China on my mind

Country in focus
Team stories

Melanie Katzman

29 October 2014

Leaders’ Quest Partner Melanie Katzman reflects on a recent Quest in China with the top team of a leading European auto manufacturer.

Over four days I had a chance to reacquaint myself with China, which continues to provide deep brain stimulation every time I try to decode its intricate layers of history, hidden jokes and enduring poetry and language.

I am now even more convinced that the Chinese brain functions differently as a result of communicating in a language that is based on pictures, as well as sounds – creating a playground for the development of both right and left brain activity. To ‘make meaning’ one has to work harder, stop and pay attention, appreciate context.

I found myself returning to my room at night to read MRI studies which demonstrate that speaking English stimulates only the left brain, while Mandarin fires both hemispheres. What this neurobiological difference generates in perception must contribute to the problems in communication between East and West. It’s not just language – it’s how one thinks about the world.


The government appreciates that the days of total control are over. We’ve seen how some of our courageous hosts, who have in the past been punished for their outspoken views, are now being offered radio shows and trips to the US to raise the profile of the new China. Maybe there’s some manipulation involved, but it’s a mutual dance.

One request we hear is for the West to stop making human rights demands that force an overt withdrawal of control and could promote unrest. In China, it’s more about extending privilege without a fuss. Go too far and there are consequences. The value of subtlety comes up over and over again. This is not a country where one is offered answers: you need to know to ask. And it’s not a place where the answer is obvious: it often ‘depends’. For me this is the result of the intricacies of a symbol-based language and a culture that does not see no as a final answer.

Time and again my work with multinational companies illustrates how hard it is for an organisation to accept that in China the CEO is not the decision-maker, it’s the party leader. How many joint ventures fail because executives ask China to conform to their ways rather than seeing that both need each other?

On this Quest, we spent time with migrant workers, government officials, students, entrepreneurs and a rare government-approved family therapy specialist running a pilot programme to improve societal values by restoring competency and control at the family level. The topic of the group I led was “changing social structures and the impact on Chinese psychology.” What a pleasure to be working with executives who wanted to explore these issues.

When working in China following the Arab Spring, I remember there was a fear of a ‘Jasmine Spring.’ Today, however – notwithstanding events in Hong Kong – protest by students is not a big concern. They are ‘too happy’.

The fear now relates to migrant workers (defined as those moving to urban centres from impoverished rural areas). These workers cannot register for the same services (housing, education etc) as those who have grown up in the cities. I expect we will be hearing more and more about ‘Hukous’ or household registration, which currently migrants are denied.

Migrant workers are integral to the country’s economy and the government encourages movement to the cities as it’s easier to care for people when they all live close together. How to do this and control crowding, pollution and the inevitable separation from family is a great worry. Many countries are concerned about the social threat posed by growing income disparity. During this trip I was reminded about the Chinese twist on this global problem.

I am always impressed by the beauty of walking through a Chinese park and watching the city wake up. People (especially the elderly) are ballroom dancing, singing and painting. On my recent Quest, I saw a spontaneous band of retirees performing what sounded like love songs. They were actually ballads from the Mao era – essentially love songs to him, propaganda from an earlier period.

There are those who long for the days when people were poor, equal and happy. Mao did after all ‘put a chicken in every pot’. The poor in China have food, and they are literate. And if you go to the countryside you can see Mao’s picture framed on their dressers.

Historically, education was for the betterment of society. Now it’s the means to wealth and the rush to accumulate is excessive. Shopping is as much a consumptive disorder in China as drinking. Despite the new toys and flowing scotch, the realisation that money can’t buy happiness is becoming clearer and clearer to the next generation – those who have grown up without a spiritual connection, without siblings (thanks to the one child policy), and often with parents who suffered during the Cultural Revolution but cannot and will not put words to their experiences.

Our interpreters (around 22 years old) search for answers to what happened in 1966-1976. Those who left the country and came back have some clues. It’s like going to the Mandela museum in South Africa with locals: “what, this happened in my backyard?” This is the Chinese twist – the refusal to accept and deal with a period of intense revolution and suffering as a country.

