a lot to say. I have learned as much about Seattle from my friends who come here from out of town than from my friends who have lived here forever. I remember when my kids were much younger and they would ask me questions or comment about everyday things of which I had simply been too unconcerned even to have noticed. Their childlike wonder of everything forced me to see old things again “for the first time.”

Sure, someone with the China experience of Midler may find little new in Fallows’ pieces, but there are countless millions of Westerners who have never once set foot anywhere in Asia and Fallows is writing for them too.
Midler seems to justify his attack on Fallows by quoting James McGregor (author of “One Billion Customers”) on how the Chinese “know more about us than we do about them” and because China “is such an important subject” we cannot leave it to the greenhorns. Midler is missing the point. First off, as someone who has represented Chinese companies trying to do business here in the United States, my sense is that American companies are much farther along in understanding the Chinese consumer than the reverse. This idea that only Americans are unsophisticated internationally is a myth. More importantly though, nobody is putting Fallows up as a Chinese expert and his lack of expertise should in no way detract from his observations. Yes, it would be great to have more “experts” telling us about China, but that certainly is no reason to have Fallows simply stop writing on it as well.

Because China is so huge and diverse and complicated and so difficult to know, we need various perspectives on it. Fallows’ article on the plane fueling and Midler’s reaction to it are the perfect proof of that. Midler claims China is very much a rule bound society and he presumes (without a scintilla of evidence) that the guy sucking fuel through a tube in Fallows’ piece did so because something had gone wrong, rather than as a matter of course:

Back to this plane refueling business. The Chinese of course wish to see greater levels of professionalism in their lives. They have not yet managed to do so because, in reality, theirs is just a developing country. Given the option, China does not prefer just to wing it, and the Chinese are in fact embarrassed when it is pointed out that their ways are backwards and outmoded. What Fallows saw at the airport in Changsha was nothing but sheer comedy – one guy tipping a barrel while another sucked on a stinking hose. That he took a picture of it and posted it for the world to see is China’s shame. The Chinese don’t believe for a minute that all of their jerry-rigging is a national strength, and there are many signs that the Chinese are dumping such improvisation in favor of modernization.

I think Midler both misses Fallows’ point and is wrong. Fallows was comparing China to Japan and I do not think anyone can dispute that process in Japan is more important than process in China. Fallows was talking about the Chinese way of doing things, not its backwardness. Of course, the Chinese Midler knows would prefer China to modernize, but that is not what Fallows wrote about. Fallows was talking about (I am pretty sure, but have asked him to step in) was how China is not a terribly rule bound society, at least as compared with Japan, and on this I completely agree. It appears Midler disagrees because China is more rule bound than the United States, but if I were to rank rule-bound countries, I would probably put the United States at one extreme. China is less rule bound than Japan or Korea. Fallows’ comparing China to Japan is interesting and, I think, quite accurate.

Will Lewis of the Experience Not Logic blog makes a good point regarding the importance of having someone with the heft of Fallows writing on China:

James Fallows’ articles and blog are going to rub different people in different ways. People who have been in China for a long time, such as yourself, will easily be able to poke holes in his observations and expose his naivete. But Fallows’ audience is the general American public, and his writing follows the theme that Americans should not be too afraid of China. And his writing does feel like an exchange student discovering a country. That this discovery is by a journalism heavyweight of a country that is becoming the whipping boy of American politicians should be a good thing.

China Hearsay concurs with Fallows that China is not a terribly hidebound place:

For the most part, in China:

  • I can go into a store with a Coke and not get yelled at for bringing in food. For that matter, I can bring a Subway sandwich into a Starbucks and eat it with my coffee (and only get a nasty look instead of being yelled at for polluting the place with “outside food”).
  • I can wear a hat during dinner and not be stared at disapprovingly by someone for having bad manners.
  • I can walk down the street drinking a beer.
  • I can blow my nose on the ground (not that I would want to) without a cop arresting me.

You get the point — people here enjoy a lot of personal freedom without a lot of customs and rules getting in the way. Yes, there are also lots of exceptions.

When I was living in D.C., people were being arrested for eating food on the metro, speaking too loudly on cell phones, and smoking in public. Whether or not you agree with those policies, there are a hell of a lot of rules to deal with over here.

I concur with China Hearsay. I have gone to dinner with Chinese lawyers who are wearing shorts and t-shirts, whereas I cannot remember a similar dinner in Korea or Japan where the lawyers wore anything other than a dark suit. I have found dealing with Russia’s bureaucracy and courts at least ten times worse than China’s.

