The cost of low-trust: low efficiency

Last night I was invited at a dinner with Chinese people – entrepreneurs, angel investors, a TV producer. Too many conversations entangled for me to perform at my best – but my seat neighbour, fortunately, was considerate enough to speak slowly, repeat, and listen to my broken Mandarin.

At some stage – after much baijiu toasting and spicy thin sliced beef, our conversation rolled on Chinese workers’ efficiency. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘I did hear, and observe, that Chinese workers are not efficient – but is there a cause?’ – ‘No trust’, replied my seat neighbour.

We then started pulling it apart – though my limited language skills, unfortunately, did not allow us to go quite as far as I would have wanted. If two people are joining in a business deal, or a work agreement, but there is no trust between them, then haggling will start: ‘you pay me first – you do the job first – no you first.’ This haggling, in and of itself, is a loss of time. And because it is not guaranteed that the pay will come – why do the job well? And because it is not guaranteed that the job will be done, why set aside the money to pay, or why offer good pay?

I proposed a piece of theory that I developed earlier: trust is the most fundamental element in any professional relationship. In a trusting environment, staff and partners are selected based on their competence – because everyone, a priori, can be trusted. In a low-trust environment, trustworthiness trumps competence: I’d rather have someone do the job slowly to a low standard, rather than pay for a competent person to do nothing, or worse. And trustworthiness comes with personal connection, habit, long-established networks. Hence nepotism and guanxi plays, and hence a perception that, ultimately, who you know matters more than what you know.

Lack of trust extends outside of the workplace, to doctors, teachers, politicians and the media – none of these, according to my seat neighbour – and others who since had joined our conversation – would be trusted here. This is not just a China story. We should take it as a warning, but also see the need and opportunity: Australia has built a relatively high level of trust. What happened? Is it replicable? And is there something we can do to help Chinese businesses, groups or councils increase the level of trust, and – to some extent – mitigate the negative consequences of this situation?

I will be thinking about this question further – and would very much welcome your thoughts!

Shigong – on trusting Chinese infrastructure

‘No, my building is ground zero’, said a friend, ‘I’ve had jackhammers from six again this morning – so I just wake up and walk around – I can’t stay home anymore.’ Massive ‘Shigong’, or infrastructure works, have been going around Nanjing University since I arrived. I’ve had mud up to my ankles on the way back home, walked along a thin ledge of ground beside a moving excavator, and woke up to the pleasant sounds of jackhammers before 6am a few times. Yet I learnt I should count myself among the lucky ones: my jackhammers stopped after a while.

I left for Beijing ten days ago, and expected the Shigong outside my building to be finished when I came back. Indeed, I pulled my suitcase back along a freshly covered path, and the mounds of dirt had been swept clean – beside the thick layer of brown dust, nothing remained of the previous chaos. I put down my bags, and turned on a tap to get water for tea. Nothing came out – and nothing came out from the bathroom taps either. On the little path leading to my compound, I had noticed an unusual line of people queuing in front of a tap with empty water bottles and buckets. I picked up my empties from the kitchen – lazy man’s luck, I had a bunch of four-litre bottles I never bothered throwing away. ‘How long will the water be gone?’ I asked, hoping for quick respite. ‘Day after tomorrow’, replied a neighbour. Then added, philosophically ‘Lucky we got a tap working here, it would be really annoying otherwise’. I nodded. It’s been three days, and the water hasn’t come back. ‘Day after tomorrow’ seems to be short for ‘who knows?’

Running water is such a part of my daily life I hardly notice how much I rely on it every day – whether I quickly wash my hands or clean a cup, running water allows for my daily purification rituals. My dirty laundry took two journeys to the tap – and I collected the used water for my flush. I experienced something, and I’ve grown a deeper appreciation for the daily comforts of life in a developed urban environment. But it surely wasn’t fun or particularly pleasant. So for the last few days, I’ve been just a little bit grumpy, just a little bit frustrated I couldn’t wash properly – body, tea-cup or underwear – and couldn’t get a cup of tea whenever I felt like it without planning ahead.

