A few days ago I walked away from a meeting - in my fantasies - badly beating up the guy who I had just met. A flood of aggression had started to sweep my body already a week earlier, when he had told me – after signing a contract with me six weeks earlier - that he would most likely not join our company, but needs another week to make a final decision. I wish I could have ventilated my fury physically. But I contained myself in good Chinese manner – for the sake of keeping a relationship with potential later benefits. Its all about guanxi, no?
A few days later, I start to ask myself at what price such a behavior change does come. I don’t feel anymore good about the way I did react; Some European directness, open verbal aggression if not physical, a follow up lawsuit for violation of a labor contract (again at what cost?) might have been healthier at least for my peace of mind. Would I have been just self-righteous? Where is the borderline between a strict moral codex as developed in the West and an “everything goes” approach of the (Chinese) East?
Since I had lately a few discussions with other foreigners who did notice how life in China changes their individual moral framework, this incident is a good kick off point to question Chinese morals and ethical behavior. Why are lying, theft, fraud and deceit essential tools in a China survival kit? How far do we have to assimilate as foreigners to fit in and succeed? How much of our own ethical guidelines should we retain as the fundaments of a Western-Hellenistic culture in which we grew up?
My HQ had instructed me this February to recruit an experienced manager for our largest business unit, and I thought after a few interviews that we had found the ideal candidate with the help of a headhunter who had contacted and screened over 70 Chinese executives in the preparation of the interviews.
The candidate fulfilled all our requirements. He had high level networking skills; he was proficient enough in English to have efficient phone calls with our HQ; he had extensive sales expertise in the automotive industry; and he seemed to have enough seniority to be able to manage a team which had grown to a size of 40 people over the past two years; which he would join as one of the last team members, thus adding to his challenge.
Above all, I figured that I was fishing in a relatively small pond. Our headhunter told me that business executives with the profile which we were aiming at, are ideally aged 35 to 42; still young enough to have the energy to support a growth period and shape the team, but already with 10 to 15 years of experience in driving sales revenue and leading others.
Even more restricting tough is the cultural background respectively the affinity to our European HQ. I have come to understand that Chinese business executives have a high tendency to specialize themselves not only in an industry but also in a foreign culture. Chinese managers who start in Japanese companies will most likely retire there. So do those who have started in a Korean company. Since most foreign invested businesses in China are either of Japanese or Korean origin, these two groups compromise the majority of candidates. But for a Western or more precise Central European business they are very rarely a good match. They have devoted their time to gain language competencies in Japanese or Korean and have difficulties to speak English. They have grown accustomed to the Confucian top-down management style, which is so prevalent in all Far East Asian countries.
Similar to the division between Korean trained and Japanese trained Chinese business executives within the oriental recruitment pond, there is also a division between European and US trained business executives within the occidental recruitment pond. They share some cultural values and have usually focused the development of their language skills on English only. Nevertheless, there are some issues related to business culture, which justify separating US from European businesses similar to separating Korean from Japanese businesses.
So, generally speaking I was fishing in the smallest of these four ponds, my fishing experience aggravated by the backdrop that many experienced Chinese executives nowadays are also lured back to domestic companies which grow steadily and internationalize fast.
To make the long story short: our candidate had it all, including a strong affinity to European business culture due to a 15 year history at his current Swedish employer. I supported him, paved all the way to the main decision makers in my HQ and invited him mid July to Europe to meet and greet. Like I had anticipated, everything went very smooth and I got the feedback I had been waiting for from our global sales director: “He doesn’t seem to be like the other Chinese I have met. He appears to be so European.” Sure, I thought, because he has been trained for 15 years in an environment that taught him to behave like you expect him to.
Approval received, contract signed, we all started to work in bullet train speed on the preparation of the training period which was scheduled to commence mid September.
September 9th we meet to discuss some details in regard to the training period. But my guts know all to well that he would not join. I knew already when he declined to come to a concert with his wife in late August. After a few lines of small talk he looks straight into the eyes and tells me: “I am sorry, but I can’t join your company. It’s a family decision. ” It turns out that the CEO of his former and future employer flew in town and signed a new contract with him the night before our meeting. He will be sent to the US as CEO of the North American operations.
