By Peter Schellschmidt
“TO the Chinese, reciprocity”, according to Prof. Yang Ganfu’s article in New Era (Friday, 13 July 2007), “is the basic rule of being a person.” To him this is the result of ancient history, where Chinese relied heavily on agriculture, which in turn created “the peasant’s rare social activity” to visit and entertain each other, thus laying the ground for a culture of “mutuality and reciprocity”.
The author sees this in contrast to “ancient Europeans (who) were of marine cultures that required them to frequently sail in the sea” because they were “being surrounded by the oceans”. And this nature, so his argument goes, made it impossible for them to visit and entertain each other simply because the European who had been invited by his friend today might have gone far away to another place the next day. And Yang Ganfu quickly arrives at the conclusion that “Chinese are collectivists whereas the Europeans (are) individualists.”
Is it that simple? First: there are many landlocked countries in Europe, past and present. And second: all European societies started off as – and remained for ages – agricultural economies, as was the case in most other parts of the world. And social activities were very much like the ones described by Yang Ganfu as typical Chinese, and to me it seems a bit far-fetched to assume that our neighbours at that time were unable to return visits just because they were seaborne every now and then. Yes, there may be reasons to conclude that Chinese have come to act rather as collectivists and Europeans as individualists. But the reasons for that are probably much more complex than those cited.
And – as a European who also spent some time of his professional career in Asian countries with sizeable parts of the population being of Chinese origin – I have my doubts that a human being of any descent can be defined by (or reduced to) cultural techniques like “mutuality and reciprocity”. From my experience, I could well imagine that many Chinese would also object to this simplistic approach.
And, after all: why the comparison between China and Europe, if the matter of discussion is Namibia? Is this African country seen as just an appendix of Europe? Even if some Europeans would like to see it that way, this in fact is a grossly wrong assumption.
Yang Ganfu starts his line of argument with ancient social activities in China and quickly jumps to modern-day business practices, applying the same principles and procedures. A principle like “if you are given a favour you feel compelled to return that favour”, may be applicable to private relations. But you enter slippy terrain if just transferring this principle to business relations.
Even using the term of “favours” in relation to business transactions is revealing. I subscribe to the principle that business is best conducted in a win-win situation, and long-term business relations are best based on mutual benefits. But sound business relations should in the first place be based on calculations and transparent and fair competition rules. And within these parameters there is little room for favours, gifts and dinner invitations as business principles. Sure, there is nothing wrong with discussing businesses over a lunch or dinner. But if business decisions are taken just because you were hosted to a meal, then you have crossed the line of corruption.
Professor Yang Ganfu complains about the fact that Chinese in Namibia are often being accused as bribing the locals. This, indeed, is a very serious accusation, and I hope it is a false one. But his line of argument doesn’t make things easier. When writing, that “Chinese in their business activities … show gratitude to business partners from whom they receive a favour, such as a job offer, a loan offer, preferential policy, assistance to solve a problem, or a favour in any other form” he is rather inviting these kind of suspicions than dissolving them. Is it correct to trade, e.g. a “loan offer” against a “preferential policy” like for instance getting residence and work permits obviously much faster and easier than any other nationals? Is it correct that a Chinese national (as witnessed by myself) can bypass a long queue of patiently waiting citizens in front of a police counter because he obviously managed to build a relationship of mutual favours and trust with one police official?
My ultimate question is what is it that Prof. Yang Ganfu tries to get across? Is it the message that Namibians have to familiarize themselves with Chinese business practices and culture? Are Namibians really going to benefit from practices and cultures that are obviously treading a very thin line between sober economic and political principles and those which could be termed at least as favoritism? And, after all, why should Namibians adjust themselves to foreign practices and not the other way round?
“To know things”, as the Chinese saying goes, is a wise principle, if applied by all sides and guided by the common understanding that Namibia and Namibians have priority to shape their own future, according to their own culture and principles. We foreigners are well advised to listen first and respect the immense hospitality offered to us.
– Peter Schellschmidt is spending his retirement in Windhoek. In his professional life he worked for some ten years in different capacities for the German Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Namibia.