By global standards, I am still in a privileged environment. A walk down the stairs will take me to the nearest tap, and I won’t have to queue for long. The water there may not have the cleanest taste, but if I boil it properly, I can drink it without immediate harm to my body. And I can get as much as I need for free. By relative standards, however, I am experiencing hardship: ‘if this was a shantytown, I would understand’, commented my father. ‘In a Chinese metropolis, it’s surely not normal’. I live in a rather wealthy central district of Nanjing, the capital of China’s second richest province, and an aspiring global metropolis. Yet as I discover, it’s not simple operating as a fully-connected citizen of the globo-sphere when practical details of your water recycling management require so much attention. And it’s that little bit harder to plan international skype meetings and visits to local innovation communities when you’re not sure you can get a shower, or boil yourself a cup of tea.

‘Not knowing is the worst’, right: this applies to Chinese infrastructure. It’s actually quite good when it works – but you cannot rely on it. I’ve experienced it with internet access, I’ve experienced it with transport, and now I’m experiencing it with running water. 没办法’, there’s no way, say some of the locals, resigned. Others pester with annoyance. The service is gone, the cause isn’t clear, and nobody knows when or if things are gonna work again. In other words, basic infrastructure cannot be trusted – and people treat basic service provision in the same way they deal with major weather events.

This lack of trust in basic infrastructure affects the whole society. If anything might break at any moment without sign of warning, long-term planning and risk management become laughable pursuits. Why build solid, if nothing is assured –cheap, fast and low quality makes more sense among such levels of contingency. Expected standards of service also drop accordingly: my cashier/waiter/doctor/ teacher/manager might have no running water today, no wonder they’re in a bad mood. Maybe this transaction cannot be completed on time, because some part of the system has collapsed. Let’s try it anyway – but if it seems too hard, we should give up: surely something must be wrong somewhere, or we’re just out of luck. And this attitude, in turn, breeds further chaos.

Chinese water land

The pace of Chinese city life can quickly get exhausting – noise, pollution, and people everywhere need some antidote. My lovely friend Aaron found a perfect solution: a trip to Chaobai Xinhe, some 30 km north of Tianjin – a peaceful landscape of marshland and lakes, with long horizons, reflecting skies, and soft wind in the branches. Enjoy the view!

Trust, unilateral decisions and fait accompli.

I announced a series of posts on trust – here is the second. The setting hasn’t changed – we’re still in a bar on Qingdao Lu. This time I will focus on a recent interaction with a friend, to better understand how trust is grown, or eroded. The phenomenon I describe is minor, but I believe, on a very small scale, it represents very clearly what often happens on a larger scale – and therefore presents a very valuable case study.

Few days ago, I had lunch with a friend at the 32 Qingdao Lu café. We discussed a collaborative project, and I told him about my psychological difficulties in China, how I struggled with my energy levels, and what I learnt I should avoid – mostly loud environments and spaces that foster aggressive or competitive behaviour. I was happy to share this and receive support. I really value this friend, but a sense of alienation from him had been weighing on me. We mostly met in settings I was uncomfortable in, and so didn’t have a chance to connect at the level that matters to both of us. The lunch was productive: we clarified ideas and set goals. Then after lunch, we both focused on our respective tasks. I had planned – and announced – a long afternoon preparing for coming meetings in Beijing and Shanghai. He was going to proof-read a book.

I was quietly reading about online literature when, out of the blue, the friend announced he’d invited ‘that girl and her American friend’ to come join us. The goal was not for them to sit and proof-read with us. We’d previously chatted about flirting in straight and gay contexts, and mentioned ‘that girl’ then. I was annoyed. Not only did I have work to do: my energy still wasn’t very high – I had spent the previous afternoon locked in my room to recover some – and flirty straight environments neither energize nor comfort me. I superficially knew the two girls, I found it weird to sit at the next table and ignore them, probably wouldn’t much enjoy the type of interaction that was about to take place, so I packed up my stuff and left, annoyed at what just happened.

