Chinese Business Meets Confucius, On The Enduring Power Of Relationship

Bringing back Western Han Dynasty business?
Bringing back Western Han Dynasty business?
Wei Zhou

BEIJING — Chinese talk about ancient China as an "acquaintance" society, structured with a unique pattern of human associations. Such a pattern is also referred to as "difference in intimacy of relationship" and means that each person deals with their own social relations — close or distant, without regard for the people's status — provided that they follow this ritual set of guidelines.

In traditional society, Chinese people's trust circle was usually turned towards their relatives. This is the reason why today in modern China, many companies are family businesses. It is however quite difficult for these companies to grow because, though family members have a mutual trust between each other, they have a hard time taking on non-relatives and accepting them, so much so that it tends to hinder business expansion. In such a case, people's close interactions often depend on whether or not they can develop an intimate bond despite so-called "social distance," thus resulting in an eagerness of employees to become friends with each other, even on formal occasions.

This is undeniably still playing an important role in the way Chinese social life works. Many people are making great efforts to engage in informal relationships with their superiors, their peers or their associates (or even distant relatives, people from the same city, classmates, etc).

Sociologist Zhou Xuegang thinks that "we can say that the particularity of the differential mode of association in social relations is reflected inside organizations." It increases mutual harmonious relationships and it alleviates the pressure brought on by the formal system. To put it simply, the formal system used to rely more on the "system" than on the "people", while the informal relation is driven more by people than system.

Many people are making great efforts to engage in informal relationships with their superiors.

Since the formal and the informal systems follow a different logic, they remain a paradox of society. In fact, this is a problem that even traditional Chinese Confucian political thought has never been able to solve. It is indeed an inherent contradiction that is also reflected in history.

Hou Xudong proposed a new perspective to understand traditional Confucian politics in his book "Patronage: A model of trust relationship with the monarchy and the history of its implementation in the Western Han Dynasty." By focusing on the logic of the ‘patronage" approach, he came to understand the various political actions of the emperor in the Western Han Dynasty. According to him, patronage is a structural phenomenon that has always existed in traditional politics and is also a key point in understanding Chinese history, as it is what originally constituted Chinese society.

When the Western Han Dynasty inherited the Qin Dynasty's system from its fall, the most important thing was to "bring order out of chaos' and follow the Confucian ideal of including everyone as a stability component in the social etiquette. Under this hierarchical order during the reconstruction of the empire, people's behaviors and affairs were deeply embedded in their own identity rules, and these rules couldn't be transgressed. This imposed a strong social pressure, forcing them to comply with the requirements of the hierarchical order. As a result, and just as Israeli-born Chinese scholar Yuri Pines points out in his book Envisioning Eternal Empire, this led to what could be called a "conditional loyalty" between monarchs and scholars.

Lucky men or puppets?

During that period, imperial politics were conforming to the efficiency requirements of a bureaucratic system. Imperial politics also enhanced the emperor's power, something that actually created a hindrance to the further implementation of bureaucracy. Scholars and other high-ranking employees would do anything to gain the emperor's trust and be among his favorites.

And yet, in a pure and rational bureaucracy system, people's feelings should not be considered. But in China, there's still a strong sense of humanity to be found, meaning that someone's ‘individuality" cannot be fully put aside and vanish. According to organizational sociology, all organizations are embedded in a specific social relationship pattern, which can be infiltrated and influenced by its surroundings. The evolution of this kind of organizational structure is always in a dynamic and repetitive motion, but the discourses towards this evolution can be different. For example, while Confucian scholars would call the emperor's favorites "lucky little men," others would use the term "puppets."

With his book, Hou Xudong argues that formal institutions and informal interactions (which he calls respectively "business process' and "relationship process') have over time been superimposed, interwoven and embedded. In his view, this kind of political interaction cannot play a revolutionary role as this structural pattern is repetitive and thus cannot bring much change to the organization.

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The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Asham!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Pyongyang test fires a suspected submarine-launched missile, Colin Powell is remembered, Poland-EU tensions rise, and yay (or yeesh): it's officially Ye. Meanwhile, our latest edition of Work → In Progress takes the pulse of the new professional demands in a recovering economy.

[*Oromo - Ethiopia and Kenya]


• North Korea fires missile off Japan coast: South Korea military reports that North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the waters off the coast of Japan. The rocket, thought to have been launched from a submarine, is the latest test in a series of provocations in recent weeks.

• Poland/EU tensions: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused the EU of "blackmail" and said the European Union is overstepping its powers, in a heated debate with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the rule of law. The escalation comes in the wake of a controversial ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that puts national laws over EU principles.

• Colin Powell remembered: Tributes are pouring for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after his death yesterday at age 84. Although fully vaccinated, Powell died from complications from COVID-19 as he was battling blood cancer. A trailblazing soldier, he then helped shape U.S. foreign policy, as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and served as the nation's top diplomat for George W. Bush. Powell's legacy is, by his own admission, "blotted" by his faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. war in Iraq.

• Russia to suspend NATO diplomatic mission amid tension: Russia is suspending its diplomatic mission to NATO and closing the alliance's offices in Moscow as relations with the Western military block have plunged to a new low. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the move after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission for alleged spying. Relations between NATO and Russia have been strained since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

• Ecuador state of emergency to battle drug crime: President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency amid Ecuador's surge in drug-related violence. He announced the mobilization of police and the military to patrol the streets, provide security, and confront drug trafficking and other crimes.

• Taliban agrees to house-to-house polio vaccine drive: The WHO and Unicef campaign will resume nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline health workers. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and infectious disease

• Kanye West officially changes name: Some say yay, some say yeesh, but it's official: The-artist-formerly-known-as-Kanye-West has legally changed his name to Ye, citing "personal reasons."


The Washington Post pays tribute to Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, who died at 84 years old from complications from COVID-19.


Jashn-e Riwaaz

Indian retailer Fabindia's naming its new collection Jashn-e Riwaaz, an Urdu term meaning "celebration of tradition," has been met with severe backlash and calls for boycott from right-wing Hindu groups. They are accusing the brand of false appropriation by promoting a collection of clothes designed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, but giving it a name in Urdu, a language spoken by many Muslims.


Work → In Progress: Where have all the workers gone?

After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback. This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.

🗓️ Hail the 4-day week Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.

🚚 Empty seats In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because of the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines. The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.

💼 Key help wanted It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all? A recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment. The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on.

➡️


I'm worried for my Afghan sisters.

— Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai Nobel Prize tells the BBC that despite the Taliban's announcement that they would soon lift the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan, she worries it "might last for years."

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more yay or yeesh about the artist currently known as Ye? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at!

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