Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Chinese and MH370

Having no firsthand knowledge of China whatsoever, but good reasons to understand it better, I find Chinese reactions to the MH370 disaster very interesting indeed.

It scarcely needs rehearsing that MH370 is a tragedy and, who knows, potentially as nefarious as Pan Am 103.  Relatives of the Lockerbie victims have plugged away in resolute and dignified fashion for 25 years to get closer to what actually happened, without definitive success.  Mysteries like this make the underlying calamity the more difficult to bear: and arguably, right now before any wreckage is found, MH370 is in some ways even more unsettling.  Common humanity dictates compassion for all concerned.

That said, what are we to make of the fairly unrestrained public outpourings of quite a number of Chinese families?  In Japan (which I do know something about) it wouldn't happen like that.  Private grief and bewilderment would doubtless be as great, but powerful cultural forces would ensure that dignity was maintained: the wider families of the heart-broken would embrace and comfort them, and at the same time enforce the stoic decorum which is central to the way of life.  Japanese society as a whole wouldn't, couldn't countenance people losing it in public. (This isn't some sort of 10,000 mile-distant stereotyping:  we know it from their responses to the tsunami.)  We all saw the dignity, nay resolute cheerfulness, with which Filipinos bore their own disasters last year.  And Radio 4 has been interviewing an American relative of an MH370 victim whose composure, dignity and Christian equanimity in his evident distress has been a model the stoics of old would have commended, and that we might all hope to emulate should such a thing befall us.

As for the Chinese, I am left puzzling over the strands.  Doesn't 'face' count for something in China, as we are always led to believe?  Does the Chinese government think it strengthens their global image to have the world watching their distraught citizens behave thus?  Shows them to be a people of heartfelt feeling?  Gives them some kind of upper hand against Malaysia in disputes over the South China Sea?  Deflects Chinese opinion from wondering why China itself has looked so impotent over the whole affair (as everything is once again left to the Anglo-Saxons to clear up)?  I'd be surprised.

Would Chinese people dare to behave thus if a future disaster is entirely of Chinese making?  Do they in fact behave exactly thus (and there are many, many such Chinese disasters all the time) but the authorities make sure we never get to see it?   Would these suppositions have been true in the past, but now the internet makes suppression more difficult and 2014 marks some kind of turning-point?  Or is it a release for pent-up frustration against their own government, which they feel at liberty to express provided they direct it at the nasty foreign Malays?  (Even a shot across the bows of the Chinese government?  This is how we really feel when these man-made disasters happen and no-one tells us anything - watch out the next time one of those home-grown catastrophes occurs.)

The nearest anyone has got to giving me an explanation is that the Chinese are accustomed to a very 'orderly' public world in which nothing goes wrong without it being authoritatively (if mendaciously) explained by the Party in ways that brook no doubt or dissent.  Thus, they are totally lost in a situation of unstructured uncertainty, at which point anything can happen.   That makes sense as a contributory factor.

Maybe more and better explanations will come our way.  I hope these poor people get whatever it takes to comfort them soon.

In the meantime I am left with the clear impression the whole episode shows that the global standing of China is a lot poorer than heir-apparent-imminent to World Leadership. 



Sebastian Weetabix said...

Having lived in both, I couldn't resist chipping in since Mainland Chinese behaviour can be quite entertaining. (It is an important distinction; Taiwanese and Singaporean Chinese do not behave like the mainland Chinese, and indeed, tend not to much like them.)

I would say the Japanese are like us; reserved, largely very polite - in fact 'negatively polite' in the sense of if you step on their foot, they say 'sorry' - and just like us British, they don't really mean it, it's simply a social convention that oils wheels. They are also diligent, hard working and extremely well organised, as prejudice may well lead you to think.

The Chinese are more open emotionally. They laugh very easily (all my Chinese friends and acquaintances have a great sense of humour) but they are also quick to anger. When things are not going according to plan they are much given to disorganisation and panic. An American friend of mine in China used the phrase "Chinese fire drill"; not being familiar with the phrase I asked what it meant. The answer came "when a fire alarm goes off, everyone jumps out of their seat, runs several times around the building in panic and then gets back in their original seat - and in the meantime, no one deals with the actual fire". Having seen quite a few trivial business excitements in China this struck me as very apt. One example should suffice:

"The customer is angry, the product doesn't work! It is causing electromigration! What do we do?!"
[for those who are interested: essentially short circuits in electronic equipment - usually a complex problem with many causes, requiring thoughtful, diligent investigation to find the root cause or causes]
Answer: "we will run the industry standard test on our retained sample. This will take 168 hours. If it passes this test we will know for certain our product is not causing the problem. If it fails then it is certainly at least partly our problem. Until then tell them what we are doing but under no circumstances admit fault. It is too early to say."
24 hours later: "the customer is angry! Where are the test results?"
"Er.. It's a 168 hour test. We will have the answer after 168 hours, not before."
"Too slow! We need it now!"
"It's already an accelerated test. It can't go quicker. It just takes 168 hours. We can't change the rules of physics."
"They were really angry so I admitted it is our fault! We must pay compensation!"
"You what?!"
"Otherwise we will lose the customer!"
After much arse kicking and western invention, sanity was restored. Naturally, the test was passed.

To summarise:
In Japan, it is important to get it right first time, every time. So people do.

In China, it is important to do it quickly, be seen to be doing it quickly, and when it screws up be seen to be running around trying to fix it. So people do. In China it is MUCH better to spend 6 weeks doing something 6 times until you get it right than to spend 6 weeks to do it right first time. Also, when it does screw up, it is ALWAYS someone else's fault, otherwise you lose face.

Sebastian Weetabix said...

Btw, my Chinese chum in the example above was a graduate of Zhejiang University (probably the best in China) with a first class degree, and the highest possible certification as an accredited English-Chinese interpreter. He wasn't cheap as Chinese staff go!

Jan said...

My immediate thought was that it was interesting that the default position seems to be that no-one believes anything from "the authorities".

Anonymous said...

Perhaps in China as citizens have few enforceable rights they use this approach to embarrass the government office concerned, and gain redress.

I heard recently a story of similar individual behaviour in China after a traffic accident, to try and gain more compensation from the govt employee involved. Loss of face meant he soon gave in after a few days wailing and shouting at the front entrance.

Lewis N. Clark said...

The Chinese physician was Huang Huiyou(Chinese: 黄會友; in Japanese: Kou Kai Yuu). He first refused to teach surgery because it was a secret, but finally agreed to teach surgery due to the eagerness of Tokumei. Beijing Interpreter