Today, I lost a small measure of trust in that friend. It’s not a big measure and repairing it shouldn’t be difficult. But this loss has a cost. It’s interfering with our prospects of collaboration. I like working with him, but if he drains my energy by generating environments I dislike and leave, then I might have to focus on more efficient partnerships – and avoid his invitations. It’s interfering more broadly with my other projects – should I look for another place to work and concentrate, if this café changed its vibe. And I have to think more about sharing information with him in the future – should I introduce him to the various environments or circles of contacts I am building here, or keep him out of the loop to maximize my own energy levels. In other words, it’s added a cognitive load for me, and might lose both of us opportunities.

I wrote before that ‘trust implies a belief that other people will not simply walk over you to push their own agenda without prior warning’. In that case, it’s precisely what didn’t happen – my friend invited two girls over, without consulting me, while knowing I had other plans and may not enjoy the sudden change from a work to social space. My friend imposed his own desire on our shared environment, with no regard for my desires or prior consultation.

This new plan was not presented as a possibility for me to discuss or approve, but a fait accompli – the girls had been invited and were on their way. It was too late, or too complex for my tired mind at the time, to negotiate an alternative. I could either submit or leave. In other words, what only minutes ago was a collaborative environment – two people exchanging ideas to reach a common goal – had suddenly changed nature. At some point in time, our shared space had become open to the first initiative. I didn’t make a move, and I lost the ground. But there had been no warning sign that the race was on.

Such behaviour is by no means rare. Many people may find it surprising I even noticed. What made me lose a measure of trust in this friend is the sudden, unilateral change I experienced from a collaborative to a competitive environment. I believe this is a crucial part of how trust is grown: by explicit disclosure of the rules that apply at any moment in a relationship, and in shared settings. Sudden shifts in these rules, cunning tricks, or simple disregard for unspoken conventions, may win battles and even wars – but they will not grow trust, nor the wealth of ideas, opportunities and material goods that, often, come along with higher levels of trust.

Hanging out at the Ming Gate

If you’ve ever wondered what happens on a sunny afternoon in a Chinese city – this video will show you. Two days ago, I went out for a walk with two friends around the ‘Gu Gong’ area – ruins of a Ming dynasty palace in the centre of Nanjing. Locals were enjoying life, dancing and playing music under 14th century stone arches, bringing memories of Rome, Aigues Mortes, Athens and other places I love along the coast of the Mediterranean.

Learning Chinese in China – announcing a series

Since early September, I’ve been enrolled in Chinese language and culture classes at Nanjing University, thanks to the Victorian Government’s Hamer scholarship. The humid heat of the Yangtse region, the qualms of cross-cultural adaptation, and a thorough water-pipe upgrade in my neighbourhood left me too tired to write for a while, but sweet autumn has arrived, the pipes are laid, and I’ve made friends with my local environment. I’m ready now to share some of my September experiences in a series of blog posts – so watch this page for more. 

A tool to better understand China

Rousseau called it “l’esprit de l’escalier” – staircase wit – finding your bon mot, the one that would set everyone laughing, just a few hours too late. It happens to all of us. It’s happened to me just recently.

Two days ago, I did a skype interview with a French IT guru, Jean-Michel Billaut, about the Marco Polo Project. We set off on the wrong foot: our first interview, scheduled at the end of May, had been cut short by cause of bad internet (when is NBN coming again?) So this time, I went to Hub Melbourne, where they have a decent connection (thank you Rick Chen @pozible.com). At 7pm, Melbourne time, for an 11am, French time interview.

