Q&A with Angela Yu on Chinese Culture, COVID-19 and Business

Dr. Angela Yu is the incumbent president of Chinovation for Social Progress, moderator of the Binondo Heritage Group, and a past president of Kaisa Para sa Kaunlaran. In this interview, she shares with us some pointers to understand how Chinese culture impacts how they think, behave, and approach their response to calamities.

Before we delve into influences of the Chinese culture and the recent pandemic, let’s clarify our understanding of the concept of culture, and its components. When we speak of culture, we do not only refer to the more static artifacts (arts, customs, knowledge, beliefs, laws, languages, etc.), but a living and constantly morphing set of norms, values, and acceptable behaviors that is shared  across a group/groups of people or certain societies. Culture is acquired in many ways, learned via exposure as behaviors are observed (an example is how children copy their parents’ actions), more deliberately taught (showing respect vary across culture—in the PH tapping the hand of the other person to one’s forehead in a mano gesture is the traditional behavior), and changed as well (an ethnic Chinese migrant learning and teaching his offsprings to mano, instead of bowing), through experiences to fit what is expected in a specific society.

There are also variances across cultures and how cultures are categorized. Social scientists speak of tight (little tolerance for deviant behaviors) and loose cultures, collectivist (focused on group over personal interests) or individualistic cultures, for instance. East Asian nations (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Mongolia) are usually categorized as collectivist and moderately tight.

Q1: Should culture be considered a factor in how rapidly a pandemic spreads or how soon it can be halted?

A1: If we think of culture as the software language with agreed rules, norms and processes that run a group of individuals so they could communicate better, then we do see how it becomes a major factor to consider and contend with, in pandemic spread and control.

One critical aspect that had been taken into account in January 2020 in China was the impact of a cultural celebration—the Lunar New Year last January 2020—where mass migration normally happens, on Covid-19 spread. In 2020, CNY celebration in China was muted to prevent further spread, with lockdowns happening in hotspots.

In a culture where handshakes, hugging and the use of air-conditioning is norm such as the Philippines, Covid-19 transmission could easily happen, compared to cultures where personal space is maintained.

Halting pandemic spread such as Covid-19 will entail a lot of cooperation and support from people. In collectivist cultures that place a premium on relationships will like be more concerned with conformity, harmony, conflict-avoidance, social approval and acceptance, self-regulation. Thus, a collectivist culture may have greater chances of avoiding the Covid-19 spread.

Q2: Does a tight culture, where personal rights bandwidth is curtailed, promise such a rosy picture in Covid-19 spread prevention? 

A2: In theory, it may sound so, but data is mixed—New Zealand and Australia, both moderately low in the tightness scale (Gelfand et al, 2011) are quite successful in controlling Covid-19, but India, Pakistan, Singapore and South Korea, all above 10 in the tightness scale, showed varying success—with the East Asian cultures having a better handle of the pandemic spread. What stood out consistent on success list where spread and death across population (data from Worldometer https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus) is concerned, are East Asian nations–Taiwan and China, in that order.

Q3: Was it Chinese culture that helped them handle COVID-19 much faster than their western counterparts?

A3: The impact of Confucian-Daoist-Buddhist culture could be best seen in nations like Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, HK, Taiwan and Korea. Common across these cultures are the perspectives of interdependence, inter-connectedness, and the value placed on others—maintaining relationships, harmony, reciprocity, etc. Shared interests, social roles and obligations to others in the family /community/ society/ nation is prioritized over personal interests and needs. Thus self-regulation such as putting on face masks, sticking to quarantine rules are social obligations, and not seen as rights of an individual. Choice is an issue often raised where mask-wearing is concerned in the USA. This expectation that each person acts to minimize/prevent harm to the social network may have helped some of the East Asian-(including ethnic Chinese) influenced societies deal better with the Covid-19 pandemic.

While China may be the root of Chinese culture, China’s effective control of Covid19 is better explained by governance and execution. The efficiency of the political system (and social credit rating scheme) worked to their favor insofar as implementing strict quarantine, providing healthcare and preventing spread of the virus are concerned. China and Hong Kong also leaned on lessons from the 2003 SARS outbreak in managing Covid-19. What differentiates China from the rest of the East Asian cultures is the removal of religion  and Confucian teachings in the last half century or so, possibly reducing their influence on the people’s behaviors.

Shared cultural knowledge bases such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, and the formal/informal social network of information sharing are also cultural resources that may have contributed to the better Covid-19 outcomes across East Asian cultures.

Q4: The Philippines had the longest lockdown in Metro Manila, and for a time, was the number 1 COVID-19 affected country in Asia (Indonesia overtook us by mid October 2020). Filipinos, including Filipino-Chinese, were hit with the coronavirus pandemic. How is this situation in the Philippines different than how it is in China and other Asian countries?

A4: In the other Asian countries, actions were taken to mitigate the spread of the virus. These actions were based on previous knowledge (SARS in 2003), with guidance from experts studying the field— epidemiologists, microbiologists and other scientists. The Philippine government has been criticized for allegedly not engaging experts in the management of the pandemic. Despite vast experiences in handling other types of post-disaster scenarios (earthquakes and typhoons), Covid-19 as a pandemic posed a different type of challenge with specific knowledge is needed for active prevention and timely mitigation of risks. The difference could be characterized as reacting versus responding to the pandemic.