It was very interesting to lead a team of German executives talking to Chinese about how a nation deals with and recovers from a social trauma that flourished off irreversible cruelty and created extreme distrust between people. The 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square is not acknowledged, so you meet people who have multiple layers of repressed – or denied – memory. No wonder there is a search to ‘buy’ an identity with brands and labels.


I’ve been to China many times before, so I ask myself: what was different on this visit? The government realises they have a society in crisis. Who is ‘raising’ the family? The government no longer regulates behaviour like it once did and multinational companies don’t provide the social structures once offered by state-owned enterprise. 35 years into the one child policy you have single children born of single children who have to care for multiple elderly family members, often while living far away from their nuclear family.

Enter Confucius. We visited his home at Qufu. It’s a delightful small town with three main sites: his home, his temple and a massive graveyard with trees and many descendants of the great man. Curiously, when invaded during the revolution, Confucius’ grave revealed no buried body.

Confucius wrote about filial piety, but his Dad tried to give him away because he was ugly and then died when he was just three. I asked Kenzie (my Leaders’ Quest colleague, from Hong Kong) if perhaps he wrote about loyalty to one’s father because he had coped with abandonment and abuse by idealizing his Dad. When I heard that Confucius lost his mom when he was 17, I said “you mean an orphan taught the country about family?”

You will see more references to Confucian principles of piety as the government seeks to promote self-regulation after a very long stretch of government control. They are also piloting marital therapy and parenting education to help couples stay together and more effectively create a healthy environment. We spent an afternoon with the professor who is running this pilot. Fortunately, single children of single children can now have two children and I expect more loosening will follow.

Of all the things I observed this week though, the anti-corruption campaign seems to be the biggest driver of change. Where once we vied for an overpriced table at “the” restaurants, now you can walk right in. The luxury brand stores don’t seem to have customers and – once you get out of the centre of the city – there are many half-built buildings. The big hotels offer Groupon deals for tea, early dinners and even rooms. Our cab driver told us now he can afford to buy wine. Who would have thought that one way to close the income gap was to make all income legitimate.

During the Quest, my clients were surprised to hear how much employees and indeed government officials hoped that their companies would provide clear values and an enforcement of certain behaviours. This is my third time working with this particular company. I had two board members in my small group, one the past CEO of a major multinational and the other a woman who was a former German Supreme Court judge.

The company’s CEO was thrilled with the programme, which crystalised for him why they need China and why China needs them. We spoke a lot about innovation in their industry rather than sales. Sustainability and environmental protection were top agenda items.

When we asked young people what they wanted most in the future they often answered ‘air and water’. You can see the air but not the sun (and you can appreciate why people wear masks on the street). It was so hot the pollution hung around your body. There was no way to feel clean and given the crowds and warmth and smog the desire to see sky feels urgent. Many rivers are openly polluted in contrast to the streets that are really not that dirty.

My Quest was a thought-provoking, full and fun adventure. Kenzie and I even went to a calligraphy exhibit where I finally had a start to my long-overdue education on what those brush strokes mean. As it turns out, unsurprisingly, they mean a lot, and to figure it out, you have to do the puzzle. The puzzle depends on your knowledge of the basic idioms most Chinese learn in grade school. Of course, most Westerners don’t even know they exist, let alone what the idioms are. Under Kenzie’s tutelage, I learned that everyday conversation is infused with reference to these poetic idioms, thus further illustrating just how differently Eastern and Western brains are.

So I leave you with this new bit of learning: the entrances of many Chinese restaurants and homes have a mirror on the left, calligraphy in the centre that says “longevity”, and an urn on the right. The word for mirror and the word for pot, when said together, sound like the word for contentment and peaceful. Add to that longevity and you have created a “sign”, a wish at your entrance that those who enter will enjoy a long and peaceful stay.

China: social project, giant puzzle. Never disappoints. There’s a saying that the more you visit China, the more you know what you don’t know. I second that.