Chen Weihua

A lesson for this nation's rich and famous

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-04-27 07:32
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After taking a ride on the Miss Freedom ferry with 200 other passengers to Ellis Island in New York last week, legendary entrepreneur Lee Iacocca and business tycoon Peter Peterson were sitting on a hard bench near the gate, looking after every man and woman as they disembarked.

Both in their mid 80s, the two were the last to get off the ferry and