Note to west: China is different

Foxconn Worker’s Suicide in China Linked to Missing Apple iPhone – Digits – WSJ

This article has a few points that ultimately connect to show how, once again, a U.S. company does not “get” that what works in customer-supplier relationships in the west can have very different consequences in China.

Apple is known for requiring suppliers to sign contracts that impose hefty financial penalties if they are found to have leaked sensitive information.

Point #1: “hefty financial penalties.”  In the west we tend to equate “money” with other things, and interchange them fairly easily in our thinking. Much less so in China. One quote I read summed it up well. “In the west, time is money. In China, time is time, and money is money.” So the threat of a hefty financial penalty sets up the company to be willing to risk almost anything else to avoid it.

Thus, point #2:

under suspicion for stealing after one of the handsets went missing…. … Sun had been detained and beaten by a senior official in the security department

actually logically follows from point #1. Given the threat of hefty financial penalties, the cost of committing violence on an employee is small by comparison.

And Apple’s statement

“We require that our suppliers treat all workers with dignity and respect.”

is all very nice, except that there are likely no hefty financial penalties assigned to mistreating an employee.

Thus, Apple’s priorities, while clear to them, were equally clear to local Chinese management, only in a completely different way. “Dignity and respect” are great, but there are hefty financial penalties if a prototype product gets out. Dignity and respect clearly are “nice to have” but secrecy must be maintained at all costs.

The other thing that “the west” doesn’t get is the difference between “guilt” and “shame.” There is a huge difference in perception and internal sense of consequences, and China is a shame-based culture. If the employee hadn’t killed himself, then it is likely nobody would have found out that “dignity and respect” was set aside here. Everything would have been OK. So when we hear rumors of abusive work environments, keep in mind that “dignity and respect” are requests, and what is required is driven by the finances.

This isn’t good or bad. China is the oldest continuous standing civilization on Earth right now, with 5000 years of continuity. It has worked for them. These are largely honest, hard working people. But they interpret signals differently than we do, and it is very easy for them to miss things that are obvious to us. (Just as we miss things that are obvious to them.)

We in the west would be well served to understand the culture in China if we want to do business with them. It isn’t about making them more like us, it is about respecting their culture and adapting to it so that our expectations are expressed in terms that are clear to them, in ways that accommodate their long-established frames of reference.

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