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Just as water shapes itself according to the ground, an army should manage its victory in accordance with the situation of the enemy. Just as water has no constant shape, so in warfare there are no fixed rules and regulations…Therefore, do not repeat the tactics that won you a victory, but vary them according to the circumstances (Sun Tzu).

Trust and collectivism. The Chinese will only listen to the reason of those they trust. Trust is a valuable gift, and, for an “outsider” is the only real passport into Chinese community. Prior to acceptance, an “outsider” can expect constant suspicion, resistance, and endless probing. Trust is hard-earned and one has to prove worthy of it. Trompenaars (1993) describes the Chinese culture as diffuse, with the whole individual being involved in relationships, and where “private” space is larger but “public” space is smaller and carefully guarded. The Chinese culture “encourages complex hierarchically based interrelationships and interdependencies” (Redding, 1980) and is “collective oriented” (Hofstede, 1980).

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This suggests that the Chinese are a communal race, existing in groups whose social norms take precedence over individual needs. This sustains a “them and us” mentality. The crossing of the boundary between “them” and “us” can be likened to the induction into a family. An old Chinese saying: “Priority lies in the crisis at hand, and not in private concerns” holds true to this day within the Chinese culture. Crisis, in this context, is any multi-faceted situation which involves a large number of people, as opposed to the restricted domain of the individual. To ensure the survival of the majority, if necessary, the Chinese are willing to sacrifice the minority.

Hofstede (1991) further suggests a fifth dimension of Chinese culture (Confucian dynamism) characterized by long-term versus short-term orientation. The Chinese strongly support the idea of looking forward and planning ahead rather than assuming a current consumption. This dimension can be associated with the Chinese collectivist and distrusting nature, which views “outsiders”, namely foreign investors and expatriates, as short-term players who do not fit into their long-term plans, and who are therefore not readily trusted or easily accepted.

Communication. Interaction and communication are fundamental components of daily life. A mastery of communication skills within the Chinese context, will enable a quicker and smoother integration into that society. The level of trust between individuals often dictates the way they communicate. From observation, two diverse forms of communication exist among the Chinese. Communication between “accepted” members of a group is free and uninhibited, whereas communication in the presence of an “outsider” restricts the freedom of expression.

Chinese communication is multi-levelled. To the “outsider’s” untrained eye, the subtle movements made by Chinese to convey a message or add emphasis, are unlikely to be noticed. To the Westerner, big arm or body movements may be acceptable body language, but the Chinese consider this threatening and lacking self-control. The Chinese preach the virtues of self-restraint: “If one can control one’s emotions and impulses, one has self-control. If one can control one’s self, one has control over any situation”.

The choice of words is important when communicating with a Chinese person, as misinterpretation may lead to misunderstanding. Likewise, given the indirectness of Chinese communication, one would be wise to “read between the lines” for double or hidden meanings. Often, a seemingly harmless statement made by a Chinese person will hide a message within the apparent message. Although the Chinese do not deliberately hide the truth, they frequently do not offer it in a straightforward Western manner.

They describe their communication style as “wan zuan”, which is non-confrontational, non-provoking, non-threatening, polite and graceful, but still carrying the full meaning and force of the message. The Chinese style of communication has adopted the attributes of Tai-chi, an ancient Taoist form of martial arts, still practised today. The strength behind Tai-chi is derived from the force and momentum of the opponent’s moves and it is ever-changing in response to each attack. This is exactly how a Chinese person communicates. It is often difficult for a Westerner to anticipate or follow the Chinese train of thought and flow of conversation.

“Guan xi”. “Guan xi’ has become a familiar term among those involved with Chinese society. Ahmed and Li (1996) explain “guan xi” as fundamental in directing social and personal behaviour in China, referring to it as the relationship between people or organizations which implicitly indicates assurance, understanding and mutual obligation. Simply described, it is a co-operative relationship between individuals, as represented by the Western phrase: “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours”. However, recent writers agree that “guan xi” should not be equated to corruption or nepotism. Ambler (1994) suggests that it is more akin to public relations practised in the West, the major difference being that its focus is on building interpersonal relations. Davies et al. (1995) highlighted a number of benefits to be derived from “guan xi”:

In China, the use of “guan xi” is the quickest and surest route to accomplishment. “Who one knows, rather than what one knows”, determines success in China. However, “guan xi” is a delicate rule-governed tool. Acceptance and trust are paramount to its use. A favour granted will be met by an unspoken promise of a favour to be returned in the future, but it involves a sensitive choice of words, and is not to be abused.

