Are there differences between Chinese and American People?

What an interesting question this title poses. And, what’s even more interesting is that few people outside of academic circles or psychology groups can imagine there is any difference. We watch mainstream media and speeches made by politicians in the US, Australia and in the UK and they all seem to believe, at least the speeches I see, seem to believe, that China is an oppressed state where the people need the freedom they can only be granted by the introduction of democracy. Even if the democracy is forced through with bombs and guns. Yet the people in China wonder: why would outsiders think this? Why would an outsider feel the need to free me from where I am?

I feel ok!

Let’s get one thing straight right at the beginning. In the main, Chinese citizens like their style of government. The enjoy personal freedoms which are almost unbelievable in western countries. Freedoms that allow them to live their lives without interference from government and without any noticeable control. They are often confused by the concept of human rights and don’t really understand why one person’s liberty is ok to place another’s in danger just because they have “rights”. While Americans may think this lack of noticeable control doesn’t mean they are free and they need rescuing from it

So, it’s apparent that there are some differences because, I’m certain if I were to speak to an American, a Brit, An Australian, or even a Dutchman, about the things, I just mentioned, they would look askance at me. They’d tell me Chinese people aren’t free, the CPC dominates their life!

Chinese don’t understand why people need, or even want to carry firearms, especially in public or at a peaceful demonstration and they don’t understand why, when other governments asked citizens to stay home and prevent an epidemic from taking hold, some went out and protested about it.

Surely, my Chinese friends would ask me: an individual doesn’t have the right to place the lives of others in jeopardy, do they? Is one person’s right another person’s death sentence?

And other country’s citizens don’t understand why it was that China, the supposed source of Covid19 had so little (comparatively) problem with it. Simply put, it was because the measures put in place by the Chinese government, and considered so authoritarian, even draconian, were, in fact, quite sensible and easy to follow here in China.

Chinese people don’t understand why there are videos online showing rows of tents and cardboard boxes in San Francisco and in Los Angeles — they know that America is the richest country in the world. California is as rich as most countries, and Los Angeles, the home of Hollywood and all things great about America is one of the richest cities in the world. So, why do people live in the streets? Why can’t they go back to their parent’s homes, or their towns and villages to be looked after? The concept of homelessness in China is almost unheard of.

Until very recently, I mean VERY recently, Chinese citizens looked up to and respected all things American. I’m talking about ordinary people here, not highly educated, but sufficiently well educated to enjoy a decent lifestyle and to want improvements. They don’t want to steal American ideas: they love American sports; sports clothing; shoes with American brands; basketball; burgers; fast food; they take English (American)names from their favourite TV, Movie or sports stars; they don’t want to steal, they want to BE the American ideas. Or at least a lot of them did until recent events alerted them to the prospect that all may not be well in the glitz capital of the world.

We see angry tweets, blogs and vlogs about Chinese Students being totally dedicated to, subservient to and brainwashed by, the Chinese Communist Party yet we never see angry tweets about children in the USA pledging allegiance, nor do we see angry tweets about kids in Australia singing the national anthem.

We see daily reports about US lawmakers visiting Hong Kong meeting protesters there and going home to pass legislation against China and its interests, placing or threatening to place sanctions on China, Chinese companies and Chinese people. Yet, to this day, I’ve never seen a Chinese politician in the USA helping to organise protesters. We never see Chinese diplomats meeting or funding protesters in the US (or anywhere else). Nor do they supply goods in support of other countries domestic issues. I’ve never seen any legislation in China related to what goes on anywhere in the world, except in China. So, why do Americans, or any others, feel the need to involve themselves in the affairs of China, in Xinjiang, in HK or in Taiwan. Which, whatever way you look at it, is historically and geographically Chinese. There are obviously some differences between the two nationalities here.

Currently, we are seeing BLM marches in every state and many cities in America, and we see those marches spreading out to the UK, the UE, Australia and other places, but we haven’t seen any in China: Why would that be?