By Midler’s standards, de Toqueville should not have written about the United States, no right to write about the United States, Hemingway should not have written on Spain, and Henry James should not have written on Europe.

I want to hear about China from more than just those with Doctorates, MBAs or JDs who have been there forever. What about you?

UPDATE: ThinkChina has a nice post up on this topic, entitled, “China Hands,” making clear that time spent in China does not directly correlate with expertise:

Fifteen years ago, everything in China was a struggle. It is thus understandable that people who “suffered” through those periods will find themselves superior to the newcomers. Yet, does spending time physically in China directly correlate with level of expertise? I beg to differ. It is what you managed to achieve in China that defines ones capability. Spending 10 years living in China might give you some insight to habits, culture and language. Yet, it is how you spent those 10 years that matter. An expat who spent 10 years working for Motorola in China will not know anything about starting up a magazine in Shanghai.

  • Ben

    All experts were greenhorns once. As long as the greenhorn does not try and pass him or herself off as an expert, let’s hear what he/she has to say, especially if it is well-written and informed from experience gained in many other places.
    Dan, you took issue with the Time (I think it was Time, anyway) blog when it first went up because you said its posts were unoriginal. Do you give Fallows more slack or is he taking a different angle and thus producing more original posts? [I have not had a chance to look at Fallows' blog so I cannot comment on it...]
    This was a very interesting diversion from studying partnership tax; thank you much Dan!

  • http://www.thechinagame.com Paul M

    That’s a pretty chunky post.
    For the record, while some are a quicker study than others, I would never challenge a person’s right to speak on a subject. My earlier criticism had to do with what I saw as an inaccurate interpretation of events. Chinese workers improvising on their job is about China being a developing country.

  • http://www.shanghaiscrap.com Adam Minter

    This gets so tiresome: a writer comes to China, decides to write about his/her experiences for a home audience (not the China-based audience), and is roundly excoriated on the English-language China blogs (especially those maintained by the long-term expats – or those who fancy themselves to be long-term). Off the top of my head, I can think of four instances over the last couple of years where new writers – or visitors – were subjected to this sort of pettiness on the blogs. If it were up to people like Midler, foreign journalists arriving in China would need two visas: one from the Chinese government, and the other from the long-term expats who can’t stand the idea that someone might have an opinion about China that they weren’t allowed to vet first. In a choice between censors, who would you choose?

  • http://www.allroadsleadtochina.com Allroads

    Dan,
    In writing up my 2 cents on Fallows’s article, I came upon Paul Midlers, and had this to say:
    Paul Midler over at the China Game, puts together an interesting commentary on Fallows. Its post that I can identify with, and anticipate seeing more of as Old China hands look to clarify things (perhaps reframe is a better word) that are written about China from people who are FOBs, or whose experience in China is still lacking substance.
    Further to that, and in response to your post, I would say this:
    The problem right now is that there are too many writers and not enough experts writing on China. I understand your view that writers can bring something that experts cannot, however the Old China hands are getting tired of the FOB reporting and the impacts of their report.
    Case in point, the recent product safety issue. Had people seasoned in China and in industry been writing the reports, rather than writers, than it would have been a case of Mattel and others having poor quality control. Instead, writers with limited exposure and access wrote China pieces that took the focus off the core issues and turned it into a political tit-for-tat.
    For right or wrong, I would expect to see more commentary on the quality of reporting in China, and personally I hope more experts here will take writers to task on their “perception” as it will force writers to raise the bar on their work.
    Case in point, This article by David Brooks that was forwarded to me by an old China hand this morning with the simply “lame” following it..

  • Tyler

    I definitely have to agree with most of what you say here. Like you, I have often learned new and exciting things about my hometown, Chicago, when experiencing it with visitors, or greenhorns.
    To China Hearsay’s list I would add: In China, I can walk down the street drinking a beer, while blowing my nose, all the while ventilating by exposing my belly to the cool night air.

