For many expats, conflict in China—of one kind or another—is all too easy to find these days. Opium Wars and Boxer Rebellions might be long past, but there's still plenty of seemingly mundane opportunity for foreigners and locals to lose their cool with each other. And while traditionally Chinese would have done just about anything to avoid public scenes of anger and outrage (and thus losing face), nowadays it seems that changing social norms, increasing economic disparities and a uneven legal system have caused this former restraint to give way to much more open displays of bad temper and frustration.
An Englishman's early encounters with modern Chinese conflict
The way I reacted when I first saw conflict erupt here in China was old-fashioned English embarrassment. The fact that one of the people in the argument was my Chinese wife didn't exactly help things, nor that the conflict took place on a crowded street. My wife's opponent was an old rickshaw driver in Suzhou whose price for our ride turned out to be higher than originally agreed.
They went at it with no end in sight until my English patience finally snapped. I split the difference between the original and "modified" prices, threw the money in his rickshaw (he wasn't inclined to actually accept anything less than his higher-quoted figure) and dragged my wife away. Later, I was able to work out that they had boxed each other into a face-losing corner and neither could back down. In a similar situation, on a later trip to the Yellow Mountains, we were tempted to pay a Sherpa-like character to tote our bulging backpacks up a long, winding peak. Only, when we got about halfway to the summit the guy claimed he'd only agreed on the first price for carrying our bags that far. He wasn't about to back down either. So again, after I'd taken as much as I could of the back-and-forth argument, I threw the money at him and hauled my wife and our bags away.
Of course, ripping-off tourists is a much-loved international sport and can happen anywhere. It's just that with the way China is changing now, the temptations for this must be exacerbated by huge differences in income and the get-rich-quick-before-it's-too-late mentality accompanying China's rapid economic development—a motive for modern conflict that seems to come up time and time again. Consequently, these days resolution to such situations can be very hard to find. I can only imagine that in the past, the Chinese looked to their Confucian precepts while in such trying circumstances: "it is good to close one eye and bear with it" and follow the road to peace and order by practicing the notions of forbearance and endurance, which should lead to the all-important social harmony. Only perhaps now, the outrage over being constantly ripped-off overrides this fear of losing face and even quite trivial situations can escalate to the point of calling the police.
Further conflicts arise at the workplace
For foreigners in China, more serious conflicts often stem from the workplace. Thankfully, dealing with dodgy Chinese employers is not something I've had too many problems with in the past (compared to some of the horror stories I've heard from fellow expats). For me, minor annoyances like schedules or plans being changed last-minute or being asked to do something quite unexpected with little warning were the exception—hardly the stuff of major conflict. The attitude of Chinese bosses seems to be that they can ask employees to do anything, anytime. In one university I worked at, it was common to be telephoned late into evening and given some order or request for the following morning. The first time it happened, I threw the phone down. But if staying in China does anything, it should certainly mellow you out. I got used to it. For me, a more difficult issue—that I have not gotten used to—is the way Chinese managers demand a kind of unswerving, unquestioning loyalty. This caused me to leave my last job, as I knew if I'd stayed any longer, I would have come in to serious disagreement with the school's owner. That's the real problem for expats in China: it's not our country, the dice are loaded. Sometimes, it can be easier to just walk away.
One situation that took me some time to understand —a sort of passive-aggressive confrontation, if you will—occurred while I was working in a school as an academic manager alongside a Chinese manager of the local office staff. Despite efforts to maintain a pleasant work environment, the friction between some of my foreign teachers and the local office staff could become very intense. Sometimes, my teachers complained (quite justifiably) about the quality of the office staff's work. I'd put this as gently as possible to the Chinese manager. She'd listened, made notes, and even agreed. Then, a day or two later, she'd come back to me with a complaint against one of the foreign teachers I managed—each time with accusations that I felt were either quite petty or clearly fabricated. I criticized her staff, she had to criticize mine. It all seemed pretty immature, though it the original problem did get addressed on occasion, so I suppose that a resolution of sorts was achieved.
