MR MODEST & MR VAIN

People seldom trust what they don’t understand.

The west doesn’t understand the Chinese; China is unfamiliar with western culture and behaviours. Too often, trust gets lost between the gaps in understanding and hidden underneath layers of ill-informed perception.

modesty vanityIt is considered poor form in China for business or political leaders to feature very often in the pages of the press or on the evening news.  It’s behaviour incompatible with the Chinese culture of humility.  In China, rare forays in front of the media by business or political leaders can be news events in themselves.

Because of this, Chinese business and political leaders rely heavily on official or company spokespeople to speak on their and their organisations’ behalves. This reluctance to engage directly with the media is often interpreted in the west as being secretive, reclusive and having something sinister to hide.

Western business leaders, on the other hand, are seldom burdened with the weight of excessive modesty. Many senior business executives often cancel important meetings, reschedule personal appointments and miss family events to make time for press interviews, particularly if the reporter is from a high profile publication.

Being the public face of a business is an important part of any CEO’s job description but perhaps some western executives stray into the media limelight too often, sailing close to vanity territory in the process.

Building trust between an organisation and the people that have a direct and valid interest in that organisation is central to both the CEO and their comms departments’ professional remits.  Do comms departments forget that part of their remit, dominated as it can sometimes become in meeting the self-promotional demands of clients and executives?

The reluctant Chinese leader needs to change too and learn to deal with the very real discomfort they feel when in the public eye, especially when talking in favourable terms about themselves and their organisations’ achievements.  In the global economy where China PLC operates today, and under the constant gaze of the press, Chinese leaders need to adapt to become more publicly accountable for the organisations they lead.

The modesty of the Chinese and the vanity of the west could both benefit from a cultural exchange programme.

And maybe many in the press whose role it is to hold power to account some should take a little more time to understand before rushing to judge other cultures against their own conventions.

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NAVIGATING DIFFICULT CORNERS

A driving instructor taught me to pass my driving test but my father taught me to drive.  I remember little of the wisdom the driving instructor passed my way.

Driving in Donegal, on Ireland’s north west coast with its wild, rugged and beautiful countryside and its shortage of straight roads, it’s important to know how to drive around corners safely. My father taught me to apply the brakes and select a lower gear before entering the corner.  Then, once in the corner, to apply the power so that the traction generated by the engine helps maintain control, stability and momentum.  This is particularly important if you’re unfamiliar with the corner and don’t know where or how it ends.

osborneUnfortunately, my father didn’t teach George Osborne to drive.  The Chancer of the Exchequer is trying to drive the UK economy around a difficult corner.  He’s been applying the brakes and in the wrong gear for the near to two years since taking control of the wheel.  Because of this, he’s lost momentum and the  engine is struggling.  There’s already evidence that the engine, deprived of a firm right foot on the accelerator, is stalling.

That’s what led Moody’s, the credit ratings agency, to downgrade the UK economy this week from triple ‘A’ to Aa1. The move will have little immediate economic effect but the last time it happened, 35 years ago, was Britain’s ‘Winter of Discontent.’ The Labour Party was in power then, with Dennis Healy at the wheel and James Callaghan, Prime Minister and himself a former Chancellor, navigating.  Industrial unrest became endemic and the UK became known as the ‘sick man of Europe’.  It led to the rise of Thatcherism, ushered in with the now famous Saatchi and Saatchi advertising poster – Labour Isn’t Working.

Osborne’s driving style appears to be shaped more by his political rhetoric than economic insight.  The economic engine Osborne inherited needed an overhaul but he’s not a mechanic.  His core method of control is to use the brakes. What’s more, he’s blind to the reality and refuses to adjust his driving style.  Given the importance of the Chancellor’s role to every man, woman, child and business in the country, there should be the equivalent of a driving test to pass before being appointed Chancellor.

I’m not an economist. Neither is Osborne.  But, like all the citizens of Donegal, I can drive a car around a difficult corner even with limited visibility and in slippery road conditions.   But then, like all Donegal folk, we’ve had limited experience of personal chauffeurs.

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CHINA: FIRST OBSERVATIONS

It’s difficult to over-estimate the enduring impact that traumatic historical events can have on the psyche of nations. They leave deep lasting scars and memories.

The ‘Great Hunger’, Ireland’s potato famine, led to the death of starvation of more than one million Irish when the country’s staple food crop failed for several consecutive years in the mid nineteenth century.

The famine created a culture of emigration among the Irish that persists 150 years later.  Recent generations (including yours truly) left the island under considerably less painful circumstances, but the route was established during the famine years when a further million Irish left for the UK, Australia, the United States and elsewhere in search of salvation.

A month in, and it is strikes me that recent Chinese history has had a similar affect on Chinese people.  Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, the Chinese Government imposed two successive movements during the 1960s and 1970s that proved to be economic, social and political failures of epic proportions.

The first, the Great Leap Forward, was designed to transform China’s predominately rural society into a global industrial powerhouse.  With the country focused on creating an industrial capability to rival the developed world, it lost sight of its agricultural heritage and food production failed.  With a population of more than one billion people to feed, this oversight led to widespread famine.

Catastrophe followed calamity when Chairman Mao introduced the Cultural Revolution, an attempt to quell the dissenting voices of academics, the educated and the thoughtful that rose in response.  Sensing their desire to give capitalism a go, something the Party had little enthusiasm for, it introduced the strengthening of communist ideals.  Dissenters were imprisoned, tortured and killed.  Believing education to be the main perpetrator of dissension, schools and universities were closed.  Deprivation and famine continued.  All told, over 50 million Chinese starved to death and many more only just avoided the same fate born of political philosophy.

Like the Irish, many Chinese emigrated to escape.  That’s what the west has to thank for its fondness for Chinese food today.  Unlike the Irish, however, there are hundreds of millions of Chinese alive today who lived through the tragedy.

The Chinese work hard, long hours and seldom complain

The Chinese work hard, long hours and seldom complain

They work incredibly hard, seldom complain and place a very high value on education, on dedication and effort. China has become the world’s second largest economy.

But the more China grows, the more it becomes the West’s newest bogeyman, the new axis of evil that can’t be trusted. China’s success, I sense, is due more to the memory of abject poverty and destitution the people endured than the kind of narrative that Ian Fleming might have written into a gripping Bond script.

People find it very difficult to trust what they don’t understand.  A better understanding between east and west would make us all richer.

China’s demographics are changing rapidly as millions leave rural areas for the opportunities offered in the ever-expanding cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.  Chinese parents often leave their children in the care of grandparents in the villages so they can make a living in suburban factories, returning home maybe once or twice a year.  In just a few weeks, the cities will fall silent as their inhabitants return to their families for the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year.

People, wherever they live, have fundamentally the same dreams, fears, troubles and priorities.  There is infinitely more that unites us than sets us apart. Chinese high streets are equally pockmarked with Starbucks coffee shops, the fridges in corner shops stocked with cans of Coca Cola.

In a world that’s losing it’s diversity, shouldn’t we try to understand better and celebrate a bit more the little things that still make us different?

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