  • http://chinglishfriend.com/blogs/danwei/archive/2007/12/05/danwei-picks-2007-12-5.aspx Danwei

    Danwei Picks: 2007-12-5

    Danwei Picks is a daily digest of the “From the Web” links found on the Danwei homepage. A feed for the

  • Mark Anthony Jones

    Well, I lived and worked in China for slightly over five years, not a long time, I know, and so I certainly don’t claim to be a China expert, but I the piece written by James Fallows that you linked to to be very insightful and thought-provoking. The China that he described is the China that I recognised, the China that I personally experienced.
    I also concur with China Hearsay and Dan when they point out just how relaxed the Chinese can be. The same applies to teachers as to lawyers, when it comes to dress standards. I taught in South Korea for two years, and in Japan for one year: every SINGLE day I was expected to turn up to school clean shaven and dressed in a suit and tie. I taught in China for five years, where in contrast, I was able to get away with wearing a T-shirt and shorts to class if I wanted to.
    Dr. Pamela Logan, the Director of an American-based NGO operating in Sichuan Province (the Kham Aid Foundation), has also discussed the fact that rules mean nothing in China, that they are often skirted around and subverted, and within all levels of government and bureaucracy.
    I’m confident enough to say, at the risk of sounding arrogant, that it is Mr. Milder who is lacking is perspective – not James Fallows.

  • stozi

    spat milk across my screen when I read that Midler thinks Chinese love following rules. There goes his credibility. It’s insane that that would have to be supported by argument to people who claim to know the country. Insane. sorry. Chinese love protocol? like in traffic? I don’t know who this guy is but he comes off as the type who never steps foot outside Beijing or Shanghai and thinks his experience represents the country. Of course Chinese arn’t proud of being a developing nation, but that doesn’t change the facts on the ground or therby the truth in Fallows’ insight. Maybe Chinese do know more about US people than visa versa, but the margin is so thin it doesn’t count as a point, however worldly US people actually are.
    Deep shame on Midler for questioning Fallows’ right to express.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Ben,
    Great question. Man I hated tax law.
    You answer your question in the question. I went after TIME because TIME is news. TIME is supposed to know what is going on in China and it was putting up post after post on the weather or on how the Chinese like flowers. It was boring, uninspiring, and written like someone who just arrived and was going on ten minute walks from the Holiday Inn. I also was pissed about how they were saying the exact things others had already said, but saying them as though they were the first.
    Fallows is different. He admits to being a newbie. He admits to being thrilled. He is going in depth on his observations and he is “seeing things” and comparing and contrasting. He is shedding light. In his “planes” piece he said things I already knew, but he did it in such a way that I “saw” those same things in a new and clearer light.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Paul M,
    I know you do not want to censor Fallows, but your post went way beyond simply challenging Fallows’ assumptions and veered off into a pissy diatribe against non-experts/non-veterans writing on China.
    The issue is not why the Chinese guy at the airport was using the tube, the point is that he was. Fallows sees that as a sign of China’s flexibility. It’s desire to get the job done. I agree. I see that as a good thing. You see it as China being a developing country.
    I lived in Turkey for a year and I have been to Korea 150+ times (including back when it truly was a developing country), and I used to go to Russia all the time. I see China’s flexiblity as a cultural trait, not a developing nation trait. On that we disagree and isn’t it great we have people like Fallows on one side of the issue and people like you on the other. In other words, isn’t it great we have people observing from all sorts of perspectives. A marketplace of ideas.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Adam Minter,
    “If it were up to people like Midler, foreign journalists arriving in China would need two visas: one from the Chinese government, and the other from the long-term expats who can’t stand the idea that someone might have an opinion about China that they weren’t allowed to vet first. In a choice between censors, who would you choose?”
    Damn, that’s good. I’d choose the expats, but only because they are so much less effective.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    AllRoads,
    We have all slammed the writers who talk about China as though they have the inside scoop, when they so clearly do not. I went berserk on a Seattle lawyer who came to China for a few days and then pontificated (wrongly) on China’s legal system in my local paper: And I am a big fan of China Hearsay’s “Panda Puncher” series. But those are different.
    In my post, I went after someone claiming expertise in a technical area, when he had none. China Hearsay goes after people who (typically) are demonizing China from outside China, without really making an effort to learn the truth.
    Fallows is in China busting his butt to understand China and in my view, doing an excellent job at it. Sure he is going to misinterpret things about China, probably quite often. But so what? We all do.
    Co-blogger Steve Dickinson has been studying China and living in China nearly his whole life. He knows Chinese history like an historian, Chinese pop culture like a 23 year old Beijinger, and Chinese law like a grizzled Chinese lawyer. But he oftentimes doesn’t know things about China (of course) and he (horrors) is sometimes wrong. I am often wrong about the United States.
    Not quite sure where I am going with this, beyond saying that when Fallows is wrong, it may not be because he is new, it may be because the subject is so difficult.
    That is a “lame” article, totally. So what? I could come up with 100 lame articles in an hour and you know I could. Fallows’ articles are not lame.
    You are right, there was a lot of crap written on product safety (a lot of good stuff too) and I agree with your perception of the issue. But, there is always going to be crap written when a “new” issue pops up and from the amalgamation of crap and quality, knowledge usually occurs. I am not for a moment saying we should stop criticizing crap, because we should and I will. But we should not, as Adam Minter so beautifully put it, require writers to get an Old China Hand seal of approval, as though Old China Hands know it all and have nothing more to learn.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Tyler,
    Maybe a bit off point here, but I lived in Chicago for three years, but it was not until I started going there after I moved to Seattle that I felt I was really starting to get to know it and enjoy it in full. Great city.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    stozi,
    As though traffic rules are followed in either Beijing or Shanghai?

