Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Thin-skinned countries, and why foreigners can't win in China

Why Foreigners Can't Win in China. By WARREN KOZAK
A 1980s swimming race and its lessons for the likes of Google.WSJ, Mar 31, 2010

Nothing in China is ever as it seems—at least for an outsider. I lived there in the mid-1980s while I was working as a journalist. Throughout that period, every time something of consequence occurred there would be a three-day gestation period before all of the pieces fell together and I understood what actually had happened. Back then, I blamed this time lag on cultural differences. In retrospect, it also involved the vast chasm between someone raised in a free society and those used to a totalitarian one.

Google is the first entity—business or government—to square off against the emerging Asian power. On the surface, it's a battle over censorship. But it's important to keep in mind that in China nothing is evident on the surface and reality can reveal itself in the strangest ways. It certainly did for me.

One summer afternoon in 1985, posters went up in my neighborhood announcing a "friendly swimming competition." There were never enough opportunities to really mix with my Chinese neighbors: We would smile at each other and exchange greetings, but it rarely went beyond that. So I accepted any chance that came along.

Unlike most Western journalists in China at that time, I lived in a Chinese neighborhood in a typical Chinese apartment. Granted, the seven other British and American families in the unit were all sequestered together in one section of the building with our own entrance. But everyone around us was Chinese, which made us feel like we actually lived in China.

When the day of the swimming competition arrived one warm Sunday in July, I walked over to the local pool with all of my neighbors. I remember it as one of the more pleasant afternoons that summer, with a lot of laughing and kidding around.

I have never been much of an athlete, but I was on the swim team in high school so I thought there was a chance I might not embarrass myself. I had signed up for three events and to my surprise I managed to win all three races. Prizes were even given out, which I promptly passed on to my Chinese friends. I remember one was a bottle of perfume.

But over the next two weeks, I noticed something that should have registered with me immediately. One day at lunch I was walking with a colleague on the other side of town when some strangers pointed to me using an unfamiliar word: yo yung. I asked him what they were saying and he said "swimmer—they are calling you 'the swimmer.'" By that point, I had already forgotten about the event, but I laughed and explained my great triumph two weeks earlier.

It was around that same time that a Chinese coworker approached me and told me that I had been invited to another swimming competition. This time, it was just me. I felt flattered and I accepted.

I arrived at a different pool with an American friend and a Chinese colleague. We didn't know anyone, and it was very hot. The longer I waited for my race to be called the more uncomfortable I felt in the heat. Finally, I was told to step up to the starting block.

When the starter's pistol rang out, I dove in and quickly realized I wasn't going to lead this time. I did my best to keep up, but I came in dead last. Worse, I was so exhausted I could barely get out of the pool. My American friend said she had never seen such fast swimmers in her life.

I didn't need the three-day incubation period to figure this one out. I had committed an offense two weeks earlier by winning three races, and for this I had to be put in my place. The second race was a setup. As punishments go, this one was relatively benign. I laughed it off because the whole exercise struck me as juvenile. I couldn't imagine anyone in the U.S. going to such lengths to teach a foreigner a lesson in humility. But dismissing it was my mistake: Winning a race was anything but inconsequential to my hosts.

If this minor insult caught the attention of some local party functionary, it's safe to assume that everything from emails to Web surfing does not go unnoticed today. Google has taken a bold step by standing up to this behemoth. Perhaps only Google has the size and strength to do this. It also could make good business sense—if China, Russia or any other country were to use a dissident's email to prosecute and even execute him, it would be a disaster for any search engine. Either way, Google should be commended.

Yet the lesson here goes beyond the Internet and China. Any American doing business abroad should keep something in mind. Americans tend to walk with confidence—not arrogance, confidence—down foreign streets. It's a particular quirk in our national character and it derives, I believe, from our unusually successful history and our power. Some countries are considerably more thin-skinned and don't always view that confidence, history or power in a positive light, even when they have been its beneficiaries.

When I finally got out of the pool that afternoon, one Chinese man watching the race offered his observation: "You were very good," he said with a smile. "They were just better."

Mr. Kozak is the author of "LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay" (Regnery, 2009).