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Presidential hopefuls are reviving the Ugly American Reputation

davidlivermore | March 19th, 2012 11 Comments

Just about the time I think we’re beginning to overcome our ugly American image, the men who want the top leadership role in our country take us two steps backward. Think about how these words sound when you read them from another part of the world:

 Senator Santorum: “I want to beat China. I want to go to war with China and make America the most attractive place in the world to do business.”

Governor Romney:  “China is stealing (the US’) intellectual property, hacking into our computers, artificially lowering their prices and killing American jobs. [The Chinese] are smiling all the way to the bank….and taking our future.”

President Obama: “Our workers are the most productive on earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you—Americans will always win.”

I get it. You won’t get elected in this country by saying, “Alright my fellow Americans. We had our time being superpower. Let’s take a back seat for awhile and let China have a turn.”

But do these guys remember that 6.7 billion people are listening and not applauding? Okay—only a fraction of that number actually give a rip about what’s being said by these men but plenty outside the U.S. are paying attention.

I’ve spent most of the past couple months outside the U.S. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had so many conversations with individuals who have asked me why the U.S. is in denial that we’re moving into the global era? One thoughtful friend said, “It feels like there’s a resurgence of the ‘Us vs. Them’ rhetoric going on in the U.S.”

I don’t have a Pollyanna view that presumes China just wants what’s best for us. Nor am I convinced that a congenial summit sipping tea with Iranian leaders will make everything better. But do we have to resort to the other extreme?

Recently one of my daughters hated her new haircut. In trying to console her, I said, “I think it looks great. You’re so beautiful.” She replied as only an adolescent can: “You have to say that. You’re my dad.”

For the record, I really do think her haircut looked great. But she raised a fair point. Is what’s being said truly what these men believe or is it simply what they knew they “need” to say to get elected. So maybe my beef is most with the rest of us who cheer and applaud when we hear these “U.S. is best” mantras without pushing for a third way.

Call me a hopeless idealist but can’t we handle a leader who talks to us like “grown ups”. Something like, “Look. The world has changed. The days of one superpower are over. But let’s use our influence and creativity to be the world’s finest global broker. We must continue to attend to our interests and needs. But if we take on a posture of openness, collaboration, and even compromise, we may regain a reputation for innovation and as a place where people from all over the world can share a common dream. Let’s work with China to understand their best contribution. And with Germany…and Panama…and Russia…”

I’m proving why I should never run for office. But I’m unwilling to give up the wild idea that maybe…just maybe, each one of us can be an influence in our circles to tone down the “Us vs. Them” rhetoric, and creatively think about solutions that allow us to simultaneously care for our “own” while also having an eye on what’s best for our global community.


Politics of China Bashing

davidlivermore | November 4th, 2010 1 Comment


As if you couldn’t tell, we just survived (?!) another election in the U.S. The craziness of it all is enough to drive anyone nutty. But one thing that continues to boggle my mind is the way involvement in global markets becomes the attack du jour on so many American political ads. Of course China tops the list. If you want to really start a scandal, run an ad about how your opponent was a business owner who set up a plant in China!

The sound bytes go something like this: “Did you know she outsourced jobs to China?” “Why does your senator have investments in a Chinese bank?”

I’m not really perplexed by the strategy. I get the argument. After all, I live in Michigan, pretty much the worst economy in the union. “Globalization” is a four-letter word for many people in this state because of the way its taken jobs from workers here and given them to people who can be paid 10 percent as much. I’m not insensitive to the heartache and burden this has caused to many U.S. families nor do I feel good about a system that exploits people in developing nations simply to increase profit margins for a few here.

But it’s so much more complex than that. Declaring global trade as “good” or “bad” is living in denial of the flat world in which we live. Lost in these advertising quips is the needed debate and conversation about the complexities of global trade. No political party has a monopoly on this. I saw it everywhere during this recent election season.

Nearly all of us wear clothes and buy products made and produced in China. Our retirement plans include funds invested globally. We produce and export ideas, products, and services to the world and increasingly they’re doing so with us. Is that so evil? Citizens and business leaders need to insist that government leaders and politicians work with the business community to think carefully about this and the real issues related to fair trade policies.

Let’s reject the isolationism and xenophobia implied by this political strategy. We live in a global world. There’s no going back. And while there are challenges that need to be regulated and addressed, our global interconnectivity also brings several opportunities. Globally, 70 million people joined the middle class last year, most of whom are in India and China. Many of these individuals are working for multinational companies that have hired them. An additional 1 billion individuals are expected to join the middle class in the next 10 years. In turn, these individuals enjoy a better quality of life, contribute to their societies, and purchase products and services offered by the companies that reach out to them.

Emerging markets are not simply the competition to be feared. They represent an amazing opportunity. The knots binding our global economies together cannot be untied—especially between the U.S. and China. So let’s move beyond the toxic rhetoric and put our energy toward making the most of our globalized world for everyone involved. Leading with cultural intelligence requires that we see the world for what it is—a complex place of which we’re all part—and a place that requires vision, adaptability, and innovation to make the most of the opportunities in store for everyone!

