1992 / 10月
Teng Sue-feng /tr. by Peter Eberly
If history is aimed at helping us understand the present by examining the past, then an analysis of China's rise and fall through the ages can teach us valuable lessons for the future and give us a picture of what may come. China has suffered great setbacks this century, but "now it's time for us to climb back up again!" Hsu Cho-yun believes that the key to success Lies in breaking away from the authoritarian mind set of the past.
Q: You make it clear right at the outset of your book that you want to shatter the myth of leadership. Why have we Chinese always viewed our political and business leaders through a veil of mystery?
A: For a long, long time China has been an authoritarian society, where leaders have played a triple role as ruler, father and teacher. We hold extremely high expectations of our leaders and think they should be virtuous as well as able and talented, and once they reach a certain position, we imbue them with the special status of ruler and father. The result is we feel they are very hard to approach. The German sociologist Max Weber was the first social scientist to formulate a theoretical construct of the leader type, a person set off from others by a special aura of prestige, ability and charisma. It's a kind of leader who often appears in authoritarian societies. They're suited for each other.
Leaders are made not born
By breaking the myth I mean to say that leadership can be nurtured and trained. That doesn't deny that some people aren't more gifted in that area than others. It just means that even people with leadership talents need to cultivate and train themselves or else they will become proud and complacent. By the time they come to think they really must be charismatic leaders, their charisma has already faded because they haven't been able to communicate normally with others.
Q: One of the figures from Chinese history whose style of leadership and management you examined in your book was Tsao Tsao, of the Three Kingdoms period, who felt that a person's character and ability can be separated. But leaders in the West are often criticized for their moral defects--just look at U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas or the Democratic presidential candidate, Bill Clinton. Societies in the East don't seem to be so scrupulous about their leaders' moral peccadilloes. Why is that?
A: Actually, the word hsien (virtuous, worthy, able) describes a person with both ability and virtue. The question is, why don't we criticize established leaders? One reason is that under an authoritarian system superiors are supposed to be above criticism. Another is there's a considerable amount of fear, fear of punishment. So we simply assume that leaders who have achieved a certain position are both able and virtuous, a supposition that may not necessarily be true. We're constantly seeing cases of leaders being rejudged in the light of history, finding they may have been strong in ability but were weak in morals, or vice versa.
Q: In your book you analyzed the main cause for the decline of China through the ages and concluded that it lay in the rift between the upper and middle levels and between the middle and lower ones. Is cross-level interaction and communication really that difficult?
A: Actually, it's not. In the free democratic societies that have mostly replaced authoritarian societies, the upper level is formed from the middle level and the middle level from the lower level. No one's position is permanently occupied, and there are no strong authoritarian forces blocking interaction and communication. Mutual understanding isn't difficult.
In nondemocratic societies, the upper-level elite must possess vision and tolerance. The reason that dynastic founders could maintain loyal ministers was because they were tolerant. The channels for interaction and communication stayed open during the first couple of generations of a dynasty, especially during the Western Han (206 B.C. to A.D. 24), but as its desire to hold on to power increased, the upper level became unwilling to take in new members or to change its existing structure. That's when flatterers and sycophants would appear, deluding the rulers into thinking they were clever and all-knowing, and the channels would become cut off again.
In fact, even able and talented leaders are liable to flattery and thinking too much of themselves, not to mention those of lesser ability. We see it happen in government and business every day. They think they're the cat's pajamas, but to others they're just a monkey in a suit.
True leaders constantly feel they're inadequate to the task, that their abilities have shortcomings, and they hope to obtain the help and advice of others. If they think they're sharper than the people around them, it's very dangerous. Someone once said that "the greatest danger for people in high positions is no longer hearing the truth." If they wreck themselves, they wreck the group they're in charge of, which may be as small as an office or as large as a nation.
Cultural adjustments required
Q: In your book you stated that the Chinese people relied on a social and economic middle class of intellectuals, merchants, local leaders and mid- and lower-level officials to maintain itself for such a long time before it broke down in the 19th century during the later years of the Ching Dynasty. What caused that?
A: First, because other countries were progressing, and next because we had lost the ability for renewal. We became frantic, and by the 20th century a number of diseases appeared simultaneously.
Cultural evolution has its ups and downs, and every culture loses its original energy after a time. Academic thinking becomes increasingly orthodox and dogmatic and finally lacks all vitality. There were repeated reforms in Confucian thought in early modern times, but after the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) it gradually ossified into orthodoxy and dogmatism, which was reflected in other areas, in a falling off in music and the arts. There's a difference between cultural expression and cultural essence. Pursuing goals and seeking for meaning in life are the essence of culture. Cultural activities are its expression, and they became trivial, gaudy and decorative.
It was quite extraordinary that so many of the 200,000 Manchus of the Ching Dynasty were talented individuals, but since they never expanded their ruling group, they were corrupted by power. What the Manchus were looking for were slaves and not talented administrators. Se of them were able, of course, but the majority had a servile mentality. The dynasty declined very rapidly. It started to go downhill during the Chien Lung era (1736 to 1796).
In addition, the blows from the West were no longer confined to military encroachments but included powerful economic forces and a new, completely different culture, the assault of a mixture of military and industrial might. Sick inside and threatened from without, we stumbled and fell countless times after the Opium War.
But China hasn't been knocked flat. Taiwan has managed to make cultural adjustments and pull itself up. The only question is whether or not it can keep on going. During our recuperation over the last 40 years, the foreign economic pressure has been lifted, and the cultural cycle is facing a new East-West interchange and assuming a new orientation. But whether or not we can truly put the nightmare of the past behind us depends on what we do from now On.
The vitality of the common people
It's gratifying to see so many private foundations in Taiwan these days, large and small, getting involved and doing so much to serve the public. Most of their members are just ordinary people who want to do their bit for the community. I really admire their persistence and stick-to-itiveness. It's like the fable of the "old man who moved the mountain."
A lot of people are worried about "money politics" these days. Actually, money politics is nothing new. It's like that in every capitalist society. Money is a resource. The difference lies in how resources are used. Honest and aboveboard methods are permissible, but not underhanded ones. Using public power to pursue private interests is wrong, but buying private power with private interests is all right. Using public power to build up public interests is all right, but trading on public power for private interests is theft. Money can be exchanged for position and position creates the opportunity for wealth. When special interests are used to create wealth, the ones who lose out are the common people.
It's worst in the Philippines, and in Japan since Nakasone. In Japan there's still political discipline and a healthy legal system so, bad as it is, there are still people who criticize it. It's not a total disaster. But the Philippines are a different story.
Q: The term Chinese-style management has become widespread in the business world in recent years. How do you view this trend?
A: So-called Chinese-style management doesn't consist of any set form or principle. We're still searching. Chinese family-style businesses have their own set of management methods because of their scope and operation, and Chinese interpersonal relationships aren't quite the same as those in other societies. The methods of the Harvard Business School or of Matsushita of Japan don't seem to work. How to bring out the strong points of Chinese-style management and overcome its shortcomings is an area worth exploring.
The great Western tradition of management represented by the United States has encountered grave difficulties over the past 20 or 30 years. Under multicultural attack, the Protestant, capitalist camp has met with difficulties that it has been unable to adjust to and has had to search outside for inspiration, and the organic integration of the world economy has forced them to take a look at the rest of the world.
In fact, I don't think Chinese-style, Western-style and Japanese-style management necessarily conflict. I think they supplement each other and can be fused together.
(photo by Huang Lili)