The ingrained competitiveness of the Chinese worker
By Xu Qinduo
A few years ago, a Brazilian college student, visiting a friend in Beijing, waited at the office of the friend before closing time. Later over dinner, the Brazilian couldn’t help but observe, “You Chinese people are all workaholics! What else can explain you still being in the office at 6:00pm?”
[File photo: IC]
Coincidentally, “The Economist” recently ran an article in which a Chinese student was asked about her impression of Germany just before she was about to leave the country for home. She hesitated before suggesting, “The Germans are a little bit lazy.” This might come as a shock to many, as Germans are known for their diligence and efficiency.
When it comes to diligence, Chinese people are – in general – familiar with the principle. Since childhood, most Chinese children are told by their parents and grandparents to study hard and keep making new gains. They are often told that, “Work is accomplished in diligence and neglected in play,” “Hard work pays off,” and “Practice makes perfect.” Lu Xun, a leading figure in modern Chinese literature, once remarked, “There’s no such thing as natural genius. I put my efforts into work while others put theirs into drinking coffee.” In today’s China, while a growing number of Chinese families have become well-off, these same “tiger fathers” and “tiger mothers” still dedicate a lot of their efforts to helping their children study, often enrolling them in extracurricular training courses to help them get ahead in life.
Thanks to the country’s reform and opening-up policies, China has made unprecedented achievements over the past forty years. The past four decades have seen Chinese people, through their diligence, create positive transformations of their families, society and the country. It’s like creating a stage play: Excellent directors and scripts set the stage. However, it’s the hard work of talented actors that makes a play a success.
Michael Moritz, partner with Sequoia Capital, wrote an article in the “Financial Times” in January of 2018 entitled “Silicon Valley would be wise to follow China’s lead.” In it, he says, “Here (in China), top managers show up for work at about 8am and frequently don’t leave until 10pm. Most of them will do this six days a week — and there are plenty of examples of people who do this for seven. Engineers have slightly different habits: they will appear about 10am and leave at midnight. Beyond the week-long breaks for Chinese new year and the October national holiday, most will just steal an additional handful of vacation days.”
Beyond enterprising Chinese people and firms, many Chinese government officials are also being held up to the same hardworking standards. While I was working overseas, I once served as the translator for a Chinese government delegation. For two weeks, the Chinese delegation would fill their days with meetings and negotiations, then head for the airport in the evening to make their next destination. When the next day comes, it would be the same tight schedule all over again. This would continue until the group boarded the plane back to China. My first time working closely with a government delegation left me with the realization that these are dedicated people. It’s no wonder that the country had become increasingly stronger through the years.
Of course, it must be said that not every Chinese public servant is feverishly dedicated. But overall, the people can judge for themselves how a government performs. Reuters quotes the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer report showing that faith in the Chinese government jumped 8 points to 84% among the general public. The same analysis shows that figure hits 89% among people with a higher educational background and higher income.
This high level of dedication among people in China appears to be built-in. It’s not uncommon to find someone being called away to work in the middle of a get-together with friends, or someone who stands-by 24 hours a day for a mission, or someone who commits to work on the weekends and through holidays.
So where does this dedication come from? A famous line from the masterpiece by Hong Kong novelist Louis Cha in “The Romance of the Condor Heroes” may provide the best explanation: “A warrior derives his greatness from the contribution he makes to the state and the people. For the average citizen, their hardwork today is both for his or her families, and for the nation. Families are the smallest units that build up a nation.” Thanks to 40 years of development, China is now the world’s second largest economy that boasts a complete industrial chain, the largest auto market and a leading e-commerce industry among its achievements. None of this would have come about without the dedication of the Chinese worker.
Then British Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, at the ruling Conservative Party’s autumn conference in 2015, was quoted, “My wife is Chinese, and if we want this to be one of the most successful countries in the world in 20, 30, 40 years’ time there’s a pretty difficult question that we have to answer which is essentially: are we going to be a country that is prepared to work hard in the way that Asian economies are prepared to work hard…” His remarks actually triggered controversy for its apparent political-incorrectness in his country.
This is not to say that today’s China is merely a collection of mindless drones toiling at the behest of their company and country. The Chinese government has laws and regulations in place to safeguard and protect people’s rights to rest and relax, including reasonable limitations on working hours and periodic paid holidays. However, even when China officially becomes a developed country, it is still unlikely that Chinese people will discard the ethics of “being diligent and hardworking.” After all, those traits come from traditions passed down through thousands of years.
Xu Qinduo is a political analyst for CRI and CGTN, and a Senior Fellow of the Pangoal Institution. He has worked as CRI’s chief correspondent in Washington DC.