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Democracy Versus Meritocracy How can Europe and China cooperate? Jeanne Boden

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Cover design: David Hyde, Studio Hyde Cover photograph: Jeanne Boden Book design: David Hyde, Studio Hyde Photography: Jeanne Boden Production: ChinaConduct® © 2016 text and illustrations Jeanne Boden © 2016 ChinaConduct® Ltd. Karel de Stoutestraat 49, B-9000 Gent, Belgium ISBN 9789082336429 NUR 100 Royal Library Belgium Legal Deposit D/2016/13.869/3 All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher.



Introduction Cooperation between Europe (and the West in general) and China (and other parts of Asia) can be complex, full of misunderstanding and mutually unmet expectations. The reason behind that is usually not the absence of an open mind or intolerance. Quite on the contrary, people working in crosscultural environments often naturally develop an open-minded attitude and are very much willing to learn from each other. While working cross-cultural, awareness of cultural differences is a first and very important step, but awareness alone is not enough. Training people to have an open mind does not offer any tools to work with in reality. Goodwill alone is not enough. People engaged in daily cooperation across cultures with goals to reach and deadlines to meet need concrete tools to work with. This book offers a new framework, a new paradigm, not only calling for an open mind, but also offering a new way of looking at cooperation and communication between East and West, and a method to handle and manage it. Knowledge of and insight into each other’s contexts is needed to grasp and understand each other’s ‘logic’. What people often address as ‘cultural differences’ is not only difference in culture, but also in political, economic, legal, social, and cultural systems. Only thorough understanding of each other’s backgrounds can lead to efficiency and real understanding. Although the Chinese for instance like to use concepts such as ‘Chinese characteristics’, essentialist cultures do not exist. Culture is always a fluid concept. I have extensively elaborated on that in my earlier research and publications. Nevertheless,



even if we argue that culture in itself does not exist, or cannot be outlined, we do detect patterns of behavior that people share today. These patterns of behavior differ in those who have been raised in a democratic context as it exists in Europe and US, and those who have been educated in a meritocratic context as in most Asian countries, including China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, and other. These patterns are rooted in history, but are recognizable today. In the cooperation between Europe and China, between the West and Asia, the gap between the democratic and meritocratic model needs to be bridged. This book gives the basic principles of both models. This is also the basis of the method we have developed in ChinaConductÂŽ. The goal of this book is to offer a practical guide to support cross-cultural cooperation, and to give clues as to what may lie behind their daily conflicts or incompatible viewpoints when working cross-culturally between the West and China, and more widely throughout Asia. The insights in this book spring from a lifetime engagement and more than 25 years commuting between China and Europe, working in international companies and organizations, cooperating with people from all over the globe, in combination with lifelong research into Western and Asian societies, organizational preferences, management and leadership features. The combination of research and concrete experience in the complexities of both models has resulted in many insights into misunderstandings that could quite easily be prevented or overcome.



Democracy versus meritocracy paradigm Good cooperation and strategic negotiation between Europe (and other Western regions) and China (and Asia) requires insight into what I here call respectively the ‘democratic model’ and the ‘meritocratic model’. The word ‘model’ refers to a ‘system using general rules and concepts’. I do not use the concept of ‘democracy’ as a purely political system, but more a system with certain dynamics resulting in specific patterns of behavior and expectations between people. The ‘democratic model’ on which western societies are built differs drastically from the ‘meritocratic model’. Without insight into both models, it is difficult, or even impossible to fully understand each other and build common sustainable goals and mutual trust. In the West, Euro-centrism or West-centrism is strong, in China Sino-centrism is strong. Westerners tend to think the world will eventually follow the democratic model and measure countries and areas accordingly. Human rights, although considered universal, reflect the democratic model. People are considered fundamentally equal. Democracy is considered the best system, with no alternatives coming close. The global academic world is dominated by standards rooted in western knowledge and writing traditions. English has become the global lingua franca. The world we live in today is still very much dominated by the West, but a power shift as a result of Asia becoming stronger is inevitable. Societies in most of Asia are not built on the principles of democracy but on the principles of meritocracy. Different


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Asian countries have different political systems, but the idea of meritocracy is wide spread in Asia. This means that people are not considered equal, but are ranked hierarchically according to their merits. One has to ‘merit’ one’s position in society. By studying hard, working hard and persistence one can climb up. Those who succeed in building more ‘merits’ than others ‘deserve’ to be on a higher scale of the social ladder. Social status is linked to moral power obtained by personal development, talents and competence. Moral behavior means that a person acts according to his or her role in the hierarchy of people in each specific situation. What people consider good leadership, efficient management, and harmonious relationships in a meritocratic context follows other rules than those in a democratic context. What I describe as the democratic model and the meritocratic model respectively are abstractions of otherwise extremely complex realities. It is not my goal to engage in political or philosophical discussions, to explain refined and complex dynamics of democracy, historic evolutions, or to promote or criticize either of the two ‘models’. Clearly both have advantages and disadvantages.


