Interesting that the story linked below follows in such proximity to my story about the Quality Control auditor being beaten up.
In short, the following link is to a story about a N.Y. Times reporter who signed into a factory, walked around, and took photos. He was detained by the factory manager when he refused to turn over his film. He called the police, who failed to intervene. It seems in the end, he kept his film after an extended standoff. If he did, indeed, keep his film, that’s the surprise for me.
My Time as a Hostage, and I’m a Business Reporter
By DAVID BARBOZA
Published: June 24, 2007
Detention in a toy factory says something about the new power of the Chinese marketplace.
In a not entirely unrelated vein, on Sunday we caught a TV show originating from Hong Kong on the topic of business ethics. The question addressed on this segment of the show was whether Asian and Western standards for business ethics are the same or fundamentally different. Key values being discussed were honesty, fairness, and transparency.
A panel of experts gave extremely "politically correct" answers. The CEO’s of a couple of large corporations noted that of course, there would be minor differences since Western business organizations are likely to be publicly held whereas the Asian organizations are, fundamentally, family run enterprises. But then they insisted that the values are all the same, at their core. The closest they would publicly profess about differences in corporate values was to say that while each business culture has the same list of ethical values, perhaps organizations in different cultures place different priorities on the various items on the same list.
Well, umm, hate to tell you this, but if that were true then consumers in China wouldn’t have to worry about whether their baby formula might poison their children, and I wouldn’t have to scrutinize every single yuan I receive as change to see if it’s a fake. If honesty or fairness are core values, then they are way, way, way down on the list. Any transparency is a threat since it might reveal the dishonesty and lack of fairness. Those CEO’s simply must be walking on a different continent than me.
Or, is my viewpoint overly jaded? At the moment, pet food with melamine substituted for protein, toothpaste made with ethylene glycol, and counterfeit antimalarial drugs are high on my radar screen. A popular joke is, "You know you’ve been in China too long when the footprints on the toilet seat are yours." I could, likewise, joke that "You know you’ve been in China too long when, you think everything you see is a fake."
But perhaps this is an overly pessimistic view of the ethics of Chinese business organizations. I can think of examples that run counter to such a jaded view. For instance, there’s a particular restaurant manager who helps me order and gives me a 10% discount without ever being asked, there’s a lady in the wet market who teaches me the names for different types of green vegetables, there’s a vendor who automatically gives me the lowest price without being asked, and I have numerous Chinese friends who take really good care of me in many ways. Is there an explanation for such wide divergences in my experience of who takes care of me and who doesn’t?
Perhaps there is an explanation. The key, as explained by Hall in "Beyond Culture" (see link in book section on my blog) MAY be (and here I blatantly speculate) a cultural difference between how Asian culture and Western culture assigns the amount of duty owed to a stranger.
Hall instructs the reader to imagine a series of concentric circles, like a target in target practice. Various circles represent the categories of people to whom one owes any duty. The people in the smallest circle, inside the bulls-eye, are those people we would, say, give our life for. Another, perhaps broader, inner circle might be people we would extend ourselves financially to assist — or children or our parents for example. Larger circles might encompass people we interact with in daily life: friends, coworkers, shopkeepers, etc. Another, even broader, circle, might include people we would stop beside the road to assist if their car were broken down or if they had been in a traffic accident. My own circle tends to be rather large. For instance, I’ve several times assisted foreigners in China who didn’t speak any Chinese, simply because of the fact that I knew they were strangers in need of help. It’s not that I felt I "owed" it to them to assist them, but simply that I knew they needed help and I could give assistance without undue risk or effort. On the other hand, there are also people who fall completely outside the circle. The people outside the very largest circle are those that we feel no obligation toward whatsoever.
