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Chinese Characteristics

Frans van Gunsteren

Since 2001, when I first arrived in China to work on a refinery project for Shell, I have wondered what it means when the Chinese talk about “Chinese characteristics.” I have asked around and never got an answer. Now, with more time to read and think, I have come to some understanding, which I want to share. Sometimes I believe the Chinese are unable to formulate what it is or do not want to do so, perhaps because these characteristics contains some xenophobic aspects and they do not like to be seen as such.

Four books that I have read have been helpful in coming to a better understanding of characteristics that are typical of the Chinese:

Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion

Karel van Wolferen, Japan

Timothy Beardson, Stumbling Giant

Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World

Focus on oneself, focus on humanity

Henri Bergson identifies two sources of morality. The first is the primitive source that serves survival, with push from the community and social order. Actions are driven by external push and attracted by objects. The second source is attracted by ideas. Spinoza called these concepts natura naturata and natura naturans. The first source is focused on oneself; the second is focused on humanity.

My conclusion is that the second of these is absent in Chinese civilization. Food, family, and finance (FFF) get 100% focus, leaving no space for attention to influences outside China except for their relation with China.

Albert Einstein advocated a global government as the voice of the second source of morality. Openness to more than one’s own business, based on ideas rather than only on self-centered development and power, goes back as far as Socrates.

I have some anecdotes to share on the views of the Chinese concerning their civilization and ethnic community.

My father-in-law

Some days ago, my father-in-law scolded my wife for doubting the competence of the Chinese government in handling the democratic movements in Hong Kong. He advised her to leave the country and give up her Chinese nationality if she was unwilling to respect the competence of the Chinese government. He was beyond reason and showed how much the ordinary man believes that the Chinese government is their protection, their savior, their unifier – best for China and best in the world.

This is confirmed in Martin Jacques’s book (p. 618): two-thirds of the population is happy with their government’s role. This statistic shows that the Chinese support the view that China is unique, big, and superior to others and has no need for foreign influences. So far, it has grown thanks to good central and noncentral strong government with control of all aspects of life. Government and Party are seen as stabilizing factors and protectors.

Not allowed to judge

A second observation is that many Chinese commented on my book China’s Need for Small Northern European Friends with the view that a foreigner is not credible and is not allowed to judge Chinese society. This fits my experience in Wison, a company that I advised for three years in Shanghai. Decisions were all made by Chinese in Chinese. The only role I had was to provide intelligence on what happens in China and how foreign companies should be handled to get jobs, both inside and outside China.

It also fits my experience at present in ThyssenKrupp with a new China manager, who does not need my support in China and is only interested in my business intelligence on the competitive position of China compared to other countries.

When I retired from Shell in 2006, I offered to help the Daya Bay Chemical Industrial Park, as retirees do in Holland by advising the government on various matters. They only asked me for information about the best overseas industrial parks in Singapore and Germany, but they did not want or need any advice about how to manage their industrial park better.

In practice, many of my suggestions were followed up during the Shell project (2001-2006). Advice to separate industrial and residential areas, to reroute the expressway from crossing the park to going around it, and to relocate people living too close to crude tanks, that might result in fatalities by fire and roll-over of hot oil in the event of an accident, was all heeded in execution of the project. So in hindsight it was not a bad result, but I always wondered why they did not take my advice on managing their facility better, in order to become number one in China. This role was the main reason to stay in China after retirement. It would have helped to increase the value of the Shell investment by giving the Shell facility top neighbors.

Foreigners should never have any say in Chinese matters

This shows an ethnic mindset based on Chinese culture, history, and the “Great Wall” mindset. China wants to control all that goes in and out of China, monitored by customs officials, security agencies, and monetary control. Thus all is known by the government with respect to the influence of foreigners. There is no longer any need to have more interaction and involvement between Chinese and non-Chinese. English has been demoted in the rating of school results. This means that the government does not want too much English and the overseas orientation and foreign influence resulting from it.