The "everyone for themselves" mentality mixes with an uneven legal system
What about Chinese apologizing? Ever seen it? Only people I've known extremely well have ever apologized to me. Chinese, like other Asian cultures, cannot apologize without losing face—in most cases, their belief system just doesn't have the idea that owning up to a mistake is a good honest thing to do. In the advent of modernization, this inability has been taken to surprising extremes: in 2000 a Nanjing-based company began supplying apologizers for hire. Apparently, having a third party do it for you has been deemed acceptable where a face-to-face meeting is unthinkable. Yet, despite the unswerving tradition of saving face, clearly things in China are changing. People may not be any more comfortable with apologizing, but they've certainly opened to complaining and are not afraid of provoking conflict. The problem is, too much of this seems to stem from a very self-centered everyone for themselves mentality that has slowly developed over the last half century or so in China.
Just recently, there was news of a fight between bus passengers over a seat. An old man actually attacked a younger man for not giving up the seat to him. Another passenger caught the struggle on camera. The old man somehow won but—another telling point—not because other passengers helped him at all. Road rage would seem to be yet another prime example this mentality (which exists everywhere, but is taken to extremes in China). And you've probably heard those stories about a car hitting a pedestrian, where then the driver—quickly calculating the lower cost of fines and jail time for manslaughter versus the high costs of paying for long-term hospital bills—opts to drive over the victims again and finish them off. This has prompted enough speculation in the Chinese media about Western ways (namely, lawsuits) and materialism contaminating Chinese morals.
A slightly less dramatic episode, which again happened to my wife, illustrates how people might be more genuinely concerned with their legal rights, even if they don't actually know what they are and the Chinese legal system is just messed up enough to take advantage of certain situations. She was cycling through heavy traffic when her handlebars brushed (as she said) against the back of a woman riding sidesaddle on the back of an e-bike. That woman claimed the blow was much harder and, as she was pregnant (though not visibly), she might have suffered some internal harm. Of course, my wife protested. However, it was finally agreed that they would go to a hospital for a check-up, where nothing was found amiss. The woman then strongly suggested that, although she was fine at that moment, some problem might develop in the future—for which my wife should be held responsible. This seemed a bit much and led to more arguing back and forth. Finally, they went to a police station where my wife was persuaded to pay for the woman's check-up and declare her address and mobile number so that contact could be made in the future. Then they went their separate ways and we heard nothing more. Who knows, maybe the woman was just angling for compensation.
Has the Internet replaced an outdated petitioning system?
Now, more people pay hard-earned cash for goods and services, and when there are problems with them, customers are very quick to make a public complaint. And although China lacks effective consumer protection or campaigning media, there is always the web and such Internet sites as Sina Weibo where grievances can be aired, and reputations won or lost. People need this—the possibility of complaining in the hope of effective redress. And even the most patriotic of Chinese must admit that the old petitioning system has failed to a large extent. The rule of law has not developed as effectively as it needs to really protect people. These days, what many Chinese people want more than anything else is improved legal protection and accountability—and now demands for these are winning out over former Confucian precepts of harmony and forbearance.
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Keywords: Conflict and resolution in China problems with China’s legal system conflict at Chinese workplace
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Tim, in a world where China wants to get interconnected with and where millions of Chinese people go abroad, where almost all important companies are or will be multinational, this is the best answer you come with?
Exactly like the article, the best defense is the attack.
Oct 30, 2012 20:28 Report Abuse
One of the incidents sent a chill through me:
"Then, a day or two later, she'd come back to me with a complaint against one of the foreign teachers I managed—each time with accusations that I felt were either quite petty or clearly fabricated. I criticized her staff, she had to criticize mine. It all seemed pretty immature,"
Now, imagine this isn't Chinese society but it's your wife for the rest of your life.
Yes, why not. After all, for some reason you just decided to hurt people by saying they did something wrong.
So, they will stand up for themselves and point out something you could be doing wrong too!
But can I tell you something? This is epidemic in China but guess where else I'm starting to see this everywhere, increasingly and especially among the upcoming generations?
All over the western world.
And can I suggest something? This seem strange to you because you come out of a culture that is still entrenched in this idea there is an 'objective God' with 'objective moral right and wrong' and that there is 'objective truth'.
And further more, that people 'ought' to be able to find some objective 'fair truth'. That this 'ought' to be sought out and that it can be found, somehow.
But one thing I had determined early on - the foreigner cannot win. Which would be true if we were in any other country.
We have to take the hit, cut our losses and move on.
Oct 30, 2012 09:49 Report Abuse