How Trust Affects Private Schools In China

Many new bilingual private schools in China involve a collaboration of Chinese and Americans or Brits.  Trust is a key issue.

1. Layer One:

Many Chinese, in my travels, have told me: China is a low-trust society.

This is a debatable point, and if it’s true, the precise cause of distrust is also debatable.

I thought this was a lucid discussion on Reddit, that captured the types of things I’ve heard in the past year:

Has China always been a low trust society?

This may come off as a rant, but it’s well meaning. I work with mainlander Chinese. There are many qualities I appreciate in their general work habits. For example industriousness is very high and they’re more inclined to make decisions by facts than personal ego. But there are some characteristics, which I find remarkably different. I’ve accepted these as they are. And I’m sure they accept my qualities as they are. However I want to look towards history to understand these differences.

My perception now is the following. First there’s no concept of trust outside clan. Clan is friends and family. Everyone outside is fair game. On the bright side everyone inside is rewarded with extreme loyalty. Chinese friendships are much deeper than western friendships.

Of course this carries issues. Because inside a network this necessarily places people into hierarchical positions. This means issues in a three way friendship are addressed through status rather than any standard of conduct.

Religion or something religion like is what mediates issues in western culture. There’s a concept of doing the right thing regardless of who’s involved. But I think this notion is completely foreign in China.

…I was even told by a colleague, “Why bother innovating, someone will just take our idea. Let someone else develop it and then we’ll take it.”

Are there any history books that particularly speak to these differences? Was China always like this, or is this a product of the cultural revolution?

One response was:

I don’t think it was always like this.

In the UK, there are still high trust places where you can leave farm produce at the end of your driveway and people will leave the correct money in a container. There are places where you don’t need to lock your door. Conversely there are places where you leave your bike for 5 minutes on your own driveway and it is gone. First time I went to London I got my phone stolen. Other times I met fellow Brits abroad who would give money to help another Brit out despite not knowing them.

Apparently in Chinese history there were times where people would not fear leaving doors unlocked. I’d imagine that communities would have to pitch in to survive as I still saw that as a child in Hong Kong.

There is the clan thing which I agree with but in my Hong Kong village, they were not all of the same clan but they did know each other. They’d have village feasts and related or unrelated, old and new were welcome. But at the same time I had something stolen.

Children in Hong Kong are taught quite strictly in school on how to conduct themselves but somehow society quickly corrects that or you are going to get screwed daily. Some have trouble adapting when they move to high trust places, others assimilate to local norms easily.

The notion of a system which regulates right and wrong is not completely foreign to Chinese. That is dealt with by confucianism. That part of it just doesn’t seem to be in play anymore.

…The US didn’t start from zero and independently invent everything from scratch. She was pirating and gaining technology by whatever means. She copied sericulture from China as well as money.

The British author, Charles Dickens visited the US and was horrified by all the pirate copies of British literature. He returned home and wrote an essay about it – that was promptly plagiarized.

Once their innovations exploded they suddenly cared about patents.

Qinhuangdi wrote:

I’m not so sure your ideas are true for Chinese as a whole… we may want not to speak of Chinese as one homogenous group just as we shouldn’t think of Americans as one homogenous group.

Another wrote:

I’m Chinese and I can confirm the trust issue. I’ve wondered the exact same thing as OP as a teenager and asked the elder generation about this. Their reason was survival.

It makes sense, since that it is the world’s most populated country and home to some of the world’s worst poverty, limited resources and extreme competition. After living in multiple places around the world, I’ve witnessed a significant difference in attitude and way of thinking in countries with different standards of living.

But what I’ve found is that for China, it’s a very complex issue involving a lot of historical and current social factors. One thing is, it’s a culture built on fear. Such a large mass of population is hard to control under one authority for so long without it. And fear is further fueled with ignorance. Educational brainwashing aside, there is no such thing as fake news in China, only what the government wants you to know and what it doesn’t. Fear is also thick on the authoritative side. A search engine or social network platform that can’t be censored securely is not allowed. Already a severe lack of trust here between the two sides.