Another issue I did not understand was the “All China Policy.” It means that China ought to be able to produce, manufacture, and innovate all products and services. It is a perfect fit to the mindset of an ethnically based Chinese civilization that should be independent as much as possible. A “copy mindset” fits this policy, as does temporarily accepting foreign investment and brands. Nevertheless, one can regularly see foreign brands being bashed in the media, mainly for problems originating from lack of law enforcement in China. Brands that tend to become monopolistic because of their innovation are even criticized for taking advantage of their unique technical features. Anti-trust measures are then used to bash discredit their brand names.

The all-China policy, together with the economic growth that derives from China’s size and development, leads to what Martin Jacques calls the ambition to reinstate China as a “tribunal state”, where other neighboring countries should pay tribute and be thankful for doing business with China. This is fundamentally based on a feeling of superiority – the same as Van Wolferen has described for Japan, and the same as was evident in Germany before the Second World War.

In this context, China is a threat to world peace, especially since their openness for problems in global humanity is not (yet) visible. This might change in the future because the world is now so highly interdependent.

Personal health: an opening factor

The Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 009 saw China, along with other BRICS countries, take the lead, ignoring Europe completely and only informing the USA at the last minute. It is clear to China that the air pollution problem is so severe that Chinese people will not accept it for the longer term. It is a destabilizing factor. The one-child policy has focused families on health and a healthy future for their kids.

Many rich families send their children to the USA or other overseas universities and even invest overseas. This shows their lack of trust in the future in China. So the government will take the lead in environmental matters in order to create a level playing field internationally and not lose competitiveness as the world factory.

Nine aspects

Other examples can be given of situations in which Chinese interests are linked with global interests. However, this does not mean that China will embrace Western institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, etc. These will be replaced by Chinese-dominated institutions, with RMB replacing the USD. Bilateral trade agreements and development aid (e.g. Africa) will bind the partner countries in a tributary system. It means a system with “Chinese characteristics.”

These Chinese characteristics have nine aspects that are relevant to this discussion.

The first aspect is the ethnic (race) based worldview, with an underlying feeling of superiority based on history. This goes hand in hand with the second aspect.

The second aspect is size. China is more a continent rather than what a country in Europe or Africa is. This huge land mass is populated with 1.3 billion people – an immense size to feed and to keep stable by providing enough employment, infrastructure, education, health, etc.

The third aspect is the comfort in repeating – in factory work, in innovation, in history, in Confucian ethics, in almost every aspect of Chinese life. There is little room to be different. There is a strong group feeling: people like crowded places, noisy places, being part of one’s own Chinese group, within and outside China. This is a stabilizing factor for the low-cost manufacturing that may allow China to be the “global factory” longer term.

A lack of innovation

However, a consequence of this emphasis on repetition and rote is a lack of innovation, mainly due to the education system in China. This is a significant hurdle that is not easily taken. Thus many wealthy families and government bureaucrats send their children overseas, preferably to the USA, to study. The Chinese government encourages them to come back either after completing their studies or as “turtles” who have their innovative career behind them abroad and can copy it to China. Some foreign educational systems are allowed in China, to bridge the innovation/creativity gap, but this is a half-hearted initiative, because it might stimulate a mindset that is too creative and independent among the young and the students. I have seen open and British-based educational institutions becoming completely Chinese again.

The fourth aspect is that governmental power is not linked and shared with religion. In Europe, religion was once mixed with government, and the two were later separated. Ideals from Christianity have influenced European thinking and have combined with enlightenment values to produce an innovative, creative, and diversified cultural life. Not so in China. One benefit is peace within the government, which is concerned with pragmatic issues only; another is that the common citizen in China lives without the stress of ideals that conflict with practical life.

This is what writer and linguist Lin Yutang calls “lolling.” It looks like British passivity, but it is not. The British used it for “watching and wondering” and for scientific and philosophical adventures. The Chinese are more static; they relax by watching TV, playing mahjong or chess, or just doing nothing.