  • http://www.thechinagame.com Paul M

    Some of what has been said has been twisted, so let me repeat. I have NO problem with anyone who writes on China, and lack of experience alone is not enough to discount someone’s views. Relatives and friends have at times passed through China, offering me small insights that I’ve missed. Sometimes there is an advantage to having fresh eyes, and in any event if I take exception it’s going to with points made.
    And on that, we have this one point about how China cares nothing about “rules”. I find this rather ironic since the Chinese themselves practically invented protocol. Thinking back to one of my history books, I am reminded of what visitors from afar had to do during the Middle Ages in order to visit the emperor. What precise outfit a visiting dignitary wore was determined by the day of the week, and some who were not Chinese found it confusing, inconvenient, and even offensive. Daily life in China has been similarly been characterized by rules of etiquette. You see people spitting in the street, but you still hand out your business card with two hands.
    My primary issue with the Fallows blog post was his conclusion that all of China’s jerry-rigging is wonderful. My view is that Chinese workers are having to patch things up and improvise because their bosses can’t manage to pull the show together. I agree with Fallows that China is characterized with instances of improvisation, but I point out that where it can, China prefers modernization over improvisation. Stop thinking about who is an “expert” and turn on your brain. Does anyone really believe that the Chinese don’t mind sucking on petrol hoses?

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Paul M.
    Neither Fallows nor anyone else ever said “China cares nothing about ‘rules.’” That would be an absurd thing to say. All we are saying is that China is not a terribly rule bound society.
    Neither Fallows nor anyone else ever said “that all of China’s jerry-rigging is wonderful.” That too would be an absurd thing to say. All that was said was that the Chinese are more willing to break protocol (than let’s say the Japanese) in favor of “getting the job done.”
    Neither Fallows nor anyone else ever disputed that “China prefers modernization over improvisation.”
    Nobody even discussed whether the “the Chinese don’t mind sucking on petrol hoses?” I, like probably everyone else, would assume they would prefer not to.

  • Inst

    I like James Fallows’ articles, after reading enough of his stuff, I even libraried his “Looking at the Sun”. At the very least, it’s better than the NYT bureau chief’s “Confucius Lives Next Door” (Yuck!). I can’t wait for Mr. Fallows to “get” China, though from his recent blog posts I’m scared he’ll get bored of the country first.

  • http://www.thechinagame.com Paul M

    Japan is an extreme example, and China might be compared with other economies anyway, but this notion that Chinese are not rule bound is false. CLB not long ago pointed out that in China you can’t tell your travel agent that your name is “John Smith” when your passport says “Jonathan Smith”. You’ll get bounced from the flight. Talk about a silly insistence on consistency. And how about all of your warnings that Western companies get compliant fast because things are changing in China. I welcome your readers to provide their own example of an insistence on rules.
    Singapore is most certainly a rule-bound society that is also Chinese. You know, they say it is a “fine place”. You get a fine in Singapore for jay walking, for chewing gum, for littering. And HK is following along the same route, passing out penalties for any number of public offenses. We can expect Mainland China to become more rule bound **to the extent that it becomes more developed**.
    By the way, your efforts to quote me and then suggest that no one uttered those words are unhelpful. If I ever mean to quote someone, I will quote that person. All you’ve done is feed me back my own words. I know quite well what I said.
    What James Fallows *implied* was that China’s tendency to improvise “a way” is a positive trait. At least when he showed us a picture of airport workers siphoning fuel into an airplane, we assumed he was not making fun of the Chinese. What I suggested in my response to his post was that he missed the point. The workers were refueling in an outmoded manner because China itself remains outmoded in many areas. As China advances, we will see it emphasize “the way” for getting something done. We will have more rules, and that all of China’s jerry-rigging will be set aside in favor of modernization. And so China will look an awful lot more like HK or Singapore, maybe even Japan.