He asks me, if I am angry. I tell him, that I understand his move as a man, but as an employer I am of course angry. He has signed a contract and we have made already a lot of arrangements for him to join the company. It’s difficult to quantify the costs, but they are considerable in terms of working hours. Moreover, we loose at least three months in the recruitment process. What does he expect? I can’t cheer about this outcome. And, I add, even as a man, I think that he has crossed a red line, which I would most likely not cross. He has signed a contract with my company, he has left us for 6 weeks in the belief that he would join us, but told us only 1 week before the actual entry date that we would not. That’s almost malicious.
And I continue to tell him that I think it’s cowardish to hide behind one’s partner. Family always matters, but putting his wife’s wish to immigrate to the US to be able to provide a better education to their child as apology, is just a way of concealing other, at least equally important considerations for not joining us. He tells me that I got that wrong, because this is his second marriage and he got divorced from his first wife because they did not find common grounds to develop their life and careers. I tell him, that I understand very well, that family life requires sometimes compromises in career decisions.
He continues that he would still like to join our company, but can’t risk his second marriage. His former and current employer offered him a safe working environment for the next two to three years in the US. He could chose whether they want to live in New York or Chicago. His wife could pursue an education in the US and their son would be able to grow up without having to undergo the grueling Chinese education. So, I reach over to the other side of the table at which we are sitting and shake hands with him, wishing him and his wife good luck with their new life.
It almost seems as if he did not expect me to make such a move; and he starts to talk about his plans. With a guaranteed employment for the next three years, he believes he will have enough time to understand the legal framework of the US. “You know,” he continues with a change in tone from being apologetic to condescending, “I have to make a long term plan. With more and more Chinese companies going global, I believe in two to three years time, I will join one of these Chinese companies and run their business in the US.
At this point there enters some awkwardness into the discussion, as I feel that we have been part of a scheme. Even if I would not like to think of him badly, it seems that he played it very smart. His first wife did basically ditch him for a life in Paris. Now he ditches us for a career in the US, but he does not have the balls to acknowledge this openly. I thus try to come to an end and we part in front of the bar where we met.
How Flattery Mends Defeat
Now, without doubt, such a failed recruitment could as well happen anywhere in the world and I am convinced that HR professionals run into such situations quite often, whether in the West or the East. But I still think that not many people play it so cool and keep pretending to be of high moral pedigree until the last minute.
I did not only look for a European trained Chinese candidate, we did also find one with distinctive Scandinavian politeness. My HQ colleagues felt that they were talking to somebody who was Chinese, but also to some extent Western. And I include myself. But in stark contrast to my HQ colleagues I feel now deceived by a Chinese who learned to play the instrument of European morals and etiquette to his advantage.
The day after the above described meeting my HQ sales VP for Asia Pacific who joined me in this recruiting process forwards an email by our candidate to most members of our executive management team. It reads: “… by this time you got this message, you probably have already been informed that I would not be able to fulfill the agreement I have made with your company. I appreciate all the discussions we had and the time you spent to introduce me with your company. You have since we first me been so inspiring all the time with your passion in work and the way you engaging people, I will definitely miss this a lot …”
Now, what does this mean? Even though we have to face defeat, this guy manages to flatter my colleague so much that she forwards his apology to everybody. In her perception he remains the good Chinese guy with high moral pedigree. But actually he messed around with us, used us without scruples for his own advantage and managed to put a misdemeanor in nice and sweet words. Extend a compliment or two, and the world stretches out before your feet. After all, I conclude, our candidate behaved very Chinese, but in European disguise.
I should receive a confirmation of that perception only a few days later. Our candidate promised me during our last meeting in the same sincere way to reimburse our company for all expenditures made on his behalf for upcoming plane tickets and non-refundable bookings. We contacted him several times and got up to this day nothing than nice messages delaying the payment.
指鹿为马 | Pointing at a Deer to call it a Horse
My above review of that recruitment process might sound as if I had a bias against Chinese in general. I do not. But I believe that the social conditioning which most Chinese have undergone during the last 70 years and probably even longer have made them a people who have no scruples to lie; and very much understandably, because there is most likely no awareness of their wrongdoing.
With Chinese companies going global, Chinese tourists already ranking amongst the top three nations in head count and spending, with a Chinese government launching multiple foreign policy plans aiming at rebuilding China into the Middle Kingdom it once was; it is more than justified to ask, how much of such a corrupt moral framework we should let into our private and professional life, both as foreigner in China as well as back in our home societies.
