19 - Man or Mouse?

A discussion of management procedures in China - and the avoidance of responsibility

Groucho Marx was asked, “are you a man or a mouse?” His answer: “Leave some cheese on the floor and we’ll find out”. My recent experiences of Chinese management decisions are reminiscent of this.


Management is a confused subject at the best of times; this is one topic made only more confused in a change of cultures. Note that word; it is not the change of country, but of culture that makes the significance of the difference(s).

One of the fundaments of employment in China is the structure of the management system. Every employee is apparently very aware of the immediate chain of responsibility, but unlike Europe, little else of the local management system is understood. That confusion applies at many levels. Where in ‘the West’ you might expect every employee to have a good idea of their position in the company, where their particular cog belongs in the engine that is the company - here, it (the knowledge of your position) is not much more than knowing you are a cog¹ at all.

Responsibility is not especially vague here, or at least not deliberately so. Bear in mind that what the Chinese as a people are (is?) very good at, is mass co-operation. At an individual level this is not so good. So street traffic, despite its blatant disregard for rules and apparent selfishness, actually demonstrates the immense tolerance and co-operative interaction that allows China to function, largely because everyone is in the same position. An aggressive westerner could take great advantage in traffic – as I suspect the police do, on occasion.

This idea is not carried over into the workplace in quite the way one might expect. My observations are biased by my own culture: my perceptions of co-operative employ-ment in Britain show me that many people understand much of the jobs filled by their superiors and inferiors (and inferiors only in the sense of company structure); thus a conversation can be held between co-workers in a way that shares ideas and responsibility – but usually leaves a clear space for the senior to declare a decision that all can live with. Here, I don’t see the same occur. Help is often asked for, but only where it does not cause a loss of face; embarrassment is to be avoided at all costs. However, if a decision is to be made and many are waiting on that decision, the convention is to exert the power that is conferred by the attention, by abusing it. Read that again; I will explain.

A typical bureaucrat, due to decide when (say) the next school holiday occurs, will defer the decision until the whole region is waiting on the result, maybe not promulgating the decision until the very week of the holiday. In Britain such behaviour would cost him (say) his job in short order, but here it is considered normal. That, as I persist in saying, doesn’t make it right.

The really bad thing is that this attitude is destructive in a way that makes it quite at odds with the other aspects of the culture. We have situations where the person supposed to make a decision has little understanding of the consequences – and I have observed occasions where the decision is based not on what is sensible for the company (in our case, the school) but on what will be comfortable for the people concerned. This exertion of control, by leaving the publication of the decision until the last possible moment, makes any planning largely wasted. To look at this in another way, it means that planning must take all contingencies equally seriously, for any decision is based on such poor, even irrelevant, information that any outcome is apparently quite likely. At my most cynical, given a set of outcome choices, the evidence is that there is no qualitative decision at all unless it is personally biased –and one might as well roll a die to discover the most likely choice. The dice man cometh².

We have another aspect of normal Chinese business attitudes recently demonstrated. In the West, any detail forming a bigger agreement is thrashed out in advance and becomes part of the contract. Things that should have been agreed that reveal themselves later are discussed (with some urgency) and become agreement, almost as codicils to the original. Here, while contract has been made, the attitude is that at any time any part of the contract can be renegotiated. Not only that, but agreements can be broken simply because the circumstances of one party have changed – and without discussion. In effect, all contracts are voidable by either party at any time. I am amazed that any companies continue trading with this country. I conclude that the plethora of Chinese Americans is what makes business continue and I would not only recognise but support the retraction of European companies from dealing with this one. Faith and loyalty do not seem to exist. The Chinese who read this will be more than a little offended, but I have had no believable explanation despite many attempts: every local comes back to what is acceptable here with no recognition at all that the other party might find the situation unacceptable. So much for one’s word being one’s bond. Note that even writing this here has produced not a whimper, not a whisper of complaint or explanation, three years later. Yet I know many read my work. ‘Been” counter added 20110126 and lost in 2012, having counted perhaps only 30 visits.

An example of this last demonstrated this week (December, ’07). I have been steadily agreeing detail of working practice with one of the deputy heads of the school, trying to define what is required action, what is expected and where the remainder of the wriggle room is. Suddenly, (no discussion, warning or notice) roles have been moved around and the new holder of any post not only has no idea what has been agreed, has no regard for what has been agreed. That any previous agreement was made with an officer of the school holds little value, apparently. Yet, if the earlier deputy confirmed his decisions with a superior, why is it that apparently the new post-holder professes no knowledge and no acceptance of what went before? This is no way to work. What is more, this, the irrationality of decision, is likely to be the source of whatever it is that eventually drives me away from this country.

