The Challenge of China’s (Hurt) Feelings

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I attended an interesting event last month that covered quite a lot of ground, including the EU relationship with China. There was a strong and senior Chinese delegation in attendance (mainly representing government and academia), and the debate was lively.

Although the discussion was off-the-record, I can share a few interesting (if un-attributed) views from the (very well-qualified-to-comment) Chinese side, that point to…sensitive areas of bilateral relations (and some hurt nationalistic pride). For example, there were feelings that:

    • China is not being treated as an equal partner with the EU and US on the world stage.
    • The EU (and US) should change their perspective and try harder to adapt to China – and not expect China to do all the adapting.
    • China is used as a scapegoat on globalization, while domestic issues (such as the sustainability of EU social welfare costs etc.) are ignored.
    • The West wanted China to learn about market economies and global trade rules. But some seem to think that China learnt too fast, and that protectionist measures are now being introduced as a result. The West can not have it both ways!

I suspect that among many problems from the EU side is the fact that there is no real, single “European” policy on China. The French want to end the arms embargo (and are not alone), the Italians and Spanish want to protect their textile and shoe industries from competition, and so on. So much for the economics…what about the politics? A fair bit of political spice is thrown in to the mix by EU politicians wanting to score easy points at home (as part of a largely unrelated game) using “China issues” that range from IPR to human rights.

It is worth remembering that, for good or bad, China is strongly nationalistic and proud, and many Chinese still feel the sting of humiliation by foreign powers in China’s (relatively) recent history. In that context, this China-bashing can be very destructive.

The views reported by the Chinese represent a real challenge, and I hope that policy-makers can rise to it. China has an important role to play in the world – not just in business – and a more positive approach to engagement could help to ensure that the role is a coordinated and cooperative one, and that business (with all that follows from it) does not suffer from political games, whether domestic or international.

It is easy to disregard feelings in business (let alone politics!) – but, in dealing with China, this is not such a good idea for anyone who wants to achieve something positive.

One Response to “The Challenge of China’s (Hurt) Feelings”

  1. andrew Says:

    You’re correct that this is important in politics and diplomacy — but it is also very significant as a management issue. Western managers (particularly from the US) tend to laugh off issues like resentment, hurt feelings and insecurities, but in China they can present serious business challenges. Managers have to deal with feelings and relationships a lot more in China, and many westerners still aren’t getting it right.

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