Is the “Ugly Chinese” replacing the “Ugly American”?

davidlivermore | March 29th, 2010 1 Comment


As an American who writes and consults on issues related to cultural intelligence, I’ll readily admit we Americans continue to earn the title “Ugly American” fair and square. Mind you, most American travelers I meet don’t intentionally try to come off as the nagging label portrays.

But listen to the conversations for long and the “U.S. is best” assumptions bleed through. Whether it’s the rolling of the eyes during the “clearly inadequate” security screenings done at various international airports or the vocalized dismay that Europeans still haven’t learned to put ice in their Coke, the ugly reputation lives on.

But recently I’ve been in some fascinating conversations with some Asian colleagues and friends who feel like the Chinese are giving us a run for our money—and not only in becoming the economic superpower of the world but also in taking on the arrogant swagger that seems to inevitably accompany the position of superpower.

Many were miffed that China sent junior officials to the Copenhagen climate talks last December, one of whom allegedly shook his finger at President Obama to make it clear that no one would be telling China what to do. Then there’s the Google debacle, the sabotaged nuclear disarmament talks in New York, and their ongoing chastening of Viet Nam, Myanmar, and India over territorial disputes.

China has reason for confidence. The economic meltdown barely slowed them down. Yet simultaneous with their growing assertiveness lingers a quick deference to still being an underdeveloped economy unable to accept responsibility for global warming, putting pressure on Sudan and Iran, and other efforts we’ve come to expect of our global superpowers. The question many Asian neighbors are asking is whether China will use their growing prominence merely for self-interest or as a global broker on behalf of the rest of them.

The same question has been rightfully asked of the U.S. time and time again as we’ve gone about our alleged do-gooding in the world. China has a long way to go before they’ve outpaced us in arrogance and imperialism. But all indicators suggest their prominence on the global scene will continue to rise and all eyes are watching to see how they steward that role.

There’s little point in predicting much less thinking we can control how to interface with China. But any serious business manager needs to do more than simply nod to the reality of China’s growing prominence. Effective managers need to study China and learn the intricacies of trust building, negotiation, and collaboration with government officials and business leaders throughout China.

Doug Flint, CFO of banking giant, HSBC says,
If you were to go into any business forum in Europe and America and ask which country is going to be most important in the global environment in the next 25 years, I suspect that a vast majority would say China, and the second-highest number might say India. If you then ask how much do people in Europe and America understand about the history and culture of those countries, the answer would be a negligible amount.

Whatever you make of the Chinese response to their success, they’re an essential part of the future for all of us. Take the time to understand China. Your business depends on it.

Written for Management Issues

Why Google Shouldn’t Bully China

davidlivermore | January 24th, 2010 2 Comments


I applaud Google for saying “Enough” to censorship. I share their profound belief in making information and ideas accessible to people anywhere, everywhere; and especially to giving people voice whatever their lot in society. But I question the wisdom of their recent negotiations with China, which began with a “public announcement”.

Google’s commitment to transparency is noble and inspiring. CEO Eric Schmidt says, “We don’t want to keep secrets. So we decided to first make a public announcement and now we are having discussions with the Chinese government.” The problem is, this flies in the face of a core Chinese value—harmony and saving face.

Time and time again, it’s been ineffective to bully China by telling the world how wicked and evil they are. There are evil, conniving leaders in China. And there are good, virtuous leaders in China. The same goes for governmental leaders in the U.S., Haiti, and probably every country in the world. Many of China’s young, emerging leaders are among the strongest advocates for free speech but they’re also the first to stand up and defend their government when they hear Western businesses and leaders disparaging them.

It’s kind of like how it feels when you criticize someone in your family as compared to when someone else criticizes one of your family members. I’ll be the first to talk about some of my dad’s quirks but if you do so, look out. That’s my dad you’re talking about! Multiply this many times over in a collectivist society like China where saving face, protecting harmony, and being committed to your people is of utmost value.

I’ve done a lot work in China over the last few years so I appreciate the complexities of working effectively and respectfully in what’s now the second largest economy in the world. The complexities are even more challenging for a burgeoning, value-added company like Google. And admittedly, I only have what the media has reported to know what’s really gone on in Google’s attempted negotiations.

My larger interest is the tension we often experience when personal and organizational values conflict with another culture’s values (in this case, transparency and access vs. harmony). But perhaps we can view it like this: For Google to honor the Chinese value for harmony and saving face is not only important because it respects Chinese culture, but it’s also important because an approach that promotes harmony and saves face will also be the most effective way for Google to promote their own values of transparency and access.

We need to figure this out with any cross-cultural interaction but especially in learning how to work with the rising empire in the East. Just google “China” and see how many hits you get.