Tue, 01 Feb 2011

From: The Jakarta Post

By Bob Widyahartono, Jakarta
The year 2011 in the Chinese calendar is the Year of the Rabbit, which begins on Feb. 3, 2011, and concludes on Jan. 22, 2012. Understanding the yearly horoscope, with its wide span of predictions related to economic and socio-political affairs, is typical, not only in Chinese society, but also in East Asian and Southeast Asian cultures.

The Chinese calendar is neither adopted nor understood by many Western experts and business executives, nor does it have any role in the Western style of education that has shaped the thinking of many.

China’s rise since the era of Deng Xiaoping (from 1978 onwards) has constantly faced challenges. It was Deng who famously opened up the country with his gradually planned and implemented reform (gaige kaifang) under the slogan “groping for stones crossing the river”. Deng’s successor Jiang Zemin coined the phrase “build trust, decrease trouble, develop cooperation and avoid confrontation”, while China’s next ruler Hu Jintao averred “to be close to reality, close to the people and close to life”.

The goal of these new views of citizenship and governance was to liberate millions of Chinese to work, plan and self-organize while keeping China’s massive, turbulent society glued together. The magnitude of change in China continues to increase as impacts on society have become more complex (Joshua Cooper Ramo in The Beijing Consensus, 2004).

Many of our political elites and business executives, however, have their doubts about China’s strategic advancement.

A recent study published by John and Doris Naisbitt in China’s Megatrends: The 8 Pillars of a New Society (2010) highlights the fundamental, gradual changes in China’s social, political and economic life. The Naisbitts sharply expose China’s leadership and its common people’s low profile by noting the expression: “The West is a lecturing society; China is a learning society”.

The Naisbitt’s eight pillars as the foundation and drivers of China’s new society are: emancipation of the mind, balancing top-down and bottom-up, framing the forest and letting the trees grow, crossing
the river by feeling the stones, artistic and intellectual ferment, joining the world, freedom and firmness and from Olympic medals to Nobel prizes.

“Emancipation of the mind” focuses on Deng’s vision, the indispensable step in China’s journey to modernity and a market economy. The idea is social order and harmony in a vertical democracy, implemented through top-down and bottom-up initiatives that are very different from Western thinking about free and democratic societies.

The essence of Chinese networking, which since 1992 has pushed the gaige kaifang policy, applies to traditional enterprises that were mostly built around clan-like networks with close family members forming the core.

Loyalty to the group paralleled a built-in trust in small- and even medium-scale enterprises and organizations and their strong leadership orientation, with staff always benefitting from what their leaders or superiors are doing. Members prefer to observe from a distance and opt to wait and see until decisions are made following feedback from the lower echelons.

Negotiation and communication is more about building a relationship in order to achieve harmony - a win-win basis. While in the West kinship and family ties are looser, in the Asian world, including Indonesia, these ties are very important. In Asia, children are brought up to respect their parents and to do their utmost to adjust their behavior to promote a sense of harmony. The rule about respecting relationships extends outside the immediate family, an indication of the relative hierarchical status between people.

The role of guanxi (networking) based on shinyung (trust), even in the information age, remains important. People who share these relationships are committed to one another by an unspoken code of reciprocity and equity. Violating this commitment can seriously damage one’s social reputation, leading to a humiliating loss of face.

Similar to “face” is “humanized obligation” as a form of social capital that can provide a sound basis for interpersonal networking relationships. This humanized obligation in Indonesian business relationships is known as repaying a debt of benevolence, and cannot be computed purely in monetary terms.

Western executives who only spend a short time in Asia might consider networking in the Asian context as a waste of time, energy and money. They may not understand that Asians dislike direct confrontation and any form of public criticism under any circumstances.

In business negotiations, criticizing an Asian directly without any introductory explanation is seen as a sort of violence, to which an Asian would rarely noticeably react or respond. Western executives, on the other hand, are always in a hurry and work based on the three Cs: competitiveness, challenge and confrontation or conflict resolution.

Although on the surface Asian business works by adapting to the Western way of doing business,
in reality, the built-in attitude and behavior of Asians is filled with compromise, accommodation and consensus in order to achieve long-term working relationships based on harmony.

It is an unwritten rule that Asian executives from the top-down as well as the bottom-up exercise an extremely high degree of patience and endurance in protecting the good name of the business as a whole.

Indonesian experts and executives can read through the Naisbitt’s eight pillars in order to learn about and discuss the new China, as well as for fresh insight about how not to blindly mimic Western values.

Further digging into the eight pillars for Indonesians should not just be quick-fix reading, but will be a process unto itself in order to apply the pillars in the Indonesian context.

The writer is a senior lecturer in international business at Tarumanagara University, Jakarta, and a regular contributor to the media on East Asia.