The concept of “face”. The Chinese written character for “face” is a symbol representing respectability, reputation and pride. When a Chinese is said to “love his/her `face'”, it implies that the individual measures his/her status in society, cares how he/she is seen in public, and displays a pride in him/herself. The traditional “class” system has given way to a new “status” system, in which the position of an individual, distinguishes that person from fellow comrades. One of Trompenaars’s (1993) seven cultural dimensions identified the Chinese culture as ascriptive rather than achievement-oriented.

Status, in ascriptive cultures, is generally independent of a task or specific function and is attributed to an individual who is distinct and not easily compared with others. Performance is partly determined by the loyalty and affection shown by subordinates and which is, in return, displayed. For example, while the Chinese still deem it proper to address each other by their family name at work, a new protocol has emerged – the inclusion of one’s title. Titles, to the Chinese, symbolize importance and achievement, and demand recognition. A Chinese has “face” when addressed by title, by superiors, peers and subordinates alike. It is a form of distinction that evolved during the communist regime and is usually linked with seniority as opposed to capability.

Many believe that the loss of “face” only occurs when a Chinese is criticized, humiliated, ridiculed or subdued in public. This is, however, not true. A manager who decides to discipline a Chinese employee by singling the person out in public may provoke and encourage vengeful reaction against him/herself, and therefore negative feedback should be shared in a one-to-one context. However, if the manager does not proceed with caution, discretion and tact, he/she could still make the employee lose “face”, which according to Laserre and Probert (1996) “can have considerable disruptive effects” whether the subjugation is conducted publicly or privately.

Corporate culture – a new concept

According to Deal and Kennedy (1988), a combination of forces – changing business environments, a new workforce and advances in technology – are causing a breakdown of the large traditional, previously-dominant hierarchical organizations, resulting in highly decentralized organizations where work is done in small, autonomous units linked to the mega-corporation. For this to work, strong cultural ties are required. Corporate culture has been adopted by many corporations to provide structure, standards and a value system in which employees can operate. Many writers (Ackroyd and Crowdy, 1990; Mead,1994) consider that corporate culture provides a strong motivational force by offering its members a sense of identity and a source of commitment. Thus corporate culture becomes a framework for interpreting reality, and for moulding organizational behaviour.

It is regarded as the unseen and unobservable force that is behind the tangible; a social energy that communicates with and inspires people to act. Transcending leadership style, power structures, organizational structure, decision-making processes, functional policies and management systems, it can result in one organization developing competitive advantage over another, although ostensibly both have access to similar resources.

Deal and Kennedy (1988) cite many examples of companies finding success through strong corporate cultures – Procter & Gamble, Delta Airlines, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, 3M, Price Waterhouse & Co., Hewlett-Packard, Chubb Insurance, Leo Burnett Advertising Agency, etc. However, these companies all share one common characteristic – their corporate cultures are based essentially on the American culture and spirit.

The USA and “Americanization” have influenced the world significantly in the last century. McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are prime examples of American influence on global lifestyles. Ritzer (1993) comments that McDonald’s is one of the twentieth century’s most influential developments, affecting a wide range of undertakings including: the restaurant business, education, work, travel, leisure activities, diet, politics, the family, and many other sectors of society. Similarly, wherever a Japanese company ventures, Japanese culture is introduced to employees, suppliers, partners and customers. Through its economic growth since the end of the Second World War, Japan has drawn the world’s attention to its own unique culture and style, and has persuaded many companies to adopt the Japanese management concepts.

Introducing a corporate culture into a host environment with sufficient knowledge to understand and sustain the transference of the guest culture, could be considered as just a continuation of the home office functions in a different location. For example: in Singapore, multinational corporations are likely to find their corporate cultures accepted in entirety. On gaining independence, Singapore welcomed foreign investments and expertise. Its people had developed an international outlook, tolerance and adaptability as national traits because of its multiracial population, free access to information, and cross-cultural programmes.

Singapore had also encouraged a common national language (English) to ensure homogeneity in communication. Success may be less likely when transferring a corporate culture to a nation (per se China) that few other countries can claim to understand. China has a strong national culture, stemming from its history of a closed-door policy, which guarded the leakage of information and restricted external influence of any kind, so that its people only know one way of doing things – the Chinese way.

Consider the following allegory

An organization has its goal or destination. Its corporate culture is the guide with a map suggesting all the possible routes members can take to reach the destination, and the organization itself is the vehicle. Members of the organization have only to refer to the guide, take one of the suggested routes, and they will eventually reach the same destination. There should hardly be any ambiguity and perceptions should be uniform as all members have the same map and look out from the same viewpoint.

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