As foreigners abroad, we are all to some extent dependent upon good communications, particularly the telephone. In my own case, the telephone line is essential because it provides my internet connection and for the other foreigners, who use the phone for spoken family communications every week, the demand is more immediate and obvious³. Yet the telephone companies, for all that they treat certain pieces of paper as religious objects, fail to tell a subscriber of any money owed, preferring to cut off the phone when money is due. I am no longer sure what my reaction is: frustration that when one tries to settle in advance they claim there is no bill (really meaning not yet in arrears); respect at the effective method of reducing billing costs; disgust at the way they treat their customers; or just despair at the refusal to produce a bill at any time to provide evidence of what they think they have provided. Considering the importance attached to trivial pieces of paper (where the paper is given importance such as a basis for payment, not service or success), the lack of sensible use of paper is worse than confusing. No utility I have experienced here provides a contract of service, none of them provide a record of billing and one has no record of what they claim they have provided, nor what you have paid for. Where one buys an ‘improved’ service, such as a faster internet connection, there is no record or recognition of this. So you can’t go and check whether you are getting what is (or was) offered, you can’t see what might be available and you can’t generate information with which to make a sensible decision.

This is not sensible.

Another example comes to mind over marketing the school. The declared situation is that we are dependent upon the exam results to generate interest in coming to the school. So when I ask whether they are serious, that parents will take no interest in their child’s future until the last two weeks of August, I receive blank stares of incomprehension. Slowly, so very slowly, staff have (been persuaded to) put themselves in the parental position and it is being wondered whether it might be sensible to promulgate information to them in advance of August.

When we have parents’ meetings (they occur on Saturday mornings, so they are not parents’ evenings) I have been offended by the off-hand way that the parents are received. Surprisingly, I am told that if we were to be ‘European nice’ to them, the perceived assumption would be that our business is weak and that we are desperate (for their business). There is little recognition that we might use good results to improve our intake, that we might wish to offer an entry exam or entry criteria of studious excellence, but particularly facility with English – these are (literally) foreign ideas. I have suggested we have something approaching a prospectus and I must be winning some part of the argument because in December a beginning has been made on that, to advertise what it is that we do. The principal source of intake to our section is to steal from the rest of the school. I ask how the school promotes itself and the answer is that its excellence generates the interest. Prospective customers are treated in an off-hand way because it is the customer’s problem to find the best school, not the school’s problem to tell everyone that it is (so) good. So I ask how information is released –  there’s no coherent answer to that, of course. Do we give current customers information so that they can talk to their friends with confidence? – of course not. So everything is word of mouth and nothing is correct. How then, I ask, is it that the school is so sure that it is the best? Ah, well, apparently the state issues tables of results at the GaoKao (GCSE and GCE equivalence). When? say I: well, not in time to make sense of applications for the next year’s intake.

This is all very silly.  Add into this mix that parents with decision-making power as at the top of this piece use their power to effect: we have been threatened with closure of the road in front of the school unless we took the decision–maker’s child; a colleague had his passport held by an ‘official’ until the school agreed to take the ransomer’s child; similarly with lack of electricity (i.e. deliberately slow (stopped) repair service); with lack of heating, cleaning… yet this is not considered here as the blackmail it so clearly is. Of course, those children who are the (cost or) price of blackmail turn out to be weak students and their education is not best served by being in a group where they can only ever be in the last few of any ordering.

Welcome to China.

The Chinese for teacher is ‘lao3shi1’, literally ‘old man’; a mouse is shu or a bigger one a rat - lao3shu3. To western ears there is little difference. Try shuh and shoe and you will be close. My listening to Mandarin shows no ‘or’ word in use, the question of the title would be Laoshi laoshu ma? With an ‘or’ word, Lao3shi1 hai2shi4 lao3shu3 ma1? works well - disputed with C in 2012, who is reluctant to let Mandarin be alliterative; she says I am being deliberately confusing. Me?

                                      DJS 20071221

This piece was written about Xi’an, but it applies surprisingly well to Qingdao. It doesn’t apply so well to Nanjing because the senior management really is of a superior calibre.

1 ‘cog’ not to be confused with Chairman of Governors. ‘Governors’ not to be confused with a small pair of balls in a spinning swinging arrangement that relieves pressure in a steam engine. The faster they go, the more they swing outwards and the higher they go, all so they are the more likely they are to give off steam.

Honest, no connection.

2 A book I recommend knowing about, possibly even reading, The Dice Man, Luke Rhinehart (really George Cockcroft) 1971 and a film/video in 1989. It may change the way you view the world.

3 No Skype yet.

4  Language comment added 20110126 though intended in the original writing. At 201210 C is agreeing with use of haishi and even suggesting the alliterative lines so they’ll stick in my foggy head.

© David Scoins 2017