The biggest challenge facing China

This year a crowd of economists and social spectators have started to wonder aloud if 2012 will be the year China’s system collapses (to be fair, this is an annual tradition). This time they are pointing to mass incidents, economic troubles, growing evidence of corruption, a Grand Canyon sized gap between rich and poor, and scandals that seem to rock the country on a bi-weekly basis. These are challenges China has overcome before, but on a much smaller scale and without having to contend with the openness of Weibo. Some might go so far as to say that what has already been set in motion makes it impossible to avoid such a catastrophe.

However, there is a single problem underlying many of China’s greatest woes: Mistrust.

Over the next few days we’ll be exploring some of the ways in which trust has disappeared from Chinese society, what the costs of this mistrust are, and how it can be restored. And, if China wants to continue its massive economic growth, trust must be restored.

Trust between strangers

The other day my co-worker was in a tizzy as she entered the office. The night before, she had forgotten her cell phone in the office and couldn’t tell her husband to pick up their son. For the next 30 minutes she approached strangers in the subway station to ask them if she could use their phone to make one quick call. She was even going to give them a few RMB for their troubles. She is well off and dresses as such, but without the audacity of China’s nouveau riche. Yet not one of the hundreds of people who passed her were willing to help.

While this is in no way a shocking example, it hit my co-worker quite deeply. After all, she is a Nanjing native, and remembers a time when the city was much smaller and a sense of trust still existed. She told me that people today seem much colder than before, and took her own experience as evidence of that fact.

This feeling of distrust is fueled by rapid urbanization, and is in no way unique to China (as Stan Abrams points out in this excellent post). However, nowhere on Earth is changing as quickly as China and that has a profound effect on how people view strangers. There is something deeply unsettling about not knowing your neighbors.

Additionally, I’ve heard many people, both foreign and Chinese, discuss the ways in which the Cultural Revolution destroyed the trust between strangers. This sad era was just one of many crackdowns that led to persecution on a massive scale which saw neighbors and friends turn on one another. I remember a Chinese-American friend in the US whose mother would scold her for talking to classmates that weren’t “true friends,” even 30 years after the nightmare was over and 10,000 miles away. During the Cultural Revolution her mother’s father had been locked in a classroom for days by the local Red Guard unit. Shortly after that she was adopted by an uncle in an effort to help her escape the label of “class enemy.”

While I would say that a more general kind of trust has returned to the countryside, there is still little trust when it comes to exposing one’s politics. There are some lessons learned in childhood that are impossible to forget.

All of this is not to say that there is no trust in China’s urban centers; I regularly see contradictory evidence. For example: on buses in Chengdu, passengers often get on the bus in the back, then hand their bus passes forward, often worth nearly 100RMB, to complete strangers without the slightest worry as to whether or not the pass will be returned (it almost always is). Instead, what is important is that people feel that there is no trust.

I believe this stems from the greater trust issues that are so pervasive in modern China. After all if you can’t trust larger social institutions, how can you trust a stranger?

Next we’ll be exploring the trust deficit between individuals and businesses.

25 responses to “The biggest challenge facing China”

  1. The problem is that lack of trust is taught as a virtue. China’s business culture loves to make money out of doing nothing by ignoring contracts – because there’s no way for foreign entities to enforce them.

    The everyday Chinese is so wary of being stolen from (because it happens all the time) or being sued for their actions (like that poor little girl who was run over and ignored by passers by), or just being used (see business culture again) that it’s very hard for them to trust.

    In a country where the use of propoganda is not only pervasive but effective – you’d think the Chinese government could see their way clear to pushing some useful social values wouldn’t you? I suspect it’s going to be coming soon – the government is beginning to find Chinese behaviour embarssing when it comes under a global spotlight.

    • James says:

      Lei Feng – a name every person in China knows – The paragon of social virtues, and not only taught in school, but celebrated every year on March 5th.

      It’s not that they haven’t been taught, or that the propaganda isn’t thorough enough.

      It’s that Chinese culture is based on dividing the world into groups – you have ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ – these distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are bred-in-the-bone indispensable.

      A common Chinese saying is: ‘nei wai you bie’ (insiders and outsiders are different)

      In the Chinese worldview there are two kinds of people – Chinese and foreigners (waigruoren – outside country people).

      Yet in Chinese society there are more careful divisions between insiders and outsiders –
      local people vs. people from other places (they live near to you – they are known quantities)
      classmates vs. not classmates (you may not like them but you’ve spent thousands of hours with them)
      people you have a relationship with vs. people you don’t.