Bearing in mind this idea of a graduated sense of obligation, symbolized by different sizes of circles, Hall notes that people in Asian cultures are more inclusive about who falls inside the innermost circle. And also, they will do more for those people inside the innermost circle than a westerner would. For example, a parent will not only pay for education of a child, but also will pay for a house for that child. A child will provide financial support for a parent even if the parent doesn’t really need it. An aunt or an uncle may pay for the education of a niece or a nephew. A sibling may provide education for another sibling. To extend this idea even further, one relative or colleague may provide financing to another to start a business. To some degree or another, these duties go beyond what one Westerner would be expected to do for another. It might even be something that one Westerner wouldn’t even think of asking another to do. It’s not that one westerner wouldn’t do it for another one, but more that it’s not an ingrained part of the cultural expectations. This cultural difference, of what level of obligation one has to those in our closest circle, can lead to some interesting cultural stereotypes. For instance, there is the stereotype which says that Westerners don’t take as good care of their parents as Asians. A Westerner may take issue with this, but it’s a fact that few Westerners expect their parents to live with them in old age.
On the other hand, while the Westerner’s innermost circle of obligation is smaller and he does less for people inside that circle — the Western person might be surprised if a nephew expected or asked him to pay for the nephew’s education — the Westerner has a broader array of people that he expects to owe SOME obligation to. For instance, the Westerner is more likely to stop his car and assist someone who has been in a traffic accident, even if the Westerner doesn’t know the person. The Westerner will feel likely some strong compunction to give food to a person in genuine need, even if the person is a complete stranger.
Of course these are sweeping generalizations, but as a general principle I believe the Westerner will do less for his inner circle but will do more for complete strangers. Hall makes the point, in his book, that it’s difficult for Asian people to understand why a Westerner will give money to a beggar on the street but fail to pay for housing for his own mother. Westerners, on the other hand, sometimes find it hard to fathom how an Asian can turn a seeming blind eye to the abject need of the beggar.
Perhaps — just perhaps — this cultural difference can be used to account for differences in business ethics, and for the perception that business in Asia depends on personal relationships. For in Asian culture, perhaps the corporate values of honesty and fairness are perceived as only being owed only to those inside the circle of relationship. Outside the circle, there is no duty.
I recently overheard a Quality Control expert explaining that Chinese organizations are only concerned with meeting "specs," (specifications for product) rather than the underlying quality values that the specs are intended to ensure. This person discussed the "spec" for protein in pet food, for example. If melamine would meet the spec, then it was deemed as adequate even if it wasn’t really protein after all. If ethelyene glycol enabled the toothpaste to meet the spec for sweetness, then it was deemed adequate even if the sweetener wasn’t really safe to eat after all. I’m quite certain that a Chinese person concerned for my personal safety wouldn’t offer either of these products to me if they knew they were unsafe. But if the products were just being offered to a stranger . . . . well, what duty is owed to a stranger? None. Perhaps, I speculate, in the absence of any other duty of care, it’s adequate in the Asian mind’s eye if the product simply meets the spec.
This would explain why the last time I ordered gan bian siji dou in a restaurant (dried spicy green beans), the restaurant manager told me the green beans were possibly tainted with harmful pesticide and suggested a different type of bean. But this also explains why the restaurant had the possibly tainted siji dou (green beans) at all. If someone really wants them, the restaurant will supply them regardless of potential pesticide. No particular duty is owed to prevent a stranger from eating them. If that’s what the stranger asks for, then why deprive him of that choice. The restaurant in China will stock the beans even knowing they might be tainted, whereas I can’t imagine a Western restaurant stocking a product they knew might be tainted with unsafe pesticide.
Well, this is rambling speculation on my part. The speculation has led far astray from the account by a reporter of his experience with trying to report on doings within a factory. And what the Reporter in the above story encountered was objection based on transparency: the reporting of the true conditions at the factory. But no discussion is complete without transparency, is it? Because that’s the rub.
It seems that if Asian business culture were going to be "up front" about the fact that, in their culture, they don’t owe a duty to anyone, then they wouldn’t care if the whole world knows they are spraying lead paint on children’s toys. The fact that there is some defensiveness about the process means that there is, in fact, awareness that international standards are not being adhered to. So . . . the fact of lack of transparency is a smoking gun which reveals all my speculation is rubbish. It’s like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: their guilt was revealed by their awareness that they were naked and by their efforts to cover up. If they had been innocent, they would not have tried to hide, would not feel threatened by investigative reporters taking pictures. Everything, perhaps, is fake after all? Even fake ethical standards? Whether you agree or disagree, if you have thoughts to share, please comment below! I’m open minded.