Chinese Corporate Culture

If one has ever worked for a Chinese-owned company, chances are that one would find its operation bears much resemblance to a Chinese dynastic empire that existed hundreds or thousands of years ago. At least this is true from my own experience and observations and those of some of my ex-colleagues.

A Chinese emperor is said to have a “Mandate of Heaven” and his rule is supreme and despotic and never to be challenged by his subjects. Similarly, a patriarchal and totalitarian system is central to corporate management style in a Chinese-owned company. Similarities abound between the empire and the company in areas ranging from the power core set-up, to emperor-minister (boss-manager) relationship, to behavioral patterns amongst ministers (managers).

The power core of an empire consists of the emperor and his male heirs, but not his brothers. There are numerous incidents in history where rivalry among brothers in vying for the throne, which represents absolute power, leads to ruthless elimination of siblings. The “Incident at Xuanwu Gate” (玄武門之變) in the Tang Dynasty is one famous example. Other similar feuds among princes can be found in the Qing Dynasty. The essence in these incidents is that the end of seizing that absolute power justifies all means, including murder of one’s brothers.

Apart from the main power core, there is also a shadow power core made up of the emperor’s spouse and his harem of concubines who exert enormous influence over the emperor in a surreptitious way. While the legitimacy of the emperor’s rule comes from a “Mandate of Heaven”, the shadow power core derives its authority from the emperor himself. As history shows, “pillow talk” is more powerful than one would ever imagine and can often have murderous effect on those who dare to rub these women the wrong way.

The Chinese corporate boss, like the emperor, assumes absolute power over his company and is unlikely to relinquish it to his heirs until his death. It does not matter whether he is a Western educated MBA or just a high school graduate. As long as he is an ethnic Chinese, it is more likely than not that he considers himself the “emperor” of his company and treats his employees as though they were his subjects. He is the sole decision-making person and is accountable to no one within the company’s management hierarchy. It is highly unlikely that he would want to share his power with any one.

An emperor, as the “Son of Heaven”, demands absolute allegiance and loyalty from his court and his subjects. He asks for advice from his ministers but is free to dismiss it at will. He hates to be contradicted but urges his ministers to speak the truth. Absent any checks on his absolute power, the emperor’s greatest weakness is his basic distrust of those who work for him. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the tragic and torturous death of a patriotic and loyal general (袁崇煥) in the Ming Dynasty, who was unlucky enough to rouse the petty suspicion of the last Ming emperor.

On the flip side, the ministers never speak their minds even if they know that would be the right thing to do. Instead, they try to speculate on the emperor’s intentions and offer sycophantic opinions. His subjects, out of fear of harsh punishment if they step out of line, tend to be passive, uncreative and indifferent.

In the modern-day corporate arena, the Chinese boss plays the emperor’s role and acts in pretty much the same way as described above. In this scenario, the role of dynastic ministers is taken by senior managers while that of subjects is taken by other staff members. To keep a tight rein on senior managers, the boss usually requires them to report in detail their activities in frequent regular meetings. They are expected to devote their heart and mind fully to serving the boss at all hours. Even then, the boss still would not trust his senior managers to take part in important decision making, not unless they have been with the company for at least twenty years.

In the dynastic age, it is common for ministers to bribe the emperor’s waiting eunuchs and concubines in order to get tipped on the mood of the Son of Heaven, so that appropriate fawning tricks can be applied. It is just as common for ministers and eunuchs to collude with each other to extract power from the emperor, sometimes for treason purpose. In the process, the darkest sides of human nature in the form of venomous rivalry and back-stabbing betrayal are in full display. The emperor, under enormous pressure from holding absolute power, usually becomes so paranoid that he finds it hard to confide in anyone other than the eunuch who serves him day and night or his favorite concubine, thus emboldening them to seek power. Thus ambitious ministers would often try to enter into a symbiotic relationship with the emperor’s eunuch or his sweetheart and would constantly contrive to outsmart each other.

In their contest for the boss’s attention, some senior managers spend far more time in engaging in slimy politics than doing real work within the corporate confines. Their chief aim is to please the boss and his clan (especially his spouse or lover, and sometimes his secretary who is in the role of the ancient time eunuch) in whatever way they can, because that is the surest way of getting favors from him. In proving their worth to him, managers must do their best to discredit their rivals, either explicitly or furtively. They consider their peers as their natural enemies.

If one word can epitomize the interpersonal relationship within such a company, it is “distrust”, and it starts from the top. But it is hard to find an explanation for the everlasting lust for absolute power and absolute control. Could it be in the genes?