  • Mark Anthony Jones

    Paul M – I don’t think that anybody here is arguing that the Chinese don’t care about rules. They do. But they are noticeably less anal about adhering to rules than are the Japanese.

  • Mark Anthony Jones

    Actually, I just re-read by initial comment on this thread, and discovered that I did in fact write: “Dr. Pamela Logan, the Director of an American-based NGO operating in Sichuan Province (the Kham Aid Foundation), has also discussed the fact that rules mean nothing in China, that they are often skirted around and subverted, and within all levels of government and bureaucracy.”
    A careless use of words on my part: Dr. Logan never actually stated that rules mean “nothing” – she did, however, note that rules are very often ignored, or subverted. This, as I said earlier, is certainly my experience of China too.

  • Amban

    Someone said that “the Chinese themselves practically invented protocol”. That point is well taken, but Chinese protocol and decorum mainly concern official government functions and familial relationships. In Chinese classics, you will find detailed descriptions on funerary arrangement or government dress. But as far as I know, I have not come across any similarly ritualized descriptions on how to plow a field or operate a loom. Even today, to hold a party congress and to operate an aircraft are two very different things even outside of China – I hope we can agree on that. So, I do not find Fallow’s observations particularly wide off the mark.

  • Law Office of Todd L. Platek

    Aren’t you all expending too much energy on this discussion? Seems like a cat-fight. Leave it alone.
    Let everyone do his/her own thing, make his/her own observations, and enjoy. It’s the season of good fellowship (Fallowship?). I can afford to be so generous, since I know it all anyway.
    As for Dan, who stirred up this whole hornet’s nest, great fun. Todd

  • JL

    Good call Dan,
    It reminds me of discussion I read of Will Hutton’s book. Sure, he’s not a China-guy. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong, and if he is, it would be more useful to show this by reference to evidence, rather than his lack of language skills. Too often people with valuable perspectives are dismissed this way.

  • Paul

    Hardly a cat fight, TLP. Too much energy spent on defining the discussion, clarifying that certain things were not said. Anyway, it’s always good fun at the CLB.

  • Derek

    Dan, stay on this one as I am sick to death of these people who think they have great insight simply because they have been somewhere for a certain amount of time. Let’s face it, of the 300,000,000 of us here in the States, how many really have great insight on our country? I know you like Thomas Barnett’s views on China and I do also. He is not a China expert, yet when he talks about China he knows whereof he speaks because he knows politics so incredibly well. It’s the same with Fallows. I love your bringing in De Toqueville and I just wish Midler and whoever else in his “we are the only expert” cabal would respond to that.
    Actually, I guess Midler already has as he seems to have backed off from just about everything he was initially saying.

  • Anon.

    Reporters are permanently in the position of entering areas in which they are not expert, and trying to convey what the experts say, see, and conclude to an even-less-expert general readership. Actually, I expect that lawyers are often in this position too. Their comparative advantage – lawyers and writers both – is often knowing how to learn about a new situation, rather than decades of expertise in a particular subject matter. (Yes, there are exceptions: scientists capable of writing to a general audience about their specialty, a la Lewis Thomas in his heyday; lawyers who concentrate in one very limited field. But you get the point.)
    In any area there are members of an expert guild whom the non-expert writer often deals with and tries to learn from. In my experience – which covers an appallingly broad range of areas of non-expertise over the years – there’s a pretty consistent ratio. Maybe three quarters of the existing experts are affable, cooperative, aware of the difference between their role and the outside writer’s role, patient in explaining the terrain, etc. And maybe one quarter are huffy and guild-minded, saying: How can this person PRESUME to walk onto our terrain? The people with the guild mentality are almost never the most impressive, secure, or accomplished members of the expert class. At least in the business I know best (reporting), it is the marginal performers who are likeliest to defend their guild expertise. I am thinking of some J-school professors I know, who had not been stars at their newspapers or networks but now give their students lectures on the lines of “There I was, at the White House press conference, something you can’t understand until you’ve experienced it…” You wouldn’t hear that out of someone like Tom Brokaw.

