Lost in Translation

March 17, 2009

The sign over the restaurant in Beijing listed its name in two languages, Mandarin and English. Of course, I couldn’t read the Mandarin name. I could easily read the unfortunate English name, however: “Meat Patties Explode the Stomach”. The mistranslation got me thinking more deeply about what else is sometimes lost in translation between two cultures.

I spent the last 10 days in China on a Darden-sponsored Global Business Experience (GBE). These trips are available to both First Year and Second Year Darden Students, award course credit (which is helpful in lessening the load during the rest of second year), and, most importantly, offer an opportunity to explore another country from a cultural, social, and economic perspective.

China is a developing country. 1.3 billion people live in China, with about 40% living in the urban areas and the remainder scratching out a living in the countryside further west. But that is changing fast. One startling figure we heard on the trip is that 500 million people are expected to move from the country to the cities in China by 2020 in search of better opportunities. Even in this downturned economy, where China’s exports (which drive the economy) dropped by 20% to the US and 40% to Japan, the nation is still projected to reach a target of 6-8% GDP growth. This is relatively slow in a nation boasting up to 14% growth in recent years, but still represents one of the few major world economies not currently sinking into recession. The government recently enacted a stimulus plan worth more than $500 billion to help sustain growth.

Of course, the China model will have to change… it’s as unsustainable as America’s consumer-driven economy. The Chinese save like crazy, largely owing to a lack of social safety nets and a lack of mature capital markets in which to invest. These savings are piled into government-owned banks, which then use the capital to invest in US Treasuries. We spend the funds loaned to us here in America to help stimulate our economy. Our consumers buy billions each year in goods from China. This cycle is not sustainable, and it’s not particularly helpful to either country. China is stuck producing goods low on the value chain (even technology manufacturing is typically outsourced work where the biggest value added parts, such as processors and software, are actually produced in the US), and earning low margins while polluting their environment, utilizing cheap labor, and using their natural resources. The cheap labor is no longer among the world’s cheapest… rising wages and benefits are pushing more of the lowest value-added work to even lower cost nations in south Asia. The US, of course, cannot keep borrowing from China’s savers to buy imports, relying on some future value that may or not be realized in order to repay our debts.

However, my feeling during the trip, and particularly during the visits to Cheung Kong Business School, one of Darden’s partner schools in Shanghai, was that this dysfunctional relationship is recongized by the Chinese government, and that they very much want to do something to fix it. They are anxiously seeking ways to stimulate domestic consumption, and are working to improve the regulation and transparency of their fledgling capital markets. Their businesses are looking to move down the value chain to sales and marketing and up the value chain to product development and design; Lenovo is a great example of a Chinese company that has successfully done this with their continued successful perpetuation of the Think brand they acquired from IBM.

What is probably lost in translation on our side of the pond is perhaps just as embarrasing as the “Meat Patty” restaurant sign. In America, we tend to think rather arrogantly of our system of government as universally best. I love my country, served her honorably, and think she is still the shining city on the hill, the beacon of hope and freedom to which all men and women can aspire. However, I think we’re generally naiive in thinking that we’ve cracked the governing code somehow, that what works so well for us would work just as well everywhere else. I saw the consequences of this hubris first hand during my tours in Iraq, where we attempted for several years to compel the Iraqis to impose a Jeffersonian-style democracy on their people, virtually ignoring the pre-existing tribal power structures that had been in place and functioning successfully for thousands of years. We watched as a dysfunctional central government bickered and toiled while the country burned down around and inside the capital, and we shed blood to protect a democracy that could not hope to succeed among a people who had neither asked for it or desired it in any way. During my second tour, great reconciliation was achieved as the tribal leaders were finally engaged and brought into the national conversation; their conversion spelled the beginning of the end for Al Qaeida in Iraq and their participation in the recent national elections indicated the first true national legitimacy the government had earned. It is this, and no surge of troops, most responsible for the recent success in Iraq. This was not a repudiation of democracy, but rather a recognition that democracy is not portable; to be successful, it will not look the same in two completely different civilizations. Democracy must reconcile itself with culture, not the other way around.

I think this is the case in China, too. Though still governed by the Communist Party, this title really holds true in name only. Civil liberties, though still lacking by American standards, have expanded significantly in China and will continue to expand as long as the nation can support it without threatnening its own security. International criticism rages on about China’s dealing with Tibet and Taiwan, and much of this criticism is of merit, but every year progress is made toward an honest and respectful dialogue on how to best settle these complex issues.

China, I learned during my visit, is without a doubt a capitalist nation. The remnants of a state-driven society remain (state-owned enterprises continune to exist though their prominence is slowly receding), but the people remain incredibly individualistic, driven by their own ambition and their desire to improve their lot in life. Their discipline and capacity for education is astounding. Entire cities drawfing America’s oldest and greatest cities have risen in a decade, filled with modern amenities and infrastructure.

America’s bottom-up approach to governance works well for us, our mature economy is well-supported by a government that refreshes itself every 4 years. But in China, where the economy and the social systems being put in place now rival that of America’s reconstruction after the civil war, longer term planning is more prudent to ensure sustainable and cleaner growth that provides  maximum equality of opportunity to everyone, and this lends itself to China’s top-down approach to governance… for now. As China continues to mature economically, we can only hope to enjoy its historical and beautiful culture while taking solace in its gradual movement toward a more open and inspiring democracy.

6 Responses to “Lost in Translation”

  1. Zoe said

    Great, thoughtful post. Thank you.

    Not having participated on a GBE myself, I was wondering how much of your insight was derived from Darden-organized meetings and how much did you absorb just being in China.

  2. Greg Little said

    I like (and agree with) most of your views in this post. I find it very interesting how different the views of those who have actually studied about and visited China are from mainstream America. Though China is not without it’s problems (and growing pains as it becomes more relevant on the global stage), I think that the Chinese government seeks a [very] slow transition towards a more democratic model. It’s probably safe to say that moving too fast would probably result in anarchy. In such a large and populous country (where most people don’t share a native tongue) with fairly autonomous provinces, change will need to occur very subtly.

    — I was just in China last fall, and enjoyed it very much. I want to go on the GBE next year (I’ll be FY in the fall), and then do an exchange with CEIBS my second year. Do you have any suggestions or insights? —

  3. Caroline said

    As you may have seen this weekend, your blog has been nominated for consideration in this year’s Clear Admit Best of Blogging awards. Congratulations! If this is news to you, feel free to visit the nominee announcement post at http://blog.clearadmit.com/2009/04/best-of-blogging-nominees-2008-2009/ for a bit more information.

    By design, the BoB results are based largely on the input of the nominees themselves, so we’d would love to have your opinion as we compile the ranking. To receive your ballot simply contact us at bob@clearadmit.com. Ballots are due by April 24th, so don’t delay!

  4. Uma said


    This is an excellent blog! Very well written.

    Is there any way I can get in touch with you?

    Keep blogging,


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