As an international management program continually studying the history, business, and current events of other countries, it should come as no surprise that we cover China extensively under these topics. Recently I came across a TED Talk entitled “A Tale of Two Political Systems” by Eric Li which caused me to reassess some of the political assumptions I had about China. Below I give my response to this TED Talk (found here) which by no means represents the attitudes or opinions of everyone involved in the MIM program.
Eric Li’s talk began with the juxtaposition of the two political systems of China and the US. He recounts that while growing up in China, he was continually taught a metanarrative that all human societies are in a political and social linear progression which ends with communism. It follows the common struggle wherein good overcomes evil and everything reaches utopia at the end. When Li came to school in the US, he encountered a different metanarrative, still as passionate, ingrained and widespread as the one he grew up knowing, but this one centered on democracy and capitalism. But the same basic premise is reached- a political and social linear regression that ends with the “correct” system.
Of course both systems have various advantages and disadvantages, but the establishment of a metanarrative for the right system is not the issue. The point of Eric Li’s talk was simply that people should acknowledge multiple political systems and realize that while certain things work in one demographic, it may not work as well within others. He established that blindingly following metanarratives was the actual brick wall which impedes our understanding of others from different backgrounds. It is the same with cultural differences; unless we are able to stand aside from the metanarratives we become accustomed to, it is very difficult to see things from another’s perspective.
This is something we have seen over and over again in the MIM program through our various classes. Last fall my cohort took an Intercultural Communications Class in which we all participated in an Intercultural Development Inventory test, which analyzes an individual’s cultural awareness. Based on the results each person is placed on a continuum from monocultural mindsets to intercultural/global mindsets. At the low end of the spectrum people recognize observable cultural differences, but do not key in on high level differences. People with more intercultural mindsets will have a deep enough understanding to be able to shift their cultural orientation and view things from this culture’s point of view. When I took this test my cultural orientation was in the middle, accepting of cultural similarities and differences, but not quite able to understand things from a different cultural perspective.
Even with this in mind, it came as a surprise when I realized I had been following the democracy metanarrative without even thinking about it. I had assumed that democracy was the last political state, at least until something more advanced could be formulated, and that most world societies would eventually follow that model. In doing so, I had completely shut down my cultural knowledge and simply assumed that one system was universal. Limiting myself in this way I was never provoked to learn more about other political systems aside from broad themes, which seems practically akin to stereotyping.
Li’s talk was fascinating in that it debunked quite a few broad stereotypes of China’s political system, showing instead that recent political history has been adaptable and based on a meritocracy. He acknowledged that the system was imperfect facing widespread corruption, however, this was not a byproduct of the system itself. Li also stressed that it was not an “exportable” system, but merely one which works for China. There are numerous ways for accomplishing the same problems, but in order to appreciate these paths the metanarratives must be recognized and seen in a cultural context. As Li stated: “Let us draw to a close this era of meta-narratives… Let universality make way for plurality. Perhaps a more interesting age is upon us.”
Juli Tejadilla is a full-time student in the Masters of International Management program. She previously graduated with two Bachelor of Arts in Marketing and Studio Art from Linfield College. While her interest in international business began as an undergraduate student, she has been traveling around the world since she was nine months old. Her travels have taken her all across Western Europe, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and most recently to Japan, China, and Vietnam. She hopes through the MIM program to learn key insights to conduct business internationally and to establish herself as a global citizen.