Friday, May 13, 1994

Sietar Keynote Speech, 5/13/94

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure and an honor to be invited to speak before you. It is a double honor to share the stage with State Assemblyman John Vasconcellos. Mr. Vasconcellos in my humble opinion is one of those rare independent thinkers who genuinely take the best interest of his constituents, his state and his country to heart. The highest tribute that I can pay to John is to say that he doesn't think and act like a politician.

I believe this is a particularly appropriate time to have as the theme of this conference, intercultural understanding around the Pacific Rim. The world has changed dramatically in the most recent decade. With television and the likes of omnipresent CNN, the world is a much smaller and compact place. Words and values as well as action get passed around with the speed of light. Americans cannot afford to remain in the dark about any other part of the world and about other cultures and ethnic groups.

With the dissolution of big bad bear used to be known as the USSR, America is no longer look upon as the standard bearer of the good guys. Maybe it is ungrateful of the Asian nations but they seem to consider themselves more as peers to America now than as dependents. This means that the days when America speaks and Asia listen are gone and probably not ever coming back. Now the communication will have to be in both directions. Consequently it is going to be vitally necessary for America to recast their role, and to do so, it will be necessary to understand the cultures around the Pacific Rim and how they differ from the western values embraced by the U.S..

Finally the U.S. cannot ignore the economic boom that is taking place in East Asia. For the first time last year, Japan's trade within East Asia has exceeded its trade with North America. Similar trend can be seen in China and other Asian states. The East Asian nations are becoming more regionally interdependent. If the U.S. does not want to be a second fiddle in this arena, then it will have to learn and master intercultural communication and exchange around the Pacific Rim.

While the rest of the conference will deal with the specific subject areas that make up intercultural understanding, I would like to make some observations of intercultural differences between the East and West. I should hasten to add that I do not consider myself any sort of intercultural expert. My vantage point is that of a business consultant who has been helping American companies develop durable relationships in Asia. I find that I frequently do things more intuitively and without conscious intent. In any case I hope you would find my random remarks relevant to this conference.

First of all, and I wish with the bottom of my heart that this is not true, but from what I can see, the Clinton Administrations approach to East Asia is as wrong-headed as it can be. A real disaster. The style is best exemplified by trade negotiator Mickey Kantor who is the very personification of a super American attorney. In other words, a hard nosed, confrontational, aggressive, in-your-face kind of guy. Whether the issue is human rights in China, numerical targets for markets in Japan, nuclear weapons in North Korea or the tender buttocks of a teen age graffiti artist in Singapore, the approach of the Clinton Administration has been to favor very public demand over behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

Take the case of Michael Fay. If the original intent was to intercede on his behalf, publicly condemning caning as cruel and unusual punishment was not going get him off, and it didn't. The Asians could not understand why the President of United States would on account of one mere individual of dubious upbringing elect to publicly embarrass another sovereign state and government. This was not an action they could understand. To Asians, the most powerful leader in the world presumably had more important matters to worry about.

By reducing the sentence by two strokes, the Singaporean government was in their own way returning the insult. In effect they are saying that the prestige of the U.S. Presidency was worth two strokes on Young Fay's buttocks. Of course with a martial arts master manning the cane, there is a great deal of latitude on just how much damage one or six full strokes can do. The proper approach, in my opinion, assuming that any approach was warranted, and I am not convinced that it was, would have been for the White House to write a private (let me emphasize: private) letter to the head of state of Singapore asking for leniency on behalf of Fay. That way face would not be involved and both sides have a chance to get off gracefully.

Michael Fay's father's insistence to carry on the dispute after the fact was also interesting. If Fay had been an Asian, his father's anguish would have been equally heart felt except a lot of it would be caused by chagrin and embarrassment that somehow he had failed to bring his son up properly. In fact the father of the boy from Hongkong from the same gang who received 12 strokes was quoted to have said, "Singapore is a good place except for that."

You see, in the U.S., family values became a battle cry of sorts in recent political history. But it turns out that the former vice president Quayle and candidate Pat Buchanan was more interested in knocking down the rating of a popular TV program than showing any real understanding of what family values really means. The Asians, on the other hand, have been guided by their sense of family values since the days of Confucius, or about 600 years before the common era. (That's BC for those of you that haven't gone to see the Dead Sea scrolls exhibit.) The Asian sense of right and wrong and daily conduct is guided by the strictures of the family. By the desire not to bring shame to the family, by the sense of obligation to the common good of the family, by the need to bring honor to the family name. This set of values is why in Asia caning can replace the need for overflowing jail. The public embarrassment of having to endure the caning is far more difficult than to be quietly spending time in jail. I don't think the "Three strikes and your out" advocates in this country would understand this difference.

