We all carry stereotypes, especially of people we have yet to meet and places we have yet to visit. Sometimes these stereotypes are reinforced by movies and literature, which makes me cringe: I hate to think that foreigners might conclude that Mrs. Cleaver of “Leave it to Beaver” is representative of American women or that John Wayne’s callused tough guys who grit their way through anything are typical of American men.
But I know that many Americans have lingering impressions about China and the Chinese that come from the past and from general beliefs we hold about their culture and their communist history.
One of the most common questions I get about China is, “How much do you pay in bribes to do business there?” In reality, I have never paid a bribe or had someone pay one on my behalf — and I am not saying that just because it is against the law for an American to bribe a foreign official. In my desire for expediency, especially as we first worked on securing our “controlled industry” approval to do business in China, there were times when I would have paid a bribe if I could have.
The phrase “red tape” might as well have come from a communist country. Permits, permissions and business licenses take time in China for everyone, including the Chinese, but they certainly take more time for foreigners.
I thought I’d grown used to the protracted process, but when I bought a company in California last year, I was struck by how similar the bureaucratic hoops were. There actually were more of them than I typically face in China. I took to making jokes about how perhaps those who talk about the “Communist State of California” were on to something. It took more approvals, paperwork and time to buy an existing company in California and have its business licenses transferred than to open a new, wholly owned foreign business in China.
I have also found that local Chinese politicians are much more interested in economic development than local politicians in the United States. I have many meetings and meals with mayors and vice mayors in China who want to attract our company’s business to their city. In America, by contrast, I had to call in a favor from a friend to get someone to return my phone calls from the economic development department of a city where I was considering an investment.
When I run into Chinese government officials I know at business networking functions, we often chat like old friends. They ask about my company and our growth in China. If I need help — say we’re conducting an auction in a province we haven’t worked in before — these officials often make introductions for us or give us advice on how to get through the paperwork cycle with the local government.
This simply isn’t the case in America. There is rarely any networking among government officials from different jurisdictions, and I have never run into a council representative or mayor at a business networking function who is in attendance simply to interact with business owners. They may attend to give a speech — especially if it is close to an election cycle — but they’re not there to build connections. Perhaps one reason for the difference is that, in China, officials are appointed. They don’t need to worry about elections.
I try to remind myself that all of these paper trails have a purpose. I believe that whether you’re in China or in the United States, most people in government are working to keep people safe and protected. Sometimes delivery of those services isn’t as seamless as we would like, but we are all striving for the same goal.
And I try to fight the stereotypes I encounter, in conversations with others and in my own mind. My mother used to say, “Just because someone is different than you doesn’t make them wrong.” I hope the person I am today doesn’t look much like the person I was 20 years ago. I have progressed and grown, as have most of us.