Outgoing Chinese president Hu Jintao gave a farewell speech last week. It was 101 minutes long and titled, "Firmly march on the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics and strive to complete the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects."
You're either laughing, because that is a ridiculous title for a speech, or you're nodding, because you know something about Chinese culture, and you know that's just how Chinese leaders communicate.
But what do you care how the Chinese, or any other Asian leaders communicate? It's not their speeches that you have to lisen to all the time.
But increasingly, they care. While I was in Washington last month, I addressed a class of a couple dozen mid-level government officials from an Asian nation whose president has decided that one way the nation will prosper in the global economy is by delivering whiz-bang speeches that captivate international audiences. All these officials were at a Washington university to learn about how to fashion Western-style rhetoric.
The challenge is not subtle. I visited China in 2005 and reported "a basic difference in communication styles that needs to be ironed into some kind of a compromise."
While Western writers struggle to keep clichés and common idioms out of their work, Chinese writers prove their mastery by peppering their prose with as many familiar phrases as possible. Thus, reading Chinese prose or listening to Chinese speakers, we are liable to hear an intractable problem stiffly compared to “a wet blanket on a long-suffering yak,” a worrier equated with “an ant on a hot stove” and a superfluous detail referred to as “drawing legs on a snake.”
And English-speaking Chinese show respect for English-speaking audiences by using a sometimes-hilarious abundance of English colloquialisms. In Lijiang, a tour guide from the government-owned China International Tour Service spoke clear English, but unwittingly had the group chuckling as he referred to his wife as “my better half,” his 93-year-old grandmother as “no spring chicken,” the local police as “stuffed shirts,” disastrous and deadly summer flooding in China as “par for the course” and hotel prices as “highway robbery” (because “you pay through the nose”).
Upon leaving the tour group one evening in LiJiang, he told one member of our group to “sleep like a log” and another to “sleep tight, and don’t let the bed bugs bite.”
This tour guide clung to his English idioms like a drunk to a lamppost!
If China is going to transform itself and its services into a prime-time player in the global economy—rather than merely the massive low-cost provider it is now—the Chinese will have to at least understand the Western rhetorical ethic, and probably adapt to it to a large extent.
Which, of course, is a preposterously ethnocentric thing to say.
Okay, then you tell me: How should leaders in the East go about enrapturing audiences in the West? The problem, it seems to me, is like biting a basketball ...