We all heard about Secretary Warren Christopher's recent disastrous trip to China, ostensibly to tell China on how they should behave as related to human rights. What we heard was the rebuff he received from the Chinese. We didn't hear much about what actually happened. According eyewitnesses, upon arrival at the Beijing airport, he immediately encountered an impasse because of his insistence to bring a police dog into town as part of his entourage for security reasons. As is common in many countries, the Chinese insisted that the dog stay at the airport in quarantine and there can be no exception. Just from the slogans of old about Yankee running dogs, one would know that dog are not look upon quite the same way in China.

After relenting, he then insisted on riding in from the airport with the American ambassador to get an early briefing rather with the vice foreign minister in the lead limousine. Then instead of staying at Diaoyutai, the State guest house, where all foreign dignitaries are put up, Secretary Christopher insisted on staying at a hotel to allow easier access with the staff of the American embassy. May be the secretary have good reasons for these decisions, but they certainly were not diplomatic and must have added considerably to the frosty atmosphere.

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the self-annointed champion of human rights in China, committed an even more atrocious gaff in my opinion. In 1991 she went to Beijing as part of a delegation that were guests of the Chinese government, ostensibly to see for themselves as to the conditions in China. Of course their schedule was arranged by the Chinese host. One day she excused herself for being too tired and was thought to return to the hotel. Next thing you know, she appeared at Tiananmen Square in front of a battery of TV cameras that by some strange coincidence seemed to be waiting there. She unfurled a banner protesting human rights conditions in China. Of course she gained considerable political capital back home even if at the expense of her relationship with her host in China.

This is probably not the right forum to get into this, but I am not in favor of mixing the human rights issue which most favored nation status, which is a trade issue. I think the Clinton has been giving so many mixed and confusing signals on this matter that it is doubtful that the U.S. has any longer any kind of leverage on China. Suffice it for me to quote the late President Nixon on this matter. He said in his last book: "Within two decades...., the Chinese may threaten to withhold MFN status from the U.S. unless we do more to improve living conditions in Detroit, Harlem and South Central Los Angeles."

At a recent keynote speech in the Bay area, Milton Friedman said political freedom has nothing to do with economic freedom. The two are not related and having democracy does not necessary lead to better off economies. Improving economies does lead to liberalization of human lives.

We have been too long in the position of calling the shots. Now, even though other nations are no longer in the mood to just listen and abide, we have not gotten out of the habit. In order to maintain our prestige and our influence it will be necessary for us to modify our behavior to be in sync with the changing times.

Let me conclude with a couple of anecdotal stories that more or less exemplify moderate behavior mixed with intercultural understanding.

A group from Shanghai recently paid a return visit to a company in Tennessee. It was to be their first visit to the U.S. The American host, having visit China first, understood that Chinese are accustomed to drinking hot tea all day long. Since American hotels do not normally provide boiling water for tea, the executive provided electric kettles for heating water in each room. He also bought mason jars for each of the visitor! In case, some of you don't know, mason jars are used for home canning. From his visit to China he noticed that taxi drivers use jars to hold their tea, from which they would sip all day long. So he concluded that Chinese like to drink tea from glass jars.

Actually Tang, the breakfast drink is popular in China and the empty bottle with the lid is just right for holding tea while the lid keeps the contents from spilling in the taxi. So you see virtually all the cab drivers with the Tang bottles. I had to keep from laughing when I explained that regular mugs would have done the job nicely. But it turns out the joke was on me. The executive had found some with mason jars with handles so that they really were for drinking. The Chinese loved them because they also could be used to make instant noodles which they preferred to Western breakfast.

On Huaihai Road, which is one of the two busiest and glitziest commercial streets in Shanghai, there is a busy and popular fast food restaurant decked out in golden yellow and orange red. It's called Nancy's Fast Food and its trade mark is the letter "N" which is represented by one and one half of golden arch. Can you picture this: one and half golden arches on a reddish orange background? Now if Nancy's fast food is in the U.S., what would you do if you are MacDonalds? You would hire a lawyer, of course. But you are in China and the owner on Nancy's is related to the mayor, arguably the most powerful man in the town of 14 million, what do you do? You could protest via Washington. You could ignore it or in this actual case, MacDonald is opening its first restaurant in Shanghai just a few storefronts away from Nancy's. It is going to be very interesting to see what if anything will happen to the business volume of either stores.

I believe to be successful in this modern world, it is necessary to understand other cultures and know how to communicate effectively across cultural gaps and mismatches. Those that do will be successful. Those that do not, will be frustrated all the time. I wish all of you success in your participation in the remainder of this conference. Thank you very much for your attention.