the politics of backbiting

By now you have probably read that Shenzhen passed a new law that makes it more difficult to avoid the one-child policy by giving birth to a second child outside the country.

Between 2000-2009, it is estimated that the number of Chinese citizens having children in Hong Kong went from 709 to 29,766 annually and was still rising in 2010 and 2011. Indeed, some claim that today almost half of the children born in Hong Kong are born to Mainland families. Of this total, over 25% had Shenzhen hukou. Their children have Hong Kong identity cards, and although the parents must pay extra fees for schooling and medical care, nevertheless, they have avoided “second child fines (二胎罚款)” and other more drastic measures of enforcing the one child policy.

As of January 1, 2013, Shenzhen parents who have a second child abroad and then bring the child back to Shenzhen to raise for more than 1.5 years will be fined up to 219,000 rmb (US $35,000), which is roughly the current fine for second children born to parents with Shenzhen hukou. The fine is set each year by multiplying the average annual salary of the year before by 6 to 8 times. In 2011, the average salary was 36,505 rmb. This means that the 2012 Shenzhen penalties for second children are between 219,030 to 438,060 rmb.

This past spring, the Chinese news was full of speculation about how the government would handle the case of Olympic gold medalist Tian Liang, whose wife gave birth to a second child in Hong Kong. People wondered if Tian Liang would be fined as much as 2 million rmb and, more to the point, if he would loose his job, which is representing China in international track and field events. After all, ordinary government workers are not only fined for having a second child, but also loose their jobs. Thus, the Tian Liang case illuminated how it was possible for the wealthy and influential to avoid the consequences meted out to “common people” who gave birth to a second child in the Mainland.

Today, a friend told me about this new law as an example of the politics of backbiting, after all, it has been the rich and powerful who have taken advantage of Hong Kong hospitals to give birth to second children. Moreover, these are precisely the people who are targeted by ambitious underlings. He asked me to imagine how someone advanced within the government bureaucracy. Not on talent, but guanxi. However, when guanxi failed, it was possible to hire a private detective for 20,000 rmb to follow someone and document when and how they broke a law. He estimated that the first half of 2013 would be interesting to see how the newly pregnant rich and powerful handled the births of their second children; ordinary families became pregnant already prepared to pay second child fines.

Clearly my friend moves in nervous circles, where the law is used as a weapon of political infighting. This was, in fact, his point. Human rights and rule of law will not be established in China, he concluded, as long as careers were advanced and derailed through guanxi and/or backbiting.

“But people still accept this situation,” I commented.

He sighed, before saying, “China isn’t yet so corrupt that the people will risk their lives to overthrow the Party. There are still enough talented people in the government that society works. At some point, the balance will tip and we’ll be in revolt.”

“But now?”

“Now I’m just frustrated. I want out. But there’s nowhere to go.”

A catch-22, in fact. My friend plans to send his daughter to school abroad with the understanding that she not come back, unless it is to work for a foreign company; he believes she will be happier abroad than she could be in Shenzhen. He is not jumping, however, because he also knows the only place to earn the money necessary to launch his daughter abroad is his current, relatively high ranking position within a work unit of trusted guanxi and potential backbiters.

more confucian business ethics: collect the bags!

Roughly twenty years ago, he, his wife, and their son immigrated from China to Southern California. They came to Shenzhen last year to do business with successful college classmates and brought a daughter and a younger son. The older son remained in California. The man was 40 something years of age, and he told me that his wife and son met a friend and business associate at LAX. When the three went to pick up the visitor’s luggage, his wife went to collect the bags. However, because she is a woman, the visitor stopped her and collected the bags instead. The man didn’t say, but I’m assuming the wife and friend engaged in some who-can-hold-onto-the-bags shuffle, with the result that the visitor ended up carrying his own bags. The son waited for the ritual to end and then led his mother and his father’s friend to the car. The son drove them home.

The man told me this story because he wanted to know what I thought; how had the son behaved?

“Based on what I know of American or Chinese cultural norms?” I hedged, thinking that any young man who drove his mother to the airport to pickup a guest was an accommodating son, and that if his parents and their friends wanted to engage in who’s-the-most-polite shuffles, then that really was their business and why not wait for the storm to end. In fact, personally, I sympathized with the son’s position because I am frequently nonplussed when confronted by demonstrations of Chinese courtesy that are also not-so-sutble assertions of dominance.

