Debunking the Myths about China: What Expats Need to Know

When coming to a new country - namely China - or even just when being interested in one, it is normal for expats to have prejudices. Our education, the media, the History, the work from scholars that have penetrated common knowledge, etc. All of this contributes to help us build a general idea of a given country’s culture.

The hard part begins when one tries to overcome preconceptions to acquire a more genuine understanding of the host country. For business purposes, by curiosity, or simply because it eases the integration process, the reasons of such an initiative are numerous.

As a newcomer on the Chinese soil, or even if you have been here for several years, it is always interesting – and useful – to challenge your believes and to explore more about local psyche.

Cultural Awareness: Why Has It Become Essential?

Two groups are interested in the concept of cultural awareness: expatriates and companies.

  • The former do because being familiar with local customs and way of thinking help them living a balanced life, avoiding conflict, and predicting the general people attitudes' toward a given situation. Being able to accurately predict someone’s response to an event is essential for individuals to build stability in their life.
  • The latter do because the well-being of their employees often means more chances of them being more productive, more easily integrated in the company, and more smoothly transitioning to their new tasks. Expatriation failure (when an expatriation ends before its term or is considered not fully achieved) is most of the time linked with poor employee’s integration and great costs for the company.

As put by Kate Hutching in her article Cross Cultural Preparation of Australian Expatriates in Organizations in China: The Need to a Greater Attention to Training:

"The removal of national protectionist trade policies, de-regulation of international fiscal and monetary markets, and rapid advances in communications and distribution channels, has contributed to the increasing numbers of organisations that have decided to expand their operations across international borders in the last two decades.”

What could be overlooked in the past decades, i.e. cultural awareness, has now become essential as international assignments – or more broadly international mobility - are getting more common.

How to Increase One's Knowledge and Cultural Awareness?

Tons of means are available to increase one’s knowledge about Chinese psyche: reading the news, watching documentaries, looking for scholars’ works, meeting locals and discussing with them, attending training programs or conferences, etc.

Yet, the most important, apart from exposing oneself to this information, is to stay open to whatever could contradict one’s believes, past experiences, or what has been previously learnt. Open-mindedness is key when it comes to understanding your host country and effectively grasping what traits make up its personality.

Debunking the Myths

If one agrees with continue down this path, then the Harvard Business Review article "China Myths, China Facts" written by Erin Meyer and Elisabeth Yin Shen would be of great help. They identified 3 common myths that have been “perpetuated informally through stereotypes, and formally through management-training programs”.

  • Myth 1: China is a collectivist country. Even Hofstede’s works state “At a score of 20 China is a highly collectivist culture where people act in the interests of the group and not necessarily of themselves.”
    In this article however, the authors state that Chinese people, especially the younger generation, are more on the individualistic side of the spectrum. One of the interviewees argues that “as a child, I was punished for stepping out of the box and told to be ‘average’. But we have left this mentality with passion. In China, we are so eager to move ahead. Westerners often feel our style is pushy and aggressive”.
  • Myth 2: Long-term deliberation is preferred. However, for whoever has been working in China, or has simply followed the past decades’ economic growth, it appears obvious that Chinese psyche now tends to “real-time reaction” as stated in the article, and quick decision making. This tendency is in accordance with the government aiming at fostering innovation.
  • Myth 3: Chinese people are risk averse. However, given the decision process is usually quick, risk tolerance is nowadays quite high in China. One of the interviewee stated that the country’s growing GDP is a proof that “the level of entrepreneurship and risk taking” is high.

Understanding the ever-changing psyche of China is key when it comes to not being lost in the Middle Kingdom. Debunking myths as the Harvard Business Review did is very useful for expats aiming at being at ease in the country, and being successful socially and professionally.

At ASI Movers, we aim at making your relocation process the smoothest possible, and this is aligned with providing you the best insights on the country’s state of mind. After more than 10 years operating in China, we are aware of the challenges one faces, and work hand in hand with our customers to provide them the best services and support possible.