Chinese Working Culture

10 06 2009

Chinese workerAfter having worked and lived in China and Hong Kong for three years, I think I have identified some of the most important aspects of Chinese management style. Obviously this is just a generalization and all generalizations are wrong. But I think that up to a point this generalization summarizes very well my experience with Chinese managers. I am not trying to create an stereotype about Chinese Management. I am just trying to describe my experience. (I do not believe in stereotypes. See this post)

My experience is that the following 11 traits, which can be classified in 5 groups, are common in Chinese workplaces:

Group 1: Confucian values

Confucius has been probably one of the most influential person in China. He lived in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. He did not develop any philosophical idea himself but transmitted and defended traditional Chinese values, which, according to him, were being lost at that time. His ideas were very criticized by Mao Zedong 25 centuries later. But I still think today’s Chinese people are much more influenced by Confucian thinking than by Maoist thinking.

  • Harmony: For Confucius, harmony is the highest value. In the same way that nature is harmonious, society must also be. I think the reason for this is that since very early in history, China was very densely populated, and Chinese early leaders had to pay much more attention to developing an harmonious organization of the State, than early civilizations in Europe or the Middle East. Keeping things in order is very important in China.
  • Obedience: For Confucius, human beings need to develop relations of obedience or subordination so that the society is harmonious. For example, the subject has to obey the king, the son has to obey the parent, the little brother has to obey the older brother, the wife has to obey the husband, etc. (Note that the feminist movement is much less developed in China than in western countries). This thinking is still very deep in the mind of Chinese people of the XXI century. For example, the feeling of respect for the elderly is much more strong in Hong Kong or Shanghai than in any western city I know.  It is not strange at all for a son to give half of his salary to his parents.
  • Circular thinking: For the Chinese, quite a lot of concepts have a circular nature. One clear example is time: the same things happen again and again. History is circular and not lineal like in the West. The best example is the history of China which can be summarized as the continuous succession of the following four stages: “arrival of a new dynasty”, “dynasty at its height”, “decline of the dynasty”, “China in chaos” and start back again. Note that this circular pattern cannot be easily applied to the history of western civilizations. Another clear example is human relations understood as a continuous exchange of favors or services among people. In China, the idea of doing something for somebody else in exchange of nothing is less common than in the West. The reason is that the favor is circular and it has to come back to the person who did it. For example, at work in China, if a colleague or business partner helps you in something, he understands that he is developing an important link with you and that he will have the right to ask for a favor back in the future. The favor has to come back to him because it is circular.

Group 2: Communication

  • Indirect Communication: Indirect communication is another consequence of the high population that China has always experienced. Taking into account that you have many neighbors and that they are very close, you better pay attention to your communication in order to avoid conflict. This is how they think. In Spain, where I come from, I think many managers are very likely to care more about resolving conflict than about avoiding it. In China, it is clearly the contrary. I have a quite detailed post about indirect communication here.

The art of war, Sun tzuGroup 3: Management

The art of the war is a great military treatise written by a Chinese general of the 6th century BC. The amazing thing about this book is that if you replace “War” with “Business”, “Army” with “Enterprise”, “General” with “Businessman”, you get the oldest Business strategy book of the world. In this book, there is a sentence that says “The general should be calm, reserved, methodical and fair”. When I read it, I was very surprised because this is just the most accurate description I have heard of many of the Chinese managers I know.

  • Calm: In the West “time is money”. In the East is not necessarily that way. Chinese people are usually very calm and patient in business. I think of two very deep cultural reasons for that. On the one hand, taking into account that Chinese civilization is 5000 years old, it is understandable that taking some months more to finish a project is not so important. On the other hand, time is not important because time is circular. Please see my description of “Circular Thinking” (3rd item of group 1).
  • Discretion: confidentiality is a consequence of indirect communication. For Chinese people, some things have to be kept secret in order to avoid conflict. However, if it finally comes out that they were kept in secret, they may create more conflict than if they had been public. My experience is that Chinese leaders are much more reserved when talking about business strategy, goals, objective, performance, than Western leaders.
  • Method: Chinese managers care very much about how things are done. Things have to be harmonious (See 1st item of group 1) and harmony is not about results but about methodology. On the other hand, Imperial China was famous in Europe for its rituals. I think some Chinese managers (especially those whose work is not directly related to operations) are more focused on following a harmonious methodology rather than achieving a good result.
  • Fairness: I think fairness is a kind of universal value in China and in the West. If a manager is not fair, he will loose his credibility and people will not follow him.