Another thing is people don’t have anything to fall back on. Unlike normal countries, there isn’t a base level of security of life. The welfare system is out of touch with rapid inflation and people can’t even truly own their own property. You can lose things that you’ve worked hard for very easily. When you have a lower sense of security in life, you are much more cautious with your decisions.

But the most important problem I think is the underdeveloped justice system. Moral principles weaken when there isn’t a reliable system of sanction and reward so people can’t just rely on others to “do the right thing”. For example, there is a common phenomenon of people who fall in front of stopped vehicles claiming they were hit and all kinds of fraud and scam that would make you lose hope in humanity every single day. These cases go into court and the frauds are almost never properly punished. This lack of legal consequence encourages more lower class people with little career aspects to go into fraud because it’s a lot easier and faster than hard labour. Ultimately, people are reluctant to help anyone and don’t know who to trust.

I would only add: I’ve had variations of all these conversations in China.

2. Layer Two:

This is from Harvard Business Review:

Generally speaking, in the West the default is “trust.” I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, and consider you basically trustworthy until you do something that breaks our trust. In China, the default tilts more toward “distrust” – I only award you my trust after you’ve proven yourself worthy of it. This attitude is illustrated in an eloquent way by the popular Chinese saying that “early birds get shot” (qiang da chu tou niao) – which reflects the strong desire to avoid any social risks. Clearly such an attitude does not invite people easily to engage in a more Western-like trust giving process.

As one Chinese business executive told me: In China you build trust first, once that is achieved, only then you do business. In the West, on the other hand, people are used to doing business almost immediately when they work in the same industry. Westerners feel more comfortable conducting business and building trust at the same time, if the opportunity arises.

As the research of Roy Chua, an associate professor at Singapore Management University, has found, American executives make a strong distinction between trust from the head (i.e. trusting someone because of his or her professional competence) and trust from the heart (i.e. trusting someone because of your relationship with him or her); whereas for Chinese executives both types of trust are needed. These findings emphasize again the need for interpersonal trust to be established and exist before conducting business in China.

There’s some truth here.

I think establishing trust is a little like dating. I vaguely remember dating from 20 years ago.

You’re essentially probing for 2 things: “fit” (do we like spending time together) and “trust.” So there are 4 scenarios:

a. Low fit, high trust.

This is by far the most common. Nice person. Honest! I trust her. Just not right for me.

b. Low fit, low trust.

This is rare, because usually after one date you might establish “low fit,” and so no time to get to trust.

c. High fit, low trust.

Dating goes well until one side proves themselves untrustworthy. Plot of Wedding Crashers.

d. High fit, high trust.

Maybe you marry. 🙂

So I think an American businessperson in China is thinking – “Hey. You are probably a honest, good person. Perhaps we should work together. But fit is always a big challenge. So let’s discuss specifics as soon as possible. The most likely situation is ‘a’ – high trust, low fit, so we part ways. Let’s surface enough details so we can productively get to that point. If it turns out that the situation may be ‘d’, high-fit/high-trust, great. We still don’t have to rush marriage”

And this, per the HBR article, is not the Chinese way.

3. Layer Three

One experience I’ve had is that every Chinese education entrepreneur I meet has told me a detailed story of being ripped off.

J built a music education business, which was taken from him.

F helped to launch a high school, but was pushed out by a higher-status partner.

K created an after-school tutoring business, only to be deceived by the successor he was cultivating to take things over.

Y was offered a certain amount for her service, only to have the offer changed at the last minute to be worth 10% of the original.

What to take from this?

On one hand, Donald Trump! This is the way he did business, through deception, and he’s the American president. So to equate Chinese culture and distrust perhaps misses equivalent American culture and distrust.

On the other hand, the Chinese themselves are telling me of experiencing these ripoffs. I have few equivalents from a lifetime of meeting education entrepreneurs in the USA, where they felt ripped off. Misunderstandings, failed partnerships – yes. But outright deception/theft – no.