Battling cultural imperialism (a critical issue in the new world of work)

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I was both amused and amazed to see this tweet a day or so ago:

When will China become civilised? Chinese court confirms sentence on US man http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12502111

The news report referred to is about a Chinese-born American citizen, Xue Feng, who was arrested in 2007 while trying to purchase a database of information related to the Chinese oil industry for his American company. He was arrested and charged under Chinese laws protecting state secrets. He claims that the database was publicly available information (but, of course, that begs the question of why it had to be purchased).

The US government refused to get involved when he was arrested, and has only recently called for his release. The Chinese government is currently standing firm, saying that it is their right to define what is secret. And they have been careful to prosecute Mr Xue on the basis of Chinese law, with no fiddles and changes to the laws already in place.

And herein lies my problem. I don’t know the intricacies of this case, and on the face of it it seems that China has been quite heavy handed with Mr Xue. I don’t know. But the tweet I received said, “When will China become civilised?”. That’s an amazing question based on the apparent facts of the case in the media.

The BBC website went even further: “Other cases include that of the Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu, now imprisoned in Shanghai, and several Hong Kong residents detained in business disputes.” It did not add, however, that Mr Hu (also a Chinese-born businessman) had mainly been convicted on bribery charges. Again, convicted under Chinese laws that seem rational and understandable in an international context.

It is quite something to just write off an entire nation as “uncivilized” on the basis of this court verdict. And even more so when you know that it was an appeal verdict (in other words, there had been due process of law). Further appeals will be allowed.

If that is the basis on which we make decisions about civilization, then it might be worth looking west too.


For example, in which year did England make it illegal to own a slave? You’d think it was sometime in the 1800s, wouldn’t you? It wasn’t, it was April 2010. Unbelievably it has never been illegal to own a slave. Maybe more unbelievably, the lawmakers of the UK thought they’d take some time last year to sort that out. Why not? After all, Mississippi had a passed a similar law in (wait for it) 1995 – officially approving the abolition of slavery. Yes, 1995! Maybe they were waiting a few years after abolition to see how things panned out? Don’t want to rush into any rash laws… Civilized?

Talking of bribery and Chinese law, it is interesting to note that right now an anti Bribery Bill is stalled in the UK government, taken off the agenda by a business friendly Tory-led government who have bowed to pressure of British businesses that want the “right” to pay bribes in order to get business done around the world. Civilized?

The United States of America incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world (this is the “land of the free”, right?). About 1 in 100 adults are in jail (read that sentence again!). In addition, “three strikes and you’re out” laws exist in about half of the US states, often resulting in very long sentences for comparatively minor offences. These laws state that if someone commits a third felony after committing two prior similar felonies, then the sentence is a mandatory 25 years to life.

For example: Leandro Andrade, California, was convicted in 1995 of shoplifting video tapes worth about $150. Because he had a previous record of burglary and marijuana possession, he was given a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life under the “three strikes rule”. The normal maximum sentence for petty theft would have been six months, with a maximum of three years. Civilized?

There are many other examples that would indicate that western nations are not “civilized”. I just selected a few legal ones to make the point.

But my real point is that a key skill for leadership and engagement in an increasingly globalised world is the ability to deal with cultural imperialism. I fear that this will be a very difficult task for many people. Racial stereotyping is just too inbred in some people. This makes it easy to jump to quick conclusions, to think of oneself as better than others, and to be both afraid and patronising in the face of “the other”.

If you want to be successful in the new world of work, you need examine yourself for these attitudes, and ensure you deal with them. That doesn’t mean you accept everything that anyone does anywhere in the world. But it does mean you are careful and considerate in your attitudes towards others.

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