Shameful Distortion -- rules vs authority

This article got me ROFLMAO. I think Mr Karlgaard's title should be switched with his next title "Shameful Distortion". How a prejudiced pair of eyes got fixated on some outlying examples and reached certain ridiculous conclusions.

Mr Karlgaard's conclusion for China is:

  • "it seems to me that 99.99% of Chinese wake up each day with a core belief: Anything not expressly permitted is not permitted at all."
Well, all I have heard of is exactly the opposite. And that is the major weakness of the Chinese tradition we seek to change. Among these are related issues that actually formed part of our debate in the Chinese blogsphere here in HK.

(edited to add: if Chinese people had been behaving as Mr Karlgaard has alleged, China would have been developed in parallel to Japan for the past 150 years)

Unfortunately, Mr Karlgaard confused observing rule with observing authority. What he has observed was blind obedience to authority (i.e. one's superior) and lack of empowerment, not blind obedience to rules and laws.

For your entertainment below:

China's Mental Default

Rich Karlgaard

On a recent trip to China (to host a FORBES cruise for Investors), it didn't take long to catch a whiff of the fact that all is not perfect in the Middle Kingdom. During the bus ride from Beijing airport to the Shangri-La Hotel, the tour guide kept mentioning housing prices. These were soaring, "unlike in the days of Mao," she kept telling us, "when the government provided for housing." The guide linked the dead dictator's name with free housing a half-dozen times. There it was: Mao nostalgia.

She also fed us bad chop suey regarding the U.S. dollar. "The street vendors don't take dollars anymore," she said. "You must change dollars to yuan." This turned out to be laughably untrue. Tiananmen Square was crammed with vendors who gladly took U.S. dollars. They pushed, elbowed and practically knocked down your children to get to your U.S. dollars. I bought two Mao watches for $15. Each ceased working about an hour after the purchase, just like Mao's economy.

Now, I don't doubt for a minute that China's spectacular 9%-to-10% economic growth rate will continue for many more years. You can bet on it. The Chinese economy is like a huge rubber band: At one end is the economy that can turn out Apple (nasdaq: AAPL - news - people ) iPods to perfection; at the other end are all those sad, sunburned fellows with bad teeth and Mao hats--refugees from rural China--who stand by the roadside with shovels. You see scores to hundreds of them at every construction site. They stand around smoking cigarettes and occasionally haul a load of dirt from here to there. Prison work gangs are more productive. Which is why the Apple iPod economy will snap the shovel economy forward. This is guaranteed.

What's not a slam dunk are changes in the average Chinese person's attitude. For every Chinese entrepreneur like Alibaba's Jack Ma (check him out on Wikipedia), there must be 10,000 who fear sticking out, bucking authority or going off-script. You see this everywhere. One afternoon at the Shangri-La, my wife, kids and I decided to abort a long elevator wait and take the stairs. Up we trudged to the 13th floor--they have 13th floors in China--but on the 12th we were met by a startled hotel employee. He nearly passed a brick seeing us on the stairway. He shouted for us to walk back down.

"Just one more floor," we begged. "Down! Down!" he shouted.

Another anecdote among several: One night the hotel left a complimentary bottle of wine in our room. We took it to dinner in a hotel restaurant. This confused the waitstaff no end. Four or five of them consulted frantically. Finally, their leader stepped forward to say that bringing the bottle of wine was "not permitted!"

"But it's a gift from the hotel," we protested.

"Not permitted," repeated the waiter. He wasn't angry. He wanted to do the right thing, but he was afraid. You could see it in his eyes.

Perhaps my Western eyes see this unfairly, but it seems to me that 99.99% of Chinese wake up each day with a core belief: Anything not expressly permitted is not permitted at all.
But that's most of life: Not permitted! Ask yourself: How far can China really go if "not permitted" is the default mental mindset of the country's vast majority?

Maybe this won't be a key question during the next 10 years. China has so much catching up to do it can easily grow 10% a year for another decade. Crunch time, I think, will come in the 10- to 20-year time frame. Unless attitudes change, that's when the "not permitted" mental default will begin to slow China's incredible march forward.

Shameful Distortion

I usually like USA TODAY .....


Anonymous said...


To me, I saw poor management!

Seems Beijing's Shangri-la's pretty poorly managed.. I heard China lacks trained servicemen in the Hotel industry but it's amazing to see how it impacted Shangri-la.. funny

I'm sure his experience was awkward, but he is apparently (could be intentionally) biased in his writing.

In China, rules are more meant to be broken than to be obeyed..

P.S I'm shocked he used the term 'refugee'. Almost reminded me of black slaves from Africa..

Anonymous said...

As he mentioned, the moment he stepped down the plane on Chinese soil, he viewed the Chinese people with a jaundiced vision.

In that attitude and the kind of mentality, he'll see all the negative sides of the Chinese people.

Still, it's worth to highlight his view to all the Chinese people on how he look at us.

davesgonechina said...

Nice one, Sun Bin. Good to see you posting again, are you gonna stick around or does real life keep you too busy?

Sun Bin said...

thanks for stopping by. i will try to, but frequency and quality will be much lower :(

Anonymous said...

I must have spent the last eight years on some serious drugs, because in all that time I've never noticed anyone telling I mustn't use the stairs - and I use stairs a lot because I hate elevators. And every construction site I've ever seen in Beijing has always seemed to me to be full of men working their arses off - from 7 in the morning till 7 at night, or later. I must have been hallucinating. But I think Karlgaard must have been on some heavy drugs if he was surprised his tourist Mao watches conked out five minutes after he bought them. And I'd take roubles if some idiot was willing to give me that amount of money for them.

Anonymous said...

I'm completely with you. In fact, the Chinese lawyers with whom we work in China often invoke the saying you know as justifying moving forward when the law is not clear.

Anonymous said...

This guy obviously visited Bizzaro China -- the exact opposite of the actual China. If anything, it is Americans who have a "not permitted," rule-oriented, check-with-the-legal-department mentality...exactly the opposite of the China.