1. Meritocratic Model People born, raised and educated in Asia, have an Asian view of the globe. The Chinese are taught that they are in the center. For thousands of years, China considered itself at the center, with areas of influence circling around the center.


Roots In the 6 – 5th Century BC Confucius formulated his views on people’s relationships and on how society should be organized in China. He described an organizational model for the ideal society. A number of his contemporaries also called Confucian thinkers gave their viewpoints and opinions. In the 3rd Century BC Han Feizi synthesized methods and concepts of predecessors and formulated Legalism. As in democracy, in Confucianism and Legalism there was no spiritual dimension whatsoever. Confucius claimed that if we cannot even fully grasp the reality in which we live, then how could we possibly know what is beyond it. Confucianism and Legalism focus on life on earth, on order in society. Both Confucianism and Legalism promote meritocracy. Interestingly, in exactly the same period in history as Confucianism the Greek philosophers formulated their views which grew into the democratic model. Although there has been intensive interaction and extensive mutual influence, we still recognize strongly meritocratic tendencies in eastern societies, while democracy and the culture of debate have deeply influenced the West. Centralized organization with one top The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi, organized the country in a centralized way, like a pyramid. Throughout the millennia of the Chinese empire the centralized system was kept. Today it still exists, albeit in a slightly changed form. The big advantage of the centralized system is that the top can impose decisions that can influence the whole structure of society. It can very rapidly implement policies and changes.



A centralized system can only have one top. Today the Chinese Communist Party is at the top of China, without any opposing voices. Vietnam follows the Chinese political system very closely. Other Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan have different political systems, but behind the political they also have meritocratic systems. This implies preference for organization in centralized pyramids, group dynamics revolving around a central person, hierarchical human relations and interactions, leadership styles with role model behavior and real sense of responsibility for everyone below them. Having one top is not only a political feature in a meritocracy. Any organization, group or team is always headed by one center represented by one person. Confucian relationships The core of Confucianism is the five relationships between people: the ruler – the ruled; the father – the son; the older brother – the younger brother; the man – the wife; friend – friend. If all individuals in all situations obeyed these five relationships harmony would reign. Filial piety, meaning that a son should follow his father, the younger should follow the older, and so on, is one of the cornerstones. By extension, all human relationships are hierarchical and equality does not exist. Loyalty means following the role model, the one with more moral power. The role model has merited that he or she is the one that should be followed. ‘Loyalty’ between people in an Asian context differs from ‘trust’ between people in a democratic context.



Every individual is expected to develop his or her potential to the full. Through studying hard, working hard, and self-discipline each individual should reach the highest potential of his or her competence. Equality does not exist in meritocracy. People raised on meritocratic contexts cannot think in terms of equality. The ladder People raised in a meritocratic environment have learned to push their talents to excellence by working hard, by following the sublime examples above them, trying to come as close to the perfect role model as possible. Advancement is based on performance measured through examination and demonstrated achievement. The educational path is like a ladder. Entrance exams for universities decide whether a person can enter or not. Those who succeed in entering the university system, will according to their score, succeed in entering a high-ranking university or lower-ranking university. Someone with a PhD will always be higher than some without a PhD. Career building is like climbing the ladder. Climbing higher is not achieved by assertive demonstration of talents, but rather by letting the people higher up the ladder detect your capacity. At the same time following and supporting the one top or those on top, can lift a person higher up. The role model The person who succeeds in climbing up highest will become the role model for others. From a very young age children learn that they should try to be the best. Outside Chinese schools one can sometimes see an overview of the children’s



