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Of Chinese culture, COVID and business

/ 05:02 AM February 12, 2021
Angela Yu

Angela Yu

The celebration—albeit more muted because of COVID-19—of Chinese New Year (CNY) today again puts into focus the impact of Chinese culture on Philippine society.

Here, Angela Yu, president of Chinovation for Social Progress, moderator of the Binondo Heritage Group and a former president of Kaisa Para sa Kaunlaran, shares with us some pointers on how Chinese culture impacts how they think, behave and approach their response to calamities.

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

A: 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.

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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 hot spots.

Collectivist culture

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 likely be more concerned with conformity, harmony, conflict-avoidance, social approval and acceptance, and self-regulation. Thus, a collectivist culture may have greater chances of avoiding the COVID-19 spread.

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

A: 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.

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

A: The impact of Confucian-Daoist-Buddhist culture could be best seen in nations like Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, [Hong Kong], Taiwan and Korea. Common across these cultures are the perspectives of interdependence, interconnectedness, 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 [United States of America]. 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.

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While China may be the root of Chinese culture, China’s effective control of COVID-19 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 health care 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 knowledge

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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Crisis as an opportunity

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

A: 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, more so 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. —CONTRIBUTED

Josiah Go is the chair and chief innovation strategist of Mansmith and Fielders Inc. Full transcript of this Q&A can be viewed at www.josiahgo.com

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TAGS: Angela Yu, Chinese culture, Chinese New Year (CNY)
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