And I wasn’t happy with it. For some reason, my French was confused (am I forgetting my mother tongue), and Jean-Michel kept asking me questions that somehow set me off balance – what’s our business model, how to find a French translation on the site, or whether Melbourne was better than Sydney. I did not manage to give back precisely pitched, clear and sharp answers that viewers would carry on in their head, like a mantra. Well, there’ll be more interviews.

The good thing is, retrospective frustration has shaken my brain a bit, and I’ve now coined a nice expression to describe Marco Polo Project. It is a tool to better understand China.

By using our platform, our users can improve their understanding of the Chinese language, and improve their understanding of the Chinese context. This defines it clearly. And entails a clear user base – people who want to better understand China. Popular as “China” has become, that’s far from everyone. More and more people want to benefit from or protect themselves from China – but few want to actually understand it. The former won’t care for us, and we won’t care much for them either. but I hope the latter will come to us, and tell us how to better develop our platform, so we can better serve them over time.

One thing to note in this definition is the comparative – our website will help users better understand China – that is, if they know something about it already. We’re not a website for language beginners, neither do we provide a broad stroke cultural overview. People will come to us to refine their knowledge, by reading original voices, or practicing translation skills that are, already, somewhat developed.

In other words, we won’t be “the China portal”, and our audience will be limited – but what we can hope for is to become a solid reference for people interested in that niche – and, I guess, it’s a niche, but a growing one.

The voice of the writer

One question has been bugging me a lot lately, around the Marco Polo Project. A core, central, excruciating business question. Why would anyone actually  come to our website? I’ve had  lots of tactical answers so far, and they were good enough: people will come if we advertise properly and if we build strong networks, and they will stay if our website looks good, if it’s quick and efficient. This was supported by all sorts of documents, of how China’s definitely suprt-hot, and there’s a shortage of Chinese teachers, and online learning is the new frontier.

But that doesn’t address the core, hard question: why would anyone spend time on the Marco Polo Project, rather than reading blogs about China written in English, translating articles for wikipedia, or doing a language exchange on qq?

The only good answer I can give to that is: people will come to us if they’re  looking for the voice of original Chinese writers.

It sounds like a paradox, because one potential flaw in our model is that we’ll be relying on the work of amateurs for our translations – with potential loss of accurracy, and problems of quality control. And yet, I believe that we are the only translation and media platform that, from its conception and structure, really focuses on Chinese writing – in other words, on text construction, choice of words and point of view, rather than news and information.

Accordingly, once our platform is up, our work should be to filter, tag and bring up the best writing from the Chinese web, and build a strong editorial team with taste and intuition.

I believe that ‘information’ is not all that people are after, that the way things are said actually matters. I believe it is worthwhile to listen to Chinese voices, and follow the way they build an argument, or what steps they take when telling a story. I believe that even an amateur translation will carry most of that across. AndI believe that making efforts to translate not only ‘contents’ but an individual voice is the best exercise to build on your language skills.

At least that’s the bet I’m making, and that there’s a public for it.

The Fake China

After two weeks in Tianjin, I have finally got over the bad air and general difficulty of life in China – and got my Chinese blog started.

I will publish photographs and reflections on 7 weeks in Tianjin, a Chinese coastal metropolis and historical concession town. I have chosen the title ‘the fake China’, because I’ve often heard people – Chinese or not – advise me to go west, or to the countryside, to discover ‘the real China’. And I took a different approach – trusting that the coast, the interface, the cosmopolitan, is no more real than the central, the inland, the monocultural.

The blog is published at thefakechina.wordpress.com – I don’t pretend to understand or know better; I’m just trying to make sense of what I observe, hear and read from the world’s new superpower. Comments are very welcome!

Going multilingual

I’ve just created a renren profile – thank you Aaron. And feel all excited! Growing into the Chinese web. Tomorrow, I shall help Philip set up his, and publish his ‘Year with I-Ching’ to a Chinese audience.

And what better way to celebrate the setting up of this blog than reflect on my first parallel steps on the Chinese Internet!