Considering the debilitating impact of quarantine to people’s wellbeing and the economy, making the shutdown worthwhile should have been a priority. Lockdown responses could have been supported by mass testing and contact tracing to keep spread at bay. Singapore and Korea took contact tracing seriously, and embraced technology early on. Contact tracing in the PH lagged behind, was manually done so data could not be used immediately. Mass testing was also done less in the Philippines, at 60,562 tested per million as of December 28, 2020. The only Asian nations with less mass testing done yet have similar or more total case counts were Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

Quarantine planning, coordination, communication and management could have been more strategic and comprehensive in the Metro Manila. In Wuhan’s total lockdown for instance, strict movement compliance was enforced. To prevent unnecessary travel outside of homes, quarantine measures such as food and goods delivery to households was done. Demanding that people stay home in densely populated low-income households is unrealistic, when there are more people than space in homes. Planning ahead and using ready resources such as public space for temporary quarantine space or even isolation of PUIs prior to implementation would have eased a lot of the conflicts and resistance, and made better lockdown outcomes. Supply of basic necessities such as food, water, medicines and gas, for example, were also not considered in the decision to shut down Metro Manila. While efforts to set up kitchens to provide meals to low income areas were done, these actions were belated and limited.

Q5: Many Chinese business organizations and Chinoy-run businesses are some of the biggest donors during calamities, oftentimes despite their own businesses being affected. Why do they behave this way?

A5: There are many possible explanations. Reciprocity is one. Chinese migrants who settled in the Philippines return the fortune received from the host country by sharing their blessings in times of calamity. Such acts of providing support in times of need could also be construed as ways to build relationship trust, something a new entrant to an existing Asian collectivist society needs to build.  As the Confucian Golden Mean states, “do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself.” Reframing it—good deeds return good deeds. Hopefully.

Q6: What specific elements of Chinese culture would you say helps greatly in making business decisions during extenuating circumstances such as a pandemic?

A6: Crisis situations call for quick action, and decision making based on available data and frequent adjustments in decisions to match information and situational needs. However, while fighting fire, it is also important not to lose sight of a long term goal. Fear of failure is oftentimes a major hindrance to effective decision making, moreso in the face of a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous)  environment, of which the pandemic is one. The framing of crisis as an opportunity in the Chinese language channels people away from negative thoughts and frightening unknowns toward positive action—scanning the environment for change opportunities.

A relationship-focused culture that constantly nudges people away from selfish interests, builds trust, which is a social capital and resource in times of need. Cohesive relationships expedites collaborative work, especially when collective efforts are for social good. The social network built also served as a ready support system that businesses could rely on during the pandemic. Capitalizing on social media as conduit of communication, several Facebook groups were set up initially to provide supply/demand matching for various pandemic medical needs. Eventually groups were also grown to support enterprises, again for the purpose of matching supply and demand, for win-win outcomes.

At the core, the Chinese culture values trust or xinyong, established through relationships, through self-regulation, obliging one to be other-oriented and to behave in ways that upholds social and ethical standards.

Q7: Are there significant differences in how Chinese and Chinese-Filipino businesspeople run organizations from the get-go that set them apart from how Filipinos run businesses?

A7: It is difficult and maybe even unfair to find difference between businesses and organizations run based on the cultural background of the personalities involved. While being entrepreneurial or business-minded was a quality they consider to be a marker of their social group, Chinese-Filipinos I studied did not see themselves to be significantly more entrepreneurial. What is common across business successes could be the level of exposure to business early on in the family—children are often immersed in the business and labor, while young. This builds on their work ethic, and expands their awareness of the ins and outs of running one, the early practice gives them the confidence to start their own, eventually.

More distinctions could be made between first generation businessmen and subsequent ones. To these pioneers, functionality matters more than elegance. The ability to reformat one’s business to stay relevant is also vital to survival—as the success story of Jollibee’s shift from an ice cream parlor to a burger chain and now a food business with a global footprint tells us. Another differentiator is having that fire in the belly, the hunger to always be better than yesterday among first generation entrepreneurs, which ties in very well to a continuous improvement and change mindset necessary to ride through disruptions or becoming a disruptor.

While workaholism is a trait often lauded among business stalwarts, the downside is costly to one’s health. Learning to take breaks and rejuvenate are tips that deserve imbibing, and also because adequate rest enhances performance and decision making, which in the longer term, also promises better physical and mental health.

What we could highlight are corporate values that resonate with the Chinese culture and even Western business studies found vital to thriving and agility in disruptive ecosystems like today: xinyong or trust/integrity, grit, adaptability/agility, learning mindset, strategic or long-term orientation, pragmatism, action-orientation, relationship-building, the ability to bounce back from failure, and self-mastery.

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Josiah Go is the chairman and chief innovation strategist of Mansmith and Fielders Inc. 

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