Group 4: decision making

From my experience, Chinese people make decision guided by two forces, which are usually opposed. Chinese managers will look for a balance between them:

  • Control: In a complex society with a high population density where harmony is the highest value (see 1st item of group 1), things cannot be trusted to chance. Things must be controlled in such a way that harmony is achieved. Following this philosophy, Chinese managers usually prefer to control as many aspects of the topic in hand as possible. The negative side of this is that it is not uncommon that managers focus onto details too much and are not willing to delegate tasks to subordinates.
  • Consensus: Consensus is an important element of indirect communication. Decisions in China are usually taken by consensus in order to avoid conflict. Chinese managers in an enterprise (or in The Party) may have very different views about a certain topic. The decision has to make sure that nobody is too unhappy about it. I would like to give an example about Chinese politics, which I know that may be misunderstood in western countries. One of the differences between the politics in democratic countries and in China is not, up to an extent, that decisions in western democracies are made by consensus or debate and in China they are imposed by authority. I think they are debated in both places and that consensus is searched in both places. The key difference is that in China the debate is private and in the West is public. Please see what I wrote about discretion (2nd item of group 3). This political example was suggested to me by a Chinese friend  and business contact who was educated in France. I think the example is very interesting although many people might this interpretation of Chinese politics.

Group 4: Risk attitude

I think Chinese attitude to risk is controlled by two strong forces. These forces are also opposed.

  • Caution: Caution is the underlying force that keeps Chinese people from taking risks. China is an unstable country with regular natural disasters, social instability, with no social security (retirement)… As a result, Chinese people pay especial attention to assuring their future. And what do they do? They save money, much more than Europeans and Americans. At workplace, some Chinese managers also trend to avoid risks, specially those involved in stable business models or sectors. On the other hand, taking into account that Chinese people are very obedient to senior people at work, a not uncommon way of avoiding risk is letting the supervisor make decisions that in the West would most likely have been done by the subordinate.
  • Ambition: Ambition is the opposite to caution. I think this is the Chinese personality trait that has most influenced the recent economic development of China. Chinese people are ambitious (in the good sense of the word) and this ambition make people take risks in order to have the option to get a potential future benefit. Some studies show that Chinese entrepreneurs tolerate much more risk than their American counterparts. Some studies even show this is not something related to the current economic situation of China but something quite cultural. For example, some studies show that there are more Chinese proverbs promoting risk-taking than in western countries.

1st Image: a Chinese worker in Luohu (Shenzhen). The picture belongs to me.

2nd Image: The Art of War, Shambhala Publications. I found this image on



6 responses

19 07 2009
China for the Chinese? « GlobThink

[...] Chinese. The reason is that their way of thinking is absolutely different from a local Chinese (here I have a post in which I describe Chinese working culture according to me [...]

4 08 2009
The Nordic model of capitalism « GlobThink

[...] Generally speaking, democratic capitalism is easier to find in small companies that in big one. Personally, I find democratic capitalism in large Nordic companies very interesting. My experience is that management styles based on authority (Imperial CEO) may erode the workers motivation and productivity. I think this is a weakness of the French and Chinese models, among others. (For information about Chinese working culture see this post) [...]

13 08 2009

Your summary is very good with keen observation.

6 09 2009
Chinese and Taiwanese Students at Chicago Booth « GlobThink

[...] See my article about the values of Chinese people at work to imagine what a Chinese style democracy could look like. [...]

27 09 2009
Chinese and Taiwanese students at Chicago Booth | MBA Admissions dot org

[...] See my article about the values of Chinese people at work to imagine what a Chinese style democracy could look like. [...]

6 03 2010

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