Engaging the Dragon: Learning Across Cultural and Political Divides
Last year, opportunity came knocking at our door in the form of a dynamic young Chinese woman who expressed interest in taking our organizational systems Ph.D. program to China as an offering to Chinese business and government executives.
Having done my dissertation research in China, taught in another American university program in Beijing, and interfaced with the Chinese government while adopting my daughter in 1996, I saw this as both an opportunity and challenge. My research focused on understanding cultural differences related to leadership in China and the U.S. and how encountering those differences could lead to transformative learning. I came away from that research changed by what I learned from my encounter with Chinese business and government leaders and excited about the potential for learning together.
One of the challenges I anticipated in moving forward with this opportunity to offer our Ph.D. program in China was concern that others within Saybrook would have about engaging with a nation that does not have the same value for individual rights. As Bernice Moore-Valdez, a OS alumnus wrote in a recent post, there can be personal and organizational risks associated in doing business in China. One has to be aware of the differences and comfortable working within the boundaries established by the Chinese government. We expect the same of anyone living or working in the U.S.
So one may ask where is the line between colluding with an oppressive government system and collaborating in a teaching and learning relationship with another global leader? I learned from my research conversations in China that what appears to be oppressive to us may be less so to those raised in a culture where collective harmony trumps individual rights. People I spoke with who lived and worked in China—and some that lived in the U.S. and worked in China—did not feel oppressed. They clearly described the boundaries of acceptable approaches to influencing change—approaches that were more collaborative than confrontational. They described confrontation in the form of what we would call freedom of speech and assembly as an embarrassment to social norms of respect for authority, whether that be within family, government, work, or educational systems. And while I have no doubt that some people in China feel oppressed, my experiences have not led me to believe that is any more a concern of the people in their daily lives than it is here in the U.S. We cannot deny that many forms of oppression exist in America, even within the framework of our democratic principles.
Accepting that there is much that we in the U.S. still need to learn to become a society that well cares for people and planet, I strongly believe that our engagement with China across the cultural and political divides can support us in gaining new perspectives on much needed change. People in China are considerably more interested in learning from us and engaging together in educational programs can help us share our knowledge and experience in ways that can continue to influence change locally and globally.
When I reflect on the dramatic changes I have seen take place in China between my first visit there in 1994 until now, I can only wonder how the magnitude of the change was possible without a total demise of the social fabric. Granted China has its social problems, some the same and some different than those here in the U.S. Yet, we have to look with great awe at what they have accomplished in such a short time and ask ourselves, what can we learn from a society that has existed for more than 2,000 years and has changed more radically and rapidly than any other place on earth? To move into that learning space and to create the opportunity to share leadership in creating a sustainable world, we have to let go of our fear and seek to understand the differences between us.