In another posting, I commented on Fr. Alvaro Corcuera's mention of "cultural differences." He is the head of the beleaguered religious congregation, the Legion of Christ. I have suggested that the color of our "cultural lens" affects the way we react to how the Legion is managing the awful revelations about it's founder, Marcial Maciel. As a management consultant, I spend a good deal of my time on corporate cross-cultural communication issues. Now that I am about to publish my memoirs) which address my relationship with the Legion and with Marcial Maciel) I find myself thinking more about the cultural perspectives involved in reflecting on the story of a Mexican priest who rose from an obscure provincial town to ultimately rattle the foundations of the contemporary Catholic Church. The following comments are my paraphrase of a posting by my good friend Dean Foster. Dean discusses the US relationship with China with his usual insight. I'd like to suggest that some of what he says about China can serve to shed some light on the Legion of Christ debacle. I leave it to you to make the connections.
"China has been lashing out with a series of explanations, threats and blusters in response to criticism from the West of its Internet policies, which include ubiquitous government monitoring of websites and Internet traffic, and the automatic shutting down of Internet sites it deems worthy of such action
From a Western perspective, these actions are an affront to democratic principles of free speech, and a challenge to U.S. Internet companies like Google, who need China as a market but are stuck in a cultural and ethical dilemma over free speech and government intervention.
The rising tensions between the U.S. and China over both the Internet and the Dalai Lama can be better understood if we look at the issues through the cross-cultural lens.
The greatest imperial triumph of China was the unification of this enormous country, and the greatest threat to imperial control was restiveness in the provinces. The single most important job of the Emperor was to exercise authority over the land in order to keep the country unified, and in order to maintain his authority. This legacy has created an intense sensitivity on the part of Chinese leadership to any challenge, real or perceived, to their authority.
The emperor was dependent upon a vast hierarchy of officials and warriors to administer his rule and provide information back to him. This cultural legacy remains as a driving force behind Chinese decision-making today.
Therefore, when the West criticizes a particular Chinese activity, such as the government monitoring of websites, or its efforts to maintain control over what it perceives to be restive outer provinces, such criticism is interpreted in China as an attack against a primary cultural requirement: the maintaining of centralized control in order to maintain the integrity of the country. The greatest challenge to Beijing is its own perception of being challenged. And when the U.S. criticizes China, it only hardens the Chinese to resisting, with increased intensity, any policy the U.S. or the West is trying to advance.
When we understand why these issues provoke such intense Chinese reactions then we need to find another way to advance our agenda with China. Behind-the-scenes, ongoing diplomacy is far better than grandstanding in the harsh light of public policy announcements.
Taking advantage of opportunities that allow the West to publicly acknowledge China’s autonomy can be profoundly effective. From a Chinese perspective, it builds Chinese “face” to the world, a cultural concept that is outside of the West’s cultural legacy, and therefore something we don’t do very well. But it is immensely important in China. We need to find more reasons to publicly support China when it acts autonomously than to criticize it when such actions go against our own policies or beliefs. The West doesn’t have to change its agenda, but like any good Western businessperson in China knows, it does have to change the way it goes about advancing it. Understanding the cultural legacies that lie at the heart of Chinese behavior can go a long way to avoiding the increasingly slippery slope of U.S.-China relations."