      I was raised in a society that taught me all people are equal. You trust, but verify.

      Chinese society teaches that people are not equal. There is a small group you trust, and a large group you don’t.

      The father of a friend of mine was really depressed – to the point that his family was covertly watching him to make sure he didn’t suicide.

      It was because his bedrock understanding of societal interactions was shattered. A good friend of his, one he’d gone to school with, from kindergarten to high school, they’d worked, played, eaten, and performed together – had cheated him – had been cheating him since they’d started doing business together – for years had cheated him and smiled to his face, and eaten meals with him.

      This is simply not done. Cheating outsiders, yes, that’s business. Cheating your friends – is shattering the social pact.

      Also – regarding the story of the little girl who got run over – Austin Ramzy, of Time wrote about it, and quoted Chinese anthropologist Fei Xiaotong.

      “In his 1939 work Peasant Life in China, Chinese anthropologist Fei Xiaotong examined how social obligations were determined by the closeness of relationships. Fei “called this a concentric pattern of social relations with positions measured by how close one stood in relation to the actor,” Linda Wong wrote in her 1998 book Marginalization and Social Welfare in China. “The more distant the location from the centre, the weaker the claim, so that ultimately one did not have any obligation to people unknown to oneself.”

      In essence: If I don’t have a relationship to you, you’re not.

      You’re not a fellow human, you’re just an obstacle to get around.

      Changing such a deeply held cultural belief takes time, lots of time.

      • Frieder says:

        Very insightful comment, James and funny that I just had a Tab open with 费孝通’s Wikipedia entry because I was searching for sociological authors in China. Did you read one or more of his works (or translations thereof) already?

  2. C. says:

    I think trusting strangers leads to trusting larger social institutions. Look at America: by all measures, Americans should NOT trust certain social institutions, but they do. I suspect that the reason why is they can trust an average stranger.

    In addition to what shardsofchina said, I think the other issue is how Chinese people view intelligence. Like Russians, someone is intelligent if they can con someone. It’s actually respected. Those who are honest are childish.

    • Rod in China says:

      “someone is intelligent if they can con someone. It’s actually respected. Those who are honest are childish.”

      I’ve heard and read this before in many places, but I can’t see that I’ve seen it or felt it first hand. Maybe I AM childish and naive by trusting my friends and coworkers (to a certain degree), but this is one negative aspect of Chinese culture that I’ve read about, but not felt personally.

      I have made the mistake of lending money to a Chinese person on 3 separate occasions (all times have been close friends), and they never return it on time. Not only that, but I have to repeatedly ask, for months on end, until it comes to a head and I accuse them of stealing money, and only then do they return it, asking me what the big deal was. Then they’re not great friends anymore. Whoops.

  3. C. says:

    Oh, and I posted before I added the part about the role Confucian hierarchy plays in this. The absolute worst thing you can do in this situation is push for a traditional understanding of Confucianism. Stan at China Hearsay’s right: was designed for an agricultural society just will not work in an urban one without substantial changes.

    I think the reason why Confucianism works in urbanized Japan fairly well is because their notions of face are oriented towards both strangers AND family. (I’m told it’s true to a lesser degree in Korea, but I’ve never been there, so I can’t say for certain.) In China, face doesn’t really play much of a role in stranger relationships — which is why you see people shouting at each other in negotiations over handbags or after accidents.

  4. sinostand says:

    A few weeks ago someone knocked on my door asking to use my phone. I assumed it was some kind of scam like just about everyone else who knocks on my door – that they’d call some number they were in cahoots with that would charge me a ton. So I pretended I couldn’t understand Chinese and shut the door. I was pretty ashamed and it’s something I never would have done back home, but sometimes I feel that kind of attitude is the only way to avoid getting ripped off here.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      This is a good anecdote, sinostand, because it clearly points out the fallacy of finding fault with “the culture.” There are two problems with that view. First, it relies on a view of culture that is monolithic and rule oriented, i.e., their is a set of rules that comprise a culture that all people follow in an unquestioning manner. I’ll avoid commenting in detail on other fallacious points made above about the virtue of scamming and how this explains everything one encounters in China. Second, the answer to people’s mistrust lies in the reality (or at the very least the perception of the reality) of a lot of petty crime. After all, did you feel uncomfortable in that situation because “your culture” (whatever that may be) demanded that you not be good to a stranger? Finally, I think its a mistake to find a single cause (lack of trust) in the failure to lend a cell phone and failure to help an injured toddler on the street.

