Working Here

Published 2007-04-03 occasionally a challenge. The Chinese have not made cults of efficiency, quality, or service as in other countries (like Germany, Japan, and America, respectively). There are reasons why those countries have made cults of those things, and similarly there are reasons why China has not. I think this springs primarily from the incredible cheapness of labor. If local labor produces 1/5 as much as foreign labor but costs 1/10 as much, hire 6 Chinese people and you’re still ahead. Chinese bosses and employees have really absorbed this logic, so it has become kind of self-perpetuating: “I don’t need to waste a lot of effort on a task the first time through, because I’ll be asked to do it again.”

It’s interesting, by the way, how this kind of behavior has perceptibly changed my use of language. Where previously I would have used the word “colleague” to describe someone who reports to me, now I use the word “subordinate.” I can delegate a task to a colleague like this: “Jim, can you comp up a new design today for the Events page with a button for videos? Let me know when it’s ready to review.” Such a management approach won’t work with subordinates: “Hey, Jim, did you comp up that events page yet? Yes? Why didn’t you tell me you were done. OK let’s see it...well, first off I notice that instead of a button you’ve just added a link to the top nav. And instead of saying ‘videos’ it says ‘click here.’ Where will I go when I ‘click here?’”

Some of my Western colleagues at Ports have pointed out that China once had a long tradition of artisanship, much like its neighbors, but the events of the twentieth century brutalized it. This tradition (and the class of people who sustained it) was hit hard by the fall of the Qing dynasty, three revolutions (one of them “cultural”), two eras of occupation by foreign powers, a long march and (not least) the dominance of an anti-intellectual, anti-capital political philosophy. And that’s just in the last 100 years.

One of the stereotypes I had of Chinese culture was this archetype of madly industrious workers, which was transformed pretty rapidly. Working hard is not the idealized way for a Chinese person to get rich. The ideal case in China is to work your connections (guanxi) to eliminate competition. The Chinese view working hard as a necessary evil; diligence, in particular, is for suckers. I also suspect that the Chinese conception of “competition” is unlike Americans’. (More about competition and guanxi later.)

This is not to say the Chinese don’t work gruelling hours. Six-day workweeks are normal; on their “day off” (usually Sunday) many office workers put in a leisurely 2 or 3 hours. Students, in particular, are expected to toil. Classes routinely start at 6:30 or 7:00 at Chinese schools and run until early evening (when you include after-school activities, which are to some degree mandatory).

On the other hand, see above re: the value of all that labor, and remember that, not only do Chinese bosses expect long hours as recompense for poor work, but Chinese workers are not pushing themselves particularly hard to improve. This has led to a situation (or is the result of a situation?) where everyone dramatically underestimates the value of labor including, perversely, one’s own. For example: several teachers at XIS have Chinese teaching assistants whose duties mostly involve making posters and photocopies. These employees frequently take work home. Stop and think about that: they are so inefficient at making posters for children that they can’t finish them all in a 40 hr. work week.

I don’t mean to let on that Chinese people are somehow naturally inefficient in the Western sense. Rather, there is scant inherent reward for working quickly and finishing early (and none whatsoever for work well done.)

Chinese bosses congratulate you for putting in hateful hours in bad circumstances. When I was at XIS, my IT department counterpart was a Chinese guy named B_. One of our bosses was a Laoban (“boss”) I often saw as blocking my attempts to squeeze value from the school IT systems through the judicious employ of computer savvy. (Why he would do this is beyond me. My proposals always always had a net hard cost of $0 [approximaately 0 RMB].) One day in a meeting, we started talking about “efficiency;” namely, how inefficient the IT systems were, because they required redundancy of effort to maintain (...and because computers are good at repetitive tasks, couldn’t we somehow, you know, make the computers do the redundant stuff?) I totally thought we were all on the same page for once, because Laoban was also using the word “efficiency.” Then he used, as an example of “efficiency,” a 12-hour day that B_ worked while he was running a fever, fixing shit that never should have been broken if we actually had actual efficient systems. To Laoban, “efficiency” meant “impossibly long hours, regardless of their necessity.” Basically the opposite of my concept of efficiency, which I would sum up as “if you’re smart enough to do a full day’s work in four hours, you should be able to leave at noon.” He heaped a lot of praise on B_ for doing this. (B_ also skipped his son’s birth to attend a meeting.)

If the only praise you received at your job was for the days you showed up sick, would you bother to put in a lot of energy on the days you were healthy? If the measure of your performance were how many hours you were onsite, would you bother to work extra efficiently so you could leave early?