photographs with their achievements announced in public, next to their name. They can be the best in all kind of categories containing both content or behavior. Children can for instance be the best in mathematics, or in literature, or they can be the best in studying hard, working hard. In each situation the role model can differ. If for instance in a specific situation a role model pulls and leads a group, from the moment someone higher up the ladder comes in group dynamics change to revolve around the new highest ranking person. Not only people can be role model, but also organizations or companies. In an international company the headquarters will be expects to be the role model for the rest of the company. Social hierarchy Business cards have another function in a meritocratic context than in a democratic one. In the meritocracy a business card is a mirror of one’s social status and one’s position in the hierarchical ladder. That is also partly the case in a democratic context, but in a meritocratic context business cards are literally a systematic part of hierarchy building. Even the format of the business card can sometimes reflect hierarchical layers within an organization, for instance by using different thicknesses of paper, or different shades of layers of gold. Meritocratic organizations have many titles and subtitles to enable the continuous process of climbing up within the organization to be visible. A business card will reflect an individual’s status, but in meeting a group of people, individual business cards do not



reveal the relationship between the people. The hierarchical relationship between individuals therefore needs to be made explicit in other ways. This is done in a variety of ways, and differs in different areas. Japanese people bow when they interact. The degree of 15 or 30 or 45 degrees reflects the hierarchy of the people interacting. In the Japanese language, when addressing someone of higher status other words are used than when addressing someone lower down the hierarchy. The Chinese do not systematically bow like the Japanese. In China hierarchy will be displayed by positioning people at a table or in a room according to their hierarchical ranking. Photographs of groups of people reflect the hierarchy between them. Meritocracy influences group dynamics. There will always be one person dominating communication. Harmony exists when all people in a specific context act and behave according to the hierarchy between them. Human nature and role models Confucianism believes human nature is good. Human beings can develop their potential to the highest extent and become highly honorable human beings. Legalism believes human nature is evil. Only harsh laws and proper punishment can control people. People are punished in public. Confucianism sets positive role models, whereas Legalism sets negative role models. For thousands of years a combination of Confucianism and Legalism dominated China, and it continues until the present time. Other areas in Asia have been deeply influenced by these traditions. Therefore patterns of behavior connected to these can be found not only in China itself, but throughout Asia.



Decision-making Decision-making in meritocratic environments follows different paths than in democratic environments. Only those who rank high are involved in discussions, or are consulted about specific issues that need expertise. The idea of involving everyone in decision-making as in the democratic model is often perceived as a waste of time. Moreover, those of low ranking would find it strange if they are consulted. Discussions between high-ranking people will not take place in open meetings but behind the scenes. In China it is not always transparent and clear how decisions are taken and who is involved. High-ranking people will not appear at the negotiation table. They remain invisible and distant. Consequently, group dynamics during meetings will be different. Consensus of the sort that exists in the democratic model does not exist in the meritocratic model. Writing traditions The global academic world is dominated by western traditions. Asian people are often educated in other writing traditions following different structures, more contextual, circular, in which the quoting of ancient masters and the use of proverbs referring to traditional stories is important. Western scientific methods were introduced into China at the beginning of the 20th Century. The educational system was reformed to use western methods and naturally academic methodology was adopted. Today in the academic world a single format is dominant. Researchers



from Asia and other areas who come from other writing traditions need to learn how to write scientific texts, with hypotheses, arguments, and conclusions. All other writing traditions are ignored.


2. Democratic Model People born, raised and educated in Europe, have a European view of the globe. Europeans are taught that they are in the center.

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Roots In the 6 – 5th Century BC Greek philosophers formulated their views. Socrates is considered one of the founders of Western philosophy. The Socratic method became the basis of Western education. Critical and analytical thinking, questioning and challenging grew to become basic features of European and Western culture. Thales of Miletus, Euclid, and Pythagoras are considered to be the founding fathers of science and mathematics. Thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle have deeply influenced our attitudes to knowledge. The term democracy originates in Greece referring to the ‘rule of the people’ in the Greek city-states. Democracy is usually associated with politics only, referring to the election of the government by the active participation of the people. Today democratic systems adhere to the values of human rights and the rule of law, meaning that all citizens are subject to the law, including those who are inside the legal system. The ideals of the Enlightenment dominate contemporary European societies, with the principles of equality, freedom and fraternity considered as self-evident truths. Separation of powers is one of the basic principles of the democratic model. The moral code of Christianity also had a major impact on Europe and the West in general. The concept of ‘honesty’ in the West is based on principles from a western context. Trust is built by reliability and keeping one’s word. Public discussion and debate have a long history in Europe.