I am aware that I already made a judgment about what is good and what is not. I did oppose the “good” Western-Hellenistic moral framework to the “bad” and corrupted Chinese one. I don’t want to generalize herewith. There are many things about Chinese culture, which I consider to be good and worthwhile to be handed over to my own children. There are many aspects of contemporary Western culture, which I consider to be corrupted. I nowadays struggle with the validity of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: an unconditional moral obligation which is binding in all circumstances and is not dependent on a person's inclination or purpose. I understand that a Chinese approach of flexible morals is demanded by a society in which one would not survive if he did not lie in certain situations. But where is the red line, which should not be crossed? Was it an unconditional moral obligation for our candidate to inform us earlier, to avoid wasted investments? Or was he free to play his game as long as he had closed his contract with his current employer?
I remember that I once had a discussion about Chinese values with German-Chinese executives who were trained in constructivism. They claimed that one couldn’t judge a culture - civilization to be good or evil; constructivism does not allow attaching these attributes to a culture. Their argument came in reply to me elaborating on certain fascist aspects of Chinese governance. They said that the term culture would simply describe a larger group of people, who live together in some framework for an extended period of time. When I pointed out that Nazi Germany would then also be a culture, they strongly rejected my argument, because they considered 15 years to short to be able to talk of a culture - civilization.
I thought that there was a striking flaw in their logics. Firstly, because fascist Germany could as well have prevailed for a longer period, secondly because similar regimes like in Spain actually did so. But more generally: If we are not allowed to attribute values to a culture, to the moral framework a society thrives in, then we deprive ourselves from a sound judgment of what feels right and what does not. The Holocaust was definitely evil. I don’t think that anybody wants to argue about this; and my constructivist friends did agree with me in that point, but they tried to escape the value discussion by neglecting that Nazi Germany was a culture per se.
Abraham H. Maslow, the grand father of positive psychology wrote shortly after WWII: The most charitable thing we can say about this state of affairs if that American education is conflicted and confused about its far goals and purposes. But for many educators [and I have to include here the parent as the primary educator of his children and the government as the primary educator of its citizens], it must be said more harshly that they seem to have renounced far goals altogether or, at any rate, keep trying to. It is as if they wanted education [and governance] to be purely technological training for the acquisition of skills, which come close to being value-free or amoral (in the sense of being useful either for good of evil, and also in the sense of failing to enlarge personality).
Only a few days ago my not even three-year son was sobbing all morning, because he wanted to join my morning ride to office. As usual my mother in law sent my seven-year-old daughter at 7:25 downstairs to the school bus, but this time I joined with my son. On the way back into the building he continues to sob and whine over riding with me to office. My mother in law tries to distract him by saying: “You first have to pick up your back bag upstairs, then we come back and daddy will wait for you to take you to office.” I am very much irritated and ask her: “Mother, why do you lie to him?” I get on the car and tell my son: “Not today, but you can come another time, when I don’t have client meetings.”
Now, from a practical – short-term point of view it seems that my mother in law did the right thing. She knows that a child will change its point of focus immediately after returning to the apartment and will forget what it desired a few minutes earlier. But from a moral – long-term point of view, she did not act correctly. I believe that Chinese children, including my own, get with the breast - so to say - a certain ignorance instilled for what is right or wrong. I believe that children remember if they are being told something, but it is not acted upon. Our daughter grew up the first years in Europe without the support of our mother in law and remembers clearly if I told her a week earlier, that we would watch a movie that weekend. She is disappointed if we don’t. I guess she will have a more difficult time to get along in Chinese society than our son will have.
Daoism has taught me in an almost poetic way that there is no black and white, neither there are purely good or evil societies. But we certainly live in 50 shades of grey, and I think that China is a few hues darker than (Central) Europe. Even though Maslow did talk in the above quote about the American society, it could be very well said about the Chinese contemporary culture that there is no more understanding of what is right and what is not. As European I am used to make clear distinctions between good and evil. A Chinese is conditioned to never generalize, but act always according to the requirements of the situation. A government which on day one denounces the leftist and on day two the rightist has trained its people to keep their opinions to themselves or abandon participation in public life at all. It certainly has succeeded to pervert its original outset to create a harmonious society, because people are in a regressive state of selfishness; an observation, which Lin Yutang made already in 1935 in his masterpiece My Country and My People. They act evil if it is to their advantage, because they know that everybody else does so, in particular those who govern them. So why should they refrain from doing so?