      • Frieder says:

        A well-put comment. Lorin, from the two (or, in fact, three) points you made above I most strongly agree to your first one. When people talk about “the Chinese” or any other nationality/ethnic group, a massively loud alarm signal sounds in the back of my head. I am not a big fan of intercultural clichés à la Hofstede/Trompenaars, because reality is so much more finely grained. Your final point, stating the fallacy of a single cause points exactly to that feeling of mine I suppose. Just had a look at your blog and projects, very interesting indeed!

      • Jay says:

        There are trustworthy and untrustworthy people everywhere but having lived in Korea, Taiwan, the US, China and Japan I can say without hesitation that China is far and away the place where trust is rarest (and deservedly so). When I lived there I felt like I was living in a city without a soul.

    • sinostand says:

      As fate would have it, just now another person knocked on my door asking to use the phone…in a much sketchier fashion. Now I feel fairly confident that I did the right thing.

  5. Pudding says:

    I always like this debate, or discussion. Upfront there are people that scam or cheat anywhere. But this article is about China. So here goes. 

    I have to worry about finding suppliers about every 6 months to a year becuase the accounting department of the factory, or the boss, or whomever doesn’t pay someone and they burn a bridge. Thus I am out material for making my widgets. Great huh? Yeah. 

    Just look at the houses and the metal bars up everywhere. Even on floors that might other wise be impossible to reach. Bars usually there too. 

    Pick pockets in the street and now one cares, or notices, or whatever. They probably scared of being knifed if they call out them out and they call their gang that they are probably working with. 

    The bus card I’ve also seen. I’ve done it myself. In that situation I think that since it’s in view of the public people don’t tend to steal. It’s like a collective trust. I give you my card, ten people see me, there is a good chance I am getting it back. But most all cards are customized so they can’t be switched. Or they just want them to look nice. Could be over thinking that one. But then the pick pocket thing comes to mind and no one stops that.. So.. Yeah. 

    Look how all the pay systems work. Pay first, everywhere. In the States for the most part you pay last. Everything here is prepay. There are some things that can play into that, like credit rating or identity, but I feel it’s because if they didn’t get the money upfront, they would get burned. 

    My company just had a huge problem with something it was supposed to do. It royally effed an American company. The CEO sent an email to the factory wanting a letter explaining how the factory dropped the ball, what is being done to fix it, and an apology so he can show his customers that they can trust him since he had to ship late because of the factory. In my defense it was not my department. This is Taiwanese to America. 

    The Taiwanese girl sent an email in reply asking for payment on the account. What a poor move that was. Here is your customer wanting you to write a apology letter for something you clearly dropped the ball on and you have the balls to send him a reply asking for money. And the amount of money you are asking for is so small it’s not worth talking about in the larger picture. Wow, balls, that’s all I got to say. Either way the factory is so worried that it’s not going to get paid even from a customer that has been nothing but great for the last two years that you do this. Yep, not a smart move. 

    Had a strike the other day because the workers want their money. They don’t trust the factory so they just quite until they were paid. 

    Every receipt is checeked everywhere by every Chiense person I know when we go out. To make sure no one over charged anything. 

    I had a friend that had a job at a factory where one of the Taiwanese business partners took 1.5 million USD in product and sold it behind everyone’s back. Making everyone lose money and forcing the business to shut down. He was friends with everyone, much like the gentlemen with his childhood friend. Smiled while he ripped them all off. At least he was caught. 

    Personally whenever someone comes up to me I won’t talk with them much. I’m always apprehensive. Even though it hasn’t happened I’m sure everyone wants to rip me off. Has it not happened because I’m so cautious or because they really don’t want to rip me off? We’ll never know I guess. 

    Most of the girls I’ve met after some point or another will “loose” their phone and just happen to say that to tell me.. Then pause… So unless Chiense girls are bad at keeping track of their phones.. I think you know where that is headed. 

    I’ve also had the my grandpa is sick and I have to go home. From a few girls. I’m sure your reading into those.

    But then again you’ll take black taxis every where in the outskirts of town. I have a driver that I can trust. He’s earned it thus far. They take motorcycle taxis that are far dangerous without a hiccup.

    I guess you hear all the stories, read the paper, read the forums, listen to friends, hwow can you not think everyone is going to, wants to, will, rip you off all the time. It’s going to take a long time to change that. I hope sit do someday. But think if every parent starts today teaching their kids to trust how long would it take to instil those values? Probably too long. 