China has an extensive and impressive history and a tradition of honoring and respecting ancestors, which leads to a daily focus on history rather than on the future. This reduces the need for religion. The US Tea Party originates from Christian puritan ethics with humanistic ideals. It creates stress between ideals and reality that is filled partly by religion (Bergson’s theme). It is as though China is living as a child, only living in the present, needing parents (party/government) and play.


The fifth aspect is contentment. It is related to the fourth aspect, absence of religion. Obligations play a more significant role than rights. Everyone has obligations towards family, ancestors, and community. Once these are fulfilled, there is contentment. But conflicting obligations sometimes create stress.

Chinese stress is less from not meeting ideals, as in the West. China looks more to the past, which is certain, and not to the future, which is uncertain and can create fear and stress. This is also the reason that there is less need for religion in China. There are no worries about humanity and its future; just the present is good enough, with an extensive history to examine on TV and in education. People are just content with FFF: food, family, and finance.

This creates problems for those who are affluent in all three. Their purpose in life is fulfilled, and no new ideals come to mind. In Singapore and Hong Kong, that has led to large religious communities with charities, education, and social climbing. It is resisted in China for stability reasons in an authoritarian society in which daily life is tightly controlled by governmental institutions. In practice, the religious inclination is substituted by gambling, by playing with “fate” and “chance,” and by superstition – not only in lucky numbers, but also in lucky calendar days and lucky times.

The void and emptiness is also often filled by travel and by buying expensive luxury goods. In itself, this might open a window for some non-Chinese influences, but if one looks at how Chinese groups act when traveling as tourists and buying luxury goods, it is completely in the Chinese way, with a focus on internal dynamics within the Chinese group.

Financial Games

Another substitute for religion and ideals is financial (cheating) games. I believe the rampant cheating in China has an origin in this emptiness. Just try cheating as a kind of game. This provides some tension, some fun, and sometimes even financial results. So why not try to cheat? The buyer is the one who is foolish enough not to protect himself or herself.

Just yesterday, my wife’s parents were cheated for RMB 900 in a kind of lottery game in the shopping center under our compound. The person cheated looks stupid, not the cheater.

Empire Leadership

The sixth aspect is the empire leadership that is copied from the dynasties; the new dynasty is the Party. Henk Schulte Nordholt has made this clear in his university lectures, which will be published soon.

China has lived for centuries with upcoming and collapsing dynasties. People accept this, and the government acts accordingly, with the PLA (army) as the strong arm behind it. This form of government is embedded in Chinese tradition. In China, 30% of the economy is managed by state owned enterprises (SOEs), making government control and guidance effective in execution. The Party’s success since 1949 in maintaining stability is due to its flexibility and pragmatic approach, and not being dogmatic.


The seventh aspect is pragmatism in government, based on self-interest. China is both a developing country and a developed country, depending on where and how you look in China. The country benefits from both. It makes links with developing Africa for various reasons of self-interest, rather than being guided by Western idealistic policies. Its expansion in the South China Sea is also pragmatic. Based on an ambitious and justified target of having a fixed frontier on sea and air, China makes deals with surrounding countries on a bilateral basis, using their tributary system in which the Chinese market plays a powerful role.

The tributary system

The eighth aspect is the tributary system, as Martin Jacques calls it. It is based on size, population, a feeling of superiority, the presence of Chinese citizens overseas in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand (each 7 million), and the enormous attractiveness of the growing Chinese market. This tributary system explains China’s attempts to gain fixed frontiers in the South China Sea, and it binds the neighbors in economic alliances dominated by Chinese power. Others in the world will follow suit.

The USA and Europe need to pay their bridal gifts and then be happy to enter the Chinese market temporarily for an exchange of investments, knowhow, and innovation. A bilateral balance of self-interest governs these relations. So longer term, with the “all China policy,” this balance will turn to imbalance, with China at the steering wheel. The weaker players – like Africa, Eastern Europe, and South America – are the first candidates.