He explained that afterward his friend had approached him to talk about the matter. The friend worried that the son did “did not understand things (不懂事),” an expression with meanings that range from ‘immature’ through ‘is insensible to the feelings of others’ to ‘has no concept of proper behavior’. The friend had acted out of concern because he worried for his friend’s son future prospects. To declare a college graduate “does not understand things” means that those in positions of power “cannot use him (不能用人)” and thus will not place him in positions of responsibility, thereby foreclosing opportunities for advancement.

At the time, the father had replied that he thought skill (能力) was the most important criteria for promotions. However, when he discussed the issue with another friend, this time the CEO of a small company, he realized that from the point of view of makers and shakers in China, his son in fact “could not be used”. The CEO explained that he had two employees, A and B, who went everywhere with him. The CEO did not have a driver and so A and B took turns driving. When A drove, he made sure to open the CEO’s door for him before getting into the car. When B drove, he immediately sat in the driver’s seat and A, again, opened the CEO’s door before settling himself in the car.

“Now, who should I promote?” the CEO rhetorically asked the man. “Obviously, A is more meticulous/ attentive (更细心) than B. Consequently, he can be trusted, whereas B doesn’t see the big picture.”

The big picture included hierarchy and etiquette, or understanding one’s relationship with another and each time A opened the CEO’s door, he demonstrated his understanding. In contrast, B did his job. On the CEO’s interpretation, it didn’t matter how talented B was. The real problem was that B couldn’t be trusted to treat guests and by extension business colleagues and clients, properly. A could.

I’m told there are serious differences between etiquette in state-owned industries, where bureaucratic privilege trumps skill and the private sector, where talented people are more valued than sycophants. Also, it seems that things “are different” in the IT sector, but again, people quickly remind me, that techies are young and often westernized. Westernized, perhaps, but as in Western business culture, Chinese business culture distinguishes between those who give good face and those who do their jobs well; rare is the individual who can both manage people and complete tasks.

Interestingly, although the characters for the Chinese words for CEO (董事长) and “understand things” are different, nevertheless they are homophones, which alerts us to the moral of today’s story. At an airport, there are several rules that apply when greeting Chinese guests:

1. If the guest is older than you — collect the luggage to show your respect;

2. If the guest has a higher rank than you — collect the luggage to show your respect;

3. If the guest is a friend — collect the luggage in order to demonstrate your good will.

There are three possible exceptions to the “collect the luggage” rule for greeting Chinese guests, gender, age, and White ethnicity. A friend would neither expect a friend’s wife to collect luggage, nor would that friend expect an elementary school child to collect luggage. Although if the child grabbed a bag, be sure to laugh happily, muss her hair, and exclaim, “Wow, she really understands things!” And yes, white Americans are forgiven for all sorts of social faux pas that Chinese-Americans are not so that when we go for the bags, we suddenly appear “Chinese”.

But to return to the father’s story. What do we say to a Chinese man, who clearly wants his American son to succeed, knowing that amongst globe-trotting Chinese he will be judged by ancestral values and not those of his hometown, Los Angeles?

Speculation about Shenzhen’s Cultural Industry

Today, I’m following up yesterday’s cultural industry post with a friend’s highly speculative explanation for the apparent decline of the Century Handicraft Plaza. This conversation interests me because it provides a sociological explanation for economic success; the question isn’t what can be known, but rather, in the absence of knowledge, what ought to be assumed. Moreover, the assumption is interestingly at odds with Weber’s puritans, who saw wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. In contrast, my friend sees wealth and economic viability as signs of corruption.

Me: When I went to the Yongfengyuan store in the Handicraft Plaza, I was surprised by the fact that they were selling the same cultural products as last year and that the second floor showroom had been converted to office space. How can this happen to a national level cultural enterprise? Moreover, many of the surrounding shops had closed. So despite architectural renovations, the Plaza seemed abandoned.

Friend: It’s actually not too difficult to figure out. The cultural industry fair is over, so there’s no reason to keep pumping money into the Plaza. Also, Yongfengyuan makes expensive gifts that officials exchange, so the brand has probably been a way of channeling public money into private pockets.  Continue reading