It’s not because Chinese people don’t think black lives matter, it’s because Chinese people are different to the US, different to the UK and different to Europeans, they think the problem is an American problem that should be dealt with by America. The simply say, and not in any callous way: this is not my concern. Then, at the same time, they wonder why HK is the concern of American or UK politicians, or why the Taiwan issue needs to be resolved by discussion with America. It’s equally as little to do with the US as BLM is to do with China. Why do they feel like this? Because they are different.

My purpose in this article is not to get into the politics of why this is, simply to try to understand, and perhaps explain, some of the differences. Because, from what I see, what I read and what I hear, there is a great deal of fear about the “rise of China” and a great deal of finger pointing when things go wrong in the USA, Australia and UK. I can’t stop that, I can only try to explain some of it to people who might want to look, learn and, perhaps, revise their ideas.

A few years ago, I studied a Master Degree course on Change Management. When it came time to choose my area of research for the dissertation, I decided to ask myself the question:

Is it harder, easier, or just different, to manage a Western business in a Chinese environment?

The Difference between Western Management Philosophy and Chinese Workplace Psychology was a fascinating, and almost neglected area of research.

In the process of answering the question I researched many different issues the most interesting one was that there is a thing called “Cultural Identity” or “National Identity”, We also have workplace culture, individual culture and many other organisational cultures, but the national psyche of people, I found, is fundamentally different from country to country.

I went to a site called to get some information to support what I’m saying here and I got this chart of cultural identities. So, for people who have no idea what they’re looking at, let me explain…

There are, as we can see, 6 different dimensions of culture. I’ll briefly go over where Chinese and Americans are similar before looking deeper at the differences.

Masculinity, has nothing to do with male and female but is a word used to describe their approach to the working life. Both countries are high in this dimension and it means they are both ambitious and want to work hard to achieve their goals.

Uncertainty Avoidance relates to how secure we feel about our future. Again, both are close, with China feeling slightly more confident than the USA about their future. This dimension might change if there is a catastrophic event that isn’t handled well. So, Covid19 may very well change the view of this. Chinese people honestly feel their government handled it very well with a 90% approval, the highest in the world (for sure, there will be people who say that’s BS, but, it’s what we are talking about in this article, we are all different in what we believe, what we see and what we perceive, so stick with it) . The USA and the UK don’t have such high approvals, but still over 50% for the USA, so changes might be minor there while a change in the UK might be much more significant, their population have expressed total dissatisfaction in the way the Johnson government is handling Covid19.

Now, we can look at some differences: For me, the most important one is the first dimension on the chart: Power Distance index and this relates to how people see themselves in their hierarchy, not necessarily in work but in life. People in power have a place and they know that place. In the US, the number is much lower and this means that the power of individual authority is not so strong. We can see this in families with rebellious teenagers, something not so common in China, we see it in workplaces where a bullying manager would be easily confronted and censured in the US yet quite comfortably tolerated in a Chinese workplace and, more importantly, we see it in governance. It’s this VERY important factor that was clearly demonstrated by the Covid19 lockdowns.

In China, the government said stay home, people stayed home, in America, they protested about their constitutional rights being abused. In China the government said wear a mask, so people wore masks. While in America, masks are still, 13 weeks later, a point of contention. In China the government blocked entry and exit points of buildings, streets and even towns and cities, so the people went through the checkpoints that they were funnelled into without any complaints. In the west people screamed “Draconian measures” or “Authoritarian state”. In summary, here in China, people did what their leaders told them to do because they saw it as common sense and that’s what they approved of. In Western countries there are numerous examples of people not doing what their government told them to do.