  • http://rconversation.blogs.com/ Rebecca MacKinnon

    Interesting discussion. I agree with you the Chinese are way less interested in rules for the sake of rules than the Japanese. Since I have lived in both countries, when I was back in the U.S. random people would often ask me to describe the main cultural difference between China and Japan. My usual response – especially if it’s just a casual conversation and I don’t want to launch into an hour long conversation – is as follows: In Japan, if there is an empty intersection with a stoplight and no traffic at all, pedestrians will stop and wait for the red light to turn green, and so will the cars, even if there is no policeperson or camera or anybody official anywhere in sight, and there is virtually zero chance that you could have an accident by running the light. In China, when faced with an empty intersection, unless you are highly likely to be caught and fined by a traffic cop or killed by a speeding vehicle coming out of nowhere, people who stop and wait at an empty intersection are considered to be suckers or retards. I say this with fondness as somebody who is more naturally inclined to act and think in the latter way than the former.
    Japan is all about protocol and ritual because the process of doing things the right way is what many people feel gives higher meaning to their lives. China is all about “xiang ban fa.” Order where it exists is a response to power of one sort or another. It has always seemed to me that most rules – the ubiquitous “gui ding”s – are there to be “dui fu”-ed: Nobody would accomplish anything much in China if they actually obeyed all the “gui ding”s – and probably the economic reforms would never have got going in the 80s. It seems that much of a Chinese entrepreneur’s job is spent figuring out how to get around “gui dings” while appearing to obey them.

  • Sunny Lee

    Sheerly exciting debate! Not a China expert, but still compelled to join to share with you what a “China Hand” shared with me the other day.
    Jaime FlorCruz, current CNN Beijing bureau chief with 36-year stint in China, said this to me the other day.
    “They [Chinese people] shout different slogans at different times. But in the final analysis, it’s pragmatism that drives them, not ideology, not religion. Because of that, they are able to subsume their difference and focus on pragmatic goals. They can say anything that works as ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. That’s pragmatism at work. With that, they are able to do many things.”
    Perhaps, the “airport incident” reveals Chinese pragmatism? My Korean impulse tells me that I would have done the same thing at that moment, if I can get my job done and move on. Whether someone is taking a picture of me is another issue.

  • http://www.thechinagame.com Paul

    Rebecca -
    I will agree with you that in Japan, the rules are made to be followed, while in China the rules are there often to be broken, forgiven, reinterpreted, or otherwise ignored. In time, this will change…

  • http://www.smartchinasourcing.com Smart China Sourcing

    In a previous life as GM of a large sales team in Guangdong, one of the local sales managers once told me: “Westerners see photos from the 1960s of hundreds of identically dressed Red Guards chanting slogans, and they conclude that Chinese are like Japanese or Koreans in readily following an assigned path and marching in lock-step toward a common objective. But that is actually a misleading image. Chinese are in fact very independent minded (relatively speaking) about how to achieve a specific result, and it is not easy to unite Chinese.”
    Having later managed a sales office in Seoul, I would generally agree with that comparison. Although I can’t personally speak to Japan, an American colleague with deep experience in both countries later described managing a China sales team as much more like herding cats compared with Japan.
    Putting all this into the context of my current focus on sourcing, buyers/outsourcers are well-advised not to rely solely on having a procedure in place. Stay engaged with production, keep monitoring to catch any deviation from agreed procedures (a less sinister contributor to Paul M’s ‘quality fade’ perhaps?), and be proactive about inspecting product. Good practice anywhere, and indispensable in smart China sourcing (sorry, couldn’t resist).

  • Inst

    Wow! What a great party! Rebecca MacKinnon is here, and is that ATimes’ Sunny Lee? Now all we’re missing is James Fallows himself, though I suspect that he’d regard showing up as a breach of decorum.

  • http://www.thechinagame.com Paul M

    Not long ago, a China factory owner bought his son a brand new car, and just as soon as he could the kid ran to pick up his best friend for a test ride.
    They drove fast, as the Chinese tend to, and when they came to a red light, instead of stopping, the driver ran right through the intersection.
    “What are you doing?” the friend asked. “You know that was a red light?”
    “Ah, don’t worry about it,” he said. “My father does it all the time.”
    They came to another red light, Again, the driver barreled right through.
    “It’s a red light! You’re going to get us killed!”
    “I told you, don’t worry. My father does it all the time.”
    The friend was a nervous wreck, and then the driver came to a green light.
    Instead of going through the intersection, he stopped the car just short of it.
    “What are you doing now?! That’s a green light – it means we can go!”
    “Yeah, we could… but my father might be coming the other way.”