Multiple centers of authority While in the meritocratic system one person, one top heads the pyramid, the democratic model uses multiple centers of authority. In politics different parties rule together, with opposition parties challenging. In an organization various centers of authority can co-exist. In companies experts can cooperate and come to agreements with each other, without necessarily having someone higher up the ladder involved. Matrix organizations are common in a democratic model. Relationships and equality Unlike in a meritocratic system, relationships in the democratic model are based on the principle of equality. Hierarchy is functional. People of different hierarchical layers in an organization or in society can freely interact. Lower levels can address higher levels. From the first time people interact with each other direct communication can be used. Relationships are built on trust. The Socratic method Education in a democratic model is based on the Socratic method. Socrates said: “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.� Individual critical thinking is the goal of good education. People learn to make individual choices, and to work independently. The teacher is a coach; not someone who knows everything. Europeans grow up in a debate culture. They learn to argue, to be assertive about their views. They expect to be consulted by higher levels. Speaking


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in public is a skill that is developed from a young age. There isn’t a role model to be followed in education; individual critical thinking is privileged. It is by systematic questioning and challenging that people push themselves towards excellence. Rule of Law European civil law is rooted in the Roman legal system. Europeans attach a lot of importance to law and regulations. Rule of law means all actions build on a legal system, a framework for all cooperation. Separation of powers – legislative, executive, and justice – is one of the basic principles of the democratic model. Decision-making Meetings are fundamental to the democratic model. A meeting in the democratic model means that people gather to discuss a number of items and issues. Debating skills, rhetorical skills, assertive and proactive attitudes are expected from everyone involved. Meeting dynamics usually follow the same pattern: first item, discussion and argument, consensus and conclusion, second item, discussion and argument, consensus and conclusion, third item, and so on. Consensus means commitment. In a meritocratic model, hierarchy often overrules consensus, while in the democratic model consensus is one of the cornerstones of cooperation.



Writing traditions Writing in the democratic model always follows the same sequential structure of statement, arguments, and conclusion. Many westerners presume that this kind of writing tradition is universal. It is not.



3. Bridging the gap In a meritocratic context people learn to be the role model in some situations and to follow another role model in others. They learn to interact in a system where all relationships are hierarchical. Assertive public speaking while higher-ranking people are present is impolite and against the rules of conduct. It disturbs the harmony that can only exist if all hierarchical positions or roles are in order. Leadership means to have moral power, to display moral excellence, to be a role model and to coach others so that they are pulled up. In a democratic model people learn to look at each other as equals. Debate, speaking in public, rhetoric with strong assertive and logical arguments is appreciated. People are expected to express their opinions during meetings and not afterwards. Leadership is consultative. Employees expect to have a voice. Leadership, group dynamics, team work, efficiency, work processes, project management, internal and external communication, corporate culture, academic culture, organizational practices, information sharing, and many other aspects follow different rules in both contexts. The gap between these two models is often deep and needs to be bridged.



4. Efficient cooperation Awareness alone is not enough. Knowledge about each other’s contexts, expectations and logic is needed before entering into cross-cultural dialogue. This is the method we have developed in ChinaConductŽ 1. Awareness 2. Context 3. Analysis 4. Management 5. Strategy Only after being aware and understanding the political, economic, legal, and cultural context can specific situations be analyzed, expectations and actions managed and strategy developed.


About the author Jeanne Boden has a PhD in Oriental Languages and Cultures (Sinology). During her Sinology Studies starting in 1989 she took courses such as Comparative Cultural Studies. Her research has always focused on contemporary China. She has spent many years in China, studying Chinese, conducting research, and working in a variety of functions in academic, business and government-related environments in mainland China, but also in Taiwan and Hong Kong. In 2002 she established ChinaConduct® Ltd. consultancy and training organization specializing in EU-China cooperation and communication. She is managing director and consultant. About ChinaConduct® Ltd. ChinaConduct® Ltd. specializes in executive training, development of cross-cultural corporate culture, problem solving advice and coaching, pre and post M&A cross cultural audit. ChinaConduct® Ltd. has grown organically by word of mouth into a leading EU-China cross-cultural organization, active in China and in Western Europe. Over the years ChinaConduct® Ltd. has built an extensive knowledge-sharing network in Europe and in China ensuring comprehensive top-level advice. ChinaConduct® Ltd. clients are corporate (Bayer, GSK, Volvo), financial (Anbang/Nagelmackers), governmental (European Commission DG Trade), International Organizations (NATO).

ChinaConduct® : Democracy versus Meritocracy  

How can Europe and China cooperate? by Jeanne Boden