We operate since early 2010 together with a few other dedicated parents a non-profit kindergarten for 24 children aged two to six in the center of Shanghai. Our daughter spent there more than three years and our son is still in the game. The parents who volunteer to serve on the board invest a considerable amount of time to make this thing happen and we have thus built a community, which shares not only the kindergarten but also many weekend activities. We employ usually four teachers both foreigners and Chinese nationals. One teacher who hails from Anhui was with us for more than four years and we considered her to be the backbone of our little organization. She quit this summer with a phone call, telling the head teacher that she would not return after the summer break.
I tried to call her upon our return to Shanghai, but she would not pick up the phone. The parent’s board slipped into a serious crisis, because we had to find a substitute within a few weeks time. Not only our son, but also a few other children cried during the first days back in kindergarten, because her well-known teacher was not there. Nobody really understood why she had left so abruptly, but we had to deal with the situation.
Until that incident I would have described that teacher as the impersonation of the perfect kindergarten educator: devoted, engaged, multi-lingual, team spirited, and our son loved her. Still in late June this year I asked her during a board and teacher dinner about her future private plans, knowing that she had married some months earlier, but she replied that she had nothing in particular in mind. Our labor contracts require teachers to give us by the end of April a confirmation about extending their contract into the next academic year. She did confirm.
Nevertheless she ditched the board, her colleagues and above all the children in the group, where she had been head teacher. One would assume that in particular a kindergarten teacher, working with toddlers, has a certain sense of empathy. Empathy is always a good steppingstone for the development of a sound moral framework. But I was dumbfounded to realize that these attributes do not apply to Chinese kindergarten teachers. Our son wets his pants since she left during the lunchtime nap.
Greed & Governance
Back in 2013 I took out a mortgage from HSBC to finance our Shanghai apartment. Upon signature of the mortgage agreement I was sitting with my wife and two bank clerks in a small office on Yanan Road. We were filling in the blanks of the agreement form and one of the clerks asked me at which amount we should set the apartment purchase price. I was confused and replied: “But you have the purchase agreement; you certainly know the purchase price.” She exchanged a glance with her colleague and then started to slowly explain that I could increase the purchase price up to 30%. Since I had been told before that the mortgage contract would be handed over to some government agency, I considered this to be a fraud. They again exchanged a glance and continued to explain that most clients inflate the purchase price to take out a higher mortgage. With the excess mortgage which is not needed to pay for the real estate purchase, the clients buy 理财 | licai, i.e. a high interest fund. In my case, I would have been able to get a lump sum X for 4% interests from HSBC and could have invested X into licai for an average interest of 10%; of course at my own risk. I declined politely, telling the bank employees that I would not commit any illegal action. They again exchanged glances and then – I clearly remember this as if it were yesterday – looked straight at my wife and said with a suppressed smile: “你的丈夫真的是个好人! | Your husband is a really good man!” But we both knew that they actually meant: 你的丈夫很幼稚！ | Your husband is very naïve!
With an inflated Chinese housing market, a recently roller coasting stock market, I think that even from an investor’s perspective I did the right thing. But I did not increase my mortgage, because I clearly felt it was wrong to do so. In the eyes of the bank employees I was a naïve foreigner who did not understand how to ride the tide and make easy money. They, of course, had an interest to increase their own account volume and pushed their clients as accomplice into the deviltry, which has its original cause in a totally corrupt real estate market, and which is the major source of income for local governments.
Why are lying, theft, fraud and deceit essential tools in a China survival kit? How far do we have to assimilate as foreigners to fit in and succeed? How much of our own ethical guidelines should we retain as the fundaments of a Western-Hellenistic culture in which we grew up? I can’t provide a turnkey solution to these questions. I believe that the contemporary West has grown too rigid whereas China has perverted any concept of morals altogether. I believe in the culture of my Roman-Hellenistic roots as well as in the ever-changing mindset of Daoism. In the above-described four situations my fellow Chinese citizens clearly acted against my moral framework. And since I don’t want to end up like a friend who recently told me: “During the last 13 years China has taught me to lie.”, I will continue to follow my own sense of what is good and what is not.