Featured, Opinions

What is this China…

18 December

Leading up to tomorrow’s U.S. presidential election, both candidates have grappled with China’s growing influence. Throughout the campaign, China has been branded as a country with an agenda that undermines U.S. interests both domestically and abroad. This highlights ongoing apprehension of China’s rise. Until the late 90’s, the assumption was that a free market would naturally draw China towards a more open, democratic system. Thus far this has not been the case. This has led many to see China’s growth as largely cosmetic – merely an economic makeover that has managed to circumvent societal change by adapting capitalism to fit into a society, which has changed very little in two thousand years.

What is this China

This is a cursory view overlooks the fact that China’s evolution over the past 30 years is leading to fundamental change. While political liberalization may not be apparent, there is something much more lasting than skyscrapers and Ferrari’s going on in China. Sociopolitical influences including the one child policy, a free market economy, and widespread adoption of social media are among many factors that are shifting China’s culture.

In his last post, Jeremiah highlighted the unconscious but pervasive nature of culture, effectively the “autopilot” for how groups behave. Because of this, culture is both hard to understand and extraordinarily difficult to change. The fact that our research indicates China’s deeply embedded cultural values are evolving, effectively a reprograming of the nation’s “autopilot”, is an indication of how significant this shift is.

In our work with organizations across China, we’ve measured the cultural values of thousands of individuals and connected those findings with historical benchmarks. Instead of the traditional preference for collectivism, order, and strict power hierarchies, we’ve seen an increased preference for individual achievement. Close social bonds and group success are no longer the ends; instead they are often leveraged as the means for personal gain.  In the past three decades, the country has evolved from a society characterized by traditional Confucian values to something much more nuanced.

Highlighting this transition, are the hundreds of millions of Chinese under the age of 30 who have grown up in a new China. This group has been dubbed the “me generation” – a title that at first glance seems more attuned to the recent excesses of Wall Street than a moniker for youth raised in the wake of Tiananmen Square. However, this generation’s desire for self-expression and material wealth embodies the individualism we see in our data.

What this means for those shaping China’s future is that Beijing must continue feeding the me-generation’s insatiable appetite for more (so far this has equated to more wealth instead of more freedoms). There is a tacit agreement where citizens give the government leeway, so long as peoples’ lives continue to improve. Keeping this new middle class satisfied is what moves the dial in Beijing, not unseating the U.S. as the dominant global power. Furthermore, as this generation comes to age and begins to take the reigns, they will do so from different cultural foundation. China is changing and in a lasting way.

It will be years, if not decades, before we grasp the impact of China’s red-hot economy, government led initiatives and ubiquitous social media. While the outcomes are unclear, we’ve already seen that China’s growth extends beyond policy and economics into the very psyche of who China is.

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