    And on a side note. I don’t remember who it was or where I saw it but there was a Chinese writer that wrote a comment, might of been a poem, about china. Basically the jist of it was China is full of contradictions. Makes more sense now then more then ever.

  6. Frieder says:

    Tom, very nice post and I’m looking forward to reading the coming entries of this series on the concept of trust in China. It inspires me to do some own research, thinking and writing on this topic!

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  9. M says:

    well, I was waiting for my CN friend close to her house, but wasn’t sure which house it is exactly and run out of credit in my phone, so after I’ve got bored enough by waiting for her I approached Chinese girl and asked her if I could use her phone because I have problems with mine and surprise surprise (after approaching first person), no problems to give me her phone to call from it my friend and then have small talk and exchange QQ numbers because I was also looking for accommodation in this area. and in general I’m sometimes shocked how much trust have especially some young chinese (girls) in foreigners, no sane western girl would get lured to possibly dangerous situations as chinese girls which are so naive they don’t imagine what can happen

    at least this lack of trust is not affecting foreigners by my experiences with other Chinese (I have opposite experience that I’m shocked by how much trust they have in foreigners assuming we are good people, which we mostly are, but there are still people abusing this), but I know the article is about progress of chinese society and lack of trust between Chinese people, which is sad but truth and I think it just need some time since Cultural revolution and real communism

  10. Brian says:

    Your friend says she “remembers a time when the city was much smaller and a sense of trust still existed”. You also mention that many say “the Cultural Revolution destroyed the trust between strangers”. Was your friend referring to a time before the Cultural Revolution. If not, how would you explain her experience and what may it suggest about the causes for any perceived changes in “trust”?

  11. Jay says:

    I have often heard (in person, in movies and in reading) Chinese mock Western, especially American, businesspeople for their gullibility in business. Rather than appreciate the fact that the foreign businessperson trusted them (or another Chinese) they are rather merciless in their ridicule of the foreigners supposed stupidity. Americans tend to trust other Americans, and by extension other people, because most of the time their trust is reciprocated. In China they learn the hard way that this doesn’t work here. But as more and more foreigners experience this aspect of China the Chinese gain a worldwide reputation as untrustworthy. Mistrust is a virus that spreads.

  12. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Read “Poorly Made in China” by Paul Midler. He is an American who has written a lively dissection of the cultural clash between Chinese and Western businessmen.

  13. Lorin Yochim says:

    There is a lot being said by commenters here, and much more being implied. First, it seems worthwhile noting that Tom’s main point is about trust between strangers. More specifically, he is talking about trust between strangers in market relations. This causes me to suspect that the pining for the a more trusting past might amount to nostalgia for a time when market relations did not dominate. No doubt urbanization and lack of familiarity of neighbours is important, too. The point above about how the GPCR ruined trust is one worth pondering as well, for it seems to offer a sharp contrast to the notion that trust has been undermined in the post-Mao era. Finally, there must be reasons other than trust that the world is beating down China’s doors at the moment. Problems with trust don’t seem to be much of a deterrent at the moment. Clearly those foreign agents and companies who don’t learn to deal with this problem are themselves incapable of doing business in China. One could speculate that China’s position as the world’s factory is in jeopardy because of this, but it seems unlikely that its position as the world’s factory could be threatened by an other country save India. Does India offer better overall conditions with regard to trust?

    As to @Rod in China’s comments above, this seems like a clear case of cross cultural conflict. I don’t recall having lent money to Chinese friends before, although many, many times colleagues have lent to me (short term) without my having to ask twice. I’ve observed similar willingness within my Chinese family. In both cases, I would say that the terms of lending are much looser than I would expect in my home context. In many cases (I suppose the amount lent would matter), there was no expectation that the money would be paid back at all. In many cases, I would say it was expected that the money might be paid back when needed by the other party, or it might be paid back in the form of favours rather than money.

    • Frieder says:

      I would also like to realign the focus of this discourse on the state and development of (mis)trust between native members of the Chinese society instead of foreigner’s perception and experiences. Lorin made an excellent point which could prove valuable for further inquiry: what kind and level of trust accompanied transactions during times of high communism and restricted availabilty of commodities/services? Which trust-building or trust-shattering forces were unleashed after the emergence of private ownership and mass consumerism? I do not want to abolish the “doing business in China as a foreigner” topic completely – but I hold the opinion that if one tries to better understand the inner workings of China’s society as a first step, he or she will be able to avoid many of the above-mentioned conflicts or misunderstandings.

  14. […] in the Southeast, where I lived for two years.  (The client was from Ningbo.)  (See also this story from Nanjing, for […]

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