Stronger partners in Northern Europe and North America are avoided short term except for importation and copying of innovation. One can see that China will eventually also gain market share in Europe and the USA for certain high tech products (ZTE/Huawei), though this is not likely in Japan for protective reasons explained by Van Wolferen.


The ninth aspect is the Great Wall control of China’s borders. It fits the tributary system to be able to shut out any of its tributaries, and also to control the interior of China, which is large in area and in population. Control ultimately means shutting down the frontiers, or at least being able to do so. It explains why China wants fixed sea/air frontiers in the South China Sea.

The customs service exists not only to levy fees, but mainly to control the frontiers: what goes in and out. Together with the quality/quarantine and security officials, all three government services protect the import and export of goods and people.

Monetary control is carried out by SOE banks, with strict rules and limitations for foreign banks, and Hong Kong acts as a commercial window to support business in mainland China.

The combined result

The combined result of these characteristics is a monolithic continent, with tributary relations with economic partners, ethnic cultural unity, even with Chinese citizens overseas, and no real global values as ideals for intrinsic behavior for the benefit of humanity. The country is driven only by practical and flexible self-interest and an absence of a broader morality, shown by a complete lack of real volunteer work and charity compared to Europe and USA.

There are no Chinese values, but only Chinese characteristics, based on the Chinese identity and feeling of superiority. This is similar to Japan and similar to Germany before the world wars in the last century. It has led to a closed mindset based on personal obligations and contentment with FFF, and with an absence, already described by Bergson in the early part of the last century, of empathy with global humanity.

What to learn from this analysis?

What can we do with the analysis given above? What can we learn from China? There are a few things that do not conform to the Western democratic legacy.

In the first place, we can understand the role of a “competent government,” as Martin Jacques explains. State competence is considerable, and it is necessary in order to govern a “continent” with global bilateral relations. It is rooted in centuries of government practices, even in the last four centuries. This is very different from the postcolonial countries in Africa and elsewhere in the world. The only successful one of these is India, which is evidence that threatens the view that the economic success of a developing country can only be secured by a non-democratic authoritarian government.

But what is happening in China is impressive, and we should study how to copy those parts that would fit the Western democratic mindset, the rule of law, and separation of legislative/executive/judicial functions.

Secondly, we can acknowledge the leadership that seeks to create a level playing field for global environmental issues like in areas such as clean coal, global warming, and use of energy.

Thirdly, we can observe how a big country with a large population can be managed in an effective manner. Could Europe adopt a Chinese government model with “democratic characteristics”? Could the USA embrace Mexico to return to its role as a global manufacturer with innovations and enough low-cost skilled workers?

Fourthly, it may be possible for North Europe, Canada, and Australia to import Chinese innovations in low-cost manufacturing and use the Chinese market for testing new technologies.

What we in the West can learn from China

My last observation is a reconciliation with my 2011 book on why the Chinese need the Northern Europeans in the longer term. The ten Chinese values in the book fit very well the “Chinese characteristics” described above. Longer-term relations between Northern Europe, Switzerland, and Canada should be based on joint innovations, with China providing low-cost manufacturing and testing opportunities, and the West providing new innovative solutions to emerging problems in urbanization, energy, environment, and free trade between continents.

So my plea is not to see what the Chinese have to learn from the West, because they will not copy the Western legacy except the products and services needed for global businesses, but rather to see what we in the West can learn from China.

Longer-term relations with China will be based exclusively on self-interest within a tributary system and on a pragmatic opportunistic balance of power, which might turn out to give China power over others.

In the event that China takes Timothy Beardson’s advice seriously and becomes a stable economy, more balanced with the Western world and keeping its own Chinese characteristics, it could result in China being stable and benefiting the world at large.

But India seems to be doing better in this process.

26 July 2014 Huiyang, Guangdong, China

Pictures are from 798 in Beijing.

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