In appreciating the Chinese market Confucianism needs to be understood.
Confucius (552-479BC) was interested in creating societal order and harmony. He provided a moral guide and outline for good government that valued hierarchy, group orientation, age and tradition. His hierarchical values were imbedded in the family and in society as a whole.
This structure is very apparent in today’s China; the older generation command respect. Recently upon undertaking a focus group, I was perplexed by the behavior of a woman in her twenties. She was prepared to change her initial position in order to concur with an older participant. She subsequently explained that she wanted to be respectful towards a more senior individual. Clearly when conducting market research, strategies should be implemented to prevent this situation arising.
This, notwithstanding, China is changing rapidly. The one baby policy, resulting in the ‘little emperor syndrome,’ has seemingly flipped the script. Suddenly the old are rushing to meet the needs of the young – along with their invested dreams. The balance of power has undoubtedly shifted towards the youth.
Within a large company it is still a rarity to see anyone under the age of 30 in a high level position. There is no down to earth CEO chatting casually to a janitor on a first-name basis. Interesting to watch for how long this remains the case.
What’s changing less rapidly is the importance of status in terms of job, family background and overall wealth. This can be illustrated through the relationship between the expanding middle class and the diminishing lower class. Chinese waiters/waitresses will rarely enter into conversation with their customers – the boundaries of their discourse are rigid. This is a mutual arrangement. Chinese customers do not expect to enter into unnecessary conversations with those who are inferior.
In one sense, Confucianism could be seen as egalitarian. Clearly, this would not be equality in the Western sense, where everyone has a certain standing and opportunity within society. Instead, there’s parity within a social rank. Irrespective of where she sits in the ladder, each waitress will be treated the same.
Collectivism is an inherent aspect of a Confucian society. In order for Chinese society to run smoothly, for centuries, it has been necessary for the individual’s wishes to be disregarded in favor of the greater good; that is of the family, community, and nation in general. This is very apparent in the education system. As an ex-teacher I have witnessed how the emphasis was always on providing the information for the students and expecting them to and recite it. Analysis and personal opinion were not encouraged. Chinese exams continue to reward those with the best memory.
Clearly Confucianism is still highly relevant in today’s China and should be taken into account when conducting market research in China.