  • http://chinabystander.wordpress.com China Bystander

    What we really need is more good writers, experts and old hands, and fewer bad ones. Then this whole debate would be moot.
    Interestingly enough, having happened to have spent some time in Japan about the time Fallows was first there, I remember much the same was being said about him there then, too.

  • Kou Jie

    All, thanks for the spirited discussion.
    Regarding the Chinese approach to rules, one can say that they are observed when the consequences of ignoring them are dire. But at different times, more casual times, many Chinese tend to luxuriate ostentatiously in their freedom. As do I. It’s very liberating as many outsiders have discovered to the detriment of their dignity.
    And when only results matter, rules can be set aside. This flexible approach tends to befuddle any observer, neophyte or veteran. But how many long term residents have been saved by just such pragmatism in one instance or another?
    When it comes to writing about China, who was it that observed that the month long visitor writes a book, the year long student writes an article, and the long term resident ceases to write? Just as is the case with the U.S., to generalize about China, you may as well generalize about the universe. It takes a de Tocqueville to pull that off . . .

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Paul M,
    Very good point regarding names to travel. That is definitely being rule bound. I also think you are right that “the way” will become somewhat more common as China modernizes, and certainly that will be true of “the law.” But, I still persist in believing China will never approach Japan or Korea when it comes to rules.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Rebecca MacKinnon,
    I think you have both countries nailed.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    MAJ,
    Nice comparision of China and Japan. I concur.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Amban,
    Good points. Are my eyes deceiving me or do you and MAJ actually agree on this one?

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Todd Platek,
    “Let everyone do his/her own thing, make his/her own observations, and enjoy.” That is somewhat of a platektude, but not bad.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Sunny Lee,
    Good word to describe China: pragmatic.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Paul,
    Why are you so convinced China will become more rule abiding? I think they will to the extent they start to believe the laws are reasonable, but not otherwise. Didn’t the CR inculcate them not to always follow rules? These are not rhetorical questions.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Howard’s End,
    I’ve heard nothing but good things re Fallows’ Japan book. So much so, I think I will pick me up a copy.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Smart China Sourcing,
    I buy all that.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Inst,
    It’s always party time at the CLB.

  • Inst

    Just one question. What was the importance of the rites (protocol) in Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism?
    I remember my father, who did his time with classical Chinese and the classical Chinese literature, talking about a Ming or Qing manual for social norms. It was hilarious; some portions of it involved deep conformity to existing paradigms (i.e, feeding your sick parents your flesh), while the other portions involved Dadaesque approaches to life, such as an incident where a man’s friends catches him without pants, and the man retorts that the universe is his pants and why are they in his pants?

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Paul M,
    That’s a joke…. right?
    Just kidding….

  • Amban

    Dan:
    I guess I do agree with MAJ here.
    Inst:
    “What was the importance of the rites (protocol) in Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism?”
    I don’t want to get into a long posting here, but regardless of which form of Confucianism you are talking about, Confucian rites and protocol regulate hierarchical relationships between human beings. On the other hand, what that means for China today is of course something that can be discussed ad nauseam.

  • http://www.thechinagame.com Paul

    It’s not only a joke, it’s an old one…

  • Kanishka

    I haven’t read this article but it seems to me that the crucial point here is to situate this behaviour in terms of the wider organization culture.
    The observation that Fallows uses seems to point to something like the Wildvasky/Dougals group / grid analysis . They argue that four ‘cultural types’ can be identified on the basis on which members define themselves as members of a group ( group) and the extent and variety of rules governing relations amongst members of the group. From this they get , hierarchs ( high group, high grid ) , egalitarians ( high group, low grid ) , individualists ( low group, low grid) and fatalists ( high grid , low group). I am not persuaded by this account but it does seem to hold for the Japan / China example used by Fallows.
    Kanishka

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com/2007/12/36_hours_in_beijing.html China Law Blog

    36 Hours In Beijing

    My friend, software guru Buzz Bruggeman, founder of and driving force behind Activewords (endorsed by James Fallows, I kid you not. Click on the Activewords website for proof of this), sent me an article from today’s New York Times mapping out what to …

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com/2008/02/chinas_weather_report_because.html China Law Blog

    China’s Weather Report: Because It Really Matters

    Last winter, I went to Alaska at the last minute. Upon landing, I looked out my plane window and thought, “gee, snow. Guess I should have brought my coat.” This same thing happened to me once when I went to Chicago. Weather bores the hell out of me, pa…

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com/2008/10/go_to_china_its_better_than_it.html China Law Blog

    Go To China. It’s Better Than It Seems.

    I am just so glad James Fallows is writing about China. One hundred years from now, when the West is looking at why China is where it is, historians will read Fallows. In the most recent issue of Atlantic Monthly, in an article entitled, “Their Own Wor…

  • http://www.3q2u.com Corbett

    How many experts did it take to tell us about the American economy, when any greenhorn knew Wall Street was full of crooks?
    How many experts did it take to run Motorola and GM into the ground?
    I love the fact that Chinese once they set their mind to something, can usually find the cheapest (if not sometimes the most complicated) way to get it done. They worry about process later. Then watch out. We should be happy things aren’t as organized and efficient as they could be. Where would our jobs be then?
    The whole can do spirit here is fantastic if not exhausting and a constant struggle to deal with, but I’d rather have a team of rough hand can do-ers supporting me than a team of soft palm experts.

  • http://www.cnreviews.com Kai

    Interesting discussion. If I may, I’d like to return to what I felt was the most poignant reminder Dan made:
    Real writers observe things others do not. Real writers see the same thing we all see and tell us about it in a way that makes us “see” it more clearly. Real writers tell us things we already knew but could not express.
    If you’re upset with the potential consequences another person’s writing may yield, I think the most pragmatic thing to do is to focus on becoming a better writer yourself, so that you may exert more influence, or to lend your support and promotion to someone you believe to be better.
    There are experts and then there are communicators. I sometimes get the feeling that a lot of “experts” prefer to whine in their ivory towers about “others” misleading the ignorant and impressionable masses rather than come down and actually try to “enlighten” those same masses.
    Of course, there’s nothing wrong with simply taking issue or voicing disagreement. Not everyone, including experts, needs to evangelize before they can complain. But we do have to occasionally ask ourselves if we’re preaching to the choir.

  • evan luke thomas

    I hired a young, male, Chinese-Vietnamese-American engineering student for a national security company with a branch in LA.
    I am a combat-decorated Vietnam Vet who spent 10 months in Vietnam as a military journalist and for most of the 1980s I was a duty officer performing medical and personal extraction of foreign diplomats and Fortune 500 businessmen and women, worldwide. This included the PRC.
    The young Chinese-Vietnamese-American whose older brother was an NVA regular soldier expelled to China after the war told me this story (I’ll try to be brief):
    When the Vietnam War ended in 1975 he and his family were expelled from Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon. They fortunately (because of business connections) found their way to Hong Kong and he and his mother (minus their older brother who remained in the PRC, not Hong Kong) legally emigrated to LA.
    He was forced to return to Hong Kong after an honorable discharge (combat in Iraq) from the USMC as an infantryman and starting college because his family, still in Hong Kong and the PRC by choice, needed some business face time.
    He cleared customs in Hong Kong without incident but then ran into a very tough customs interview upon entering the PRC. The official based his challenge on his citizenship documents.
    The young man who told me that he considered himself Chinese by birth and American by choice and loyalty reached into his briefcase and produced first his Vietnamese birth certificate.
    The PRC official was not satisfied so he produced his US Passport. The official asked for more.
    The young man produced his Visa and supporting Hong Kong travel info. The official was forced to deal with the young man’s impeccable Chinese and the interview was becoming very tense with enmity on both sides, spoken so it could not be ignored by either party.
    “Finally, I decided to blow up the interview and told the interviewer that I had one more document to produce.” He reached in his briefcase and snapped his USMC Reserve ID onto the table.
    The interviewer left the room and returned in a few minutes honoring his visa.
    I am not an attorney but have dealt with many around the world and what I am expert about has only a peripheral connection to this blog. As of 1994 when it was related to me in LA, it proved to me that individuals continue to evole in complex and unexpected ways.
    As long as individuals are allowed to pursue their goals in a free society under law, I am sure that this process will continue.
    I read all obs with interest. Best regards.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com/2009/11/wine_and_taxes_and_how_to_do_b.html China Law Blog

    Wine And Taxes And How To Do Business In China.

    Evan Osnos’s most recent New Yorker article is so chock full of juicy China law and business (and even tax) tidbits I just know I am going to be rambling a bit in this post. So to make it at least somewhat readable, I am going to take the unprecedented…