Individualism, the next dimension, is exactly what it sounds like. China has a very low score here and this is why communism works and why people are comfortable working together to overcome problems. The US on the other hand is much more individualistic, people will work hard to achieve what they want to achieve and not look for outside help. Some people might also say, the US is a more selfish country, but I tend to disagree, there are differences with good and bad points in both. One of the important factors about Individualism that is often not clearly understood is that, in a highly communal society, if you insult one person, you insult them all. And this point is the basis for what people call the “Wumao Army”. They aren’t really an organised group of people who jump to action when their leader feels slighted and employs them to do so. They are actually real people, with real feelings. The problem is that many of them don’t have the language skills to engage in rhetoric so there is the appearance, and probably the likelihood, of cutting and pasting replies. Americans, on the other hand, will individually respond with their own opinions, not a cooperative opinion and hence, the problems arise. Apparently rude people, who may not be rude at all, simply failing to agree on anything and appearing to insult each other because of their differing cultures when a discussion between them might have found some common ground.

Long Term Orientation is an interesting one. On a personal level we see Chinese people planning a future for their unborn children, saving for an education and medical bills which are unforeseen. But on a national level it indicates where (my personal thoughts here) the USA is going wrong. In its rhetoric against China we see many accusations and all sorts of ongoing problems with trade, Covid19, even the BLM issues are being pointed in China’s direction. There are other factors which seem to be leading us towards a cold war, if not a real war.

China hasn’t officially responded to any of this. It’s playing the long game. China knows there will be solutions at the end and will take what actions it sees necessary to keep itself in the game. Hence, we have what others call the “tit-for-tat” retaliations. China knows that eventually the source of Covid19 will be found. It knows that eventually the USA and itself will need to trade and it knows that the USA will change its stance every three to four years depending on the feel of the electorate. The USA is throwing everything at China in a short period of time in order to demonstrate with immediate effect, despite potentially being proven wrong later, that China is bad. Seemingly in the US right now, the candidate who has the biggest axe to grind with China, will be the next president. The government of China doesn’t need to go into election mode every third year of office and so can plan a much longer response.

Chinese planning is done in 5-year plans and is already well into action on plans that will come to fruition in 2035 and beyond. For example, I saw large empty “ghost” cities when I visited Gansu and Ningxia in 2014, I saw thriving communities filling them, five years later, when I was back there in 2019. Something only long-term orientation could achieve.

The final dimension is Indulgence and we can see a huge difference here. On a personal level, it’s quite apparent that the US likes to be well rewarded and feel happy most of the time, Chinese will “eat bitterness” for years in order to achieve a long-awaited goal. However, on a business level when we look at how Western companies are run, we see the need for monthly growth, quarterly numbers and a desire to achieve and achieve now. The share market dips if there is a slight problem and increases based on what happened in the news today. CEO’s are rewarded for giving instant gratification to the shareholders and the investors. This is not so apparent in China. A business might be set up with a massive investment and then allowed to run for many years without any return on the investment. As long as people are employed, the company returns an income everyone is happy. The original investment isn’t depreciated or capexed. It was spent to make the future secure. This could be the reason why such great infrastructure investments have been placed on Chinese roads, rail and shipping ports . The future will pay for itself; the past is already gone.

At the same time, I see now, there are promises that there will be investments in the US to fix roads and bridges that have been in disrepair for years. Why were they left in disrepair? Because the money, if it was there, was never used but placed onto the bottom line to show record profits and reward investors or to avoid placing short term strains on government budgets. An example of short-term orientation too.

So, in many ways, Chinese and Americans are different. When a person from a different culture does something that you think is rather strange, instead of getting angry, look for the reasons why that person might not view the task in the same way that you do. We don’t all think the same and we don’t all behave the same under the same set of circumstances. And, most importantly we don’t all want the same thing. Some people want to be rich and happy now, some people are happy knowing that, in the future they will be secure. Some people are comfortable knowing their government looks after them and some people feel the need to increase their own holdings so the government doesn’t need to help them.

Think about which you are: More like the American, or more like the Chinese?


I’m British born Australian living in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write mostly positively about my China experiences

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Jerry Grey

I’m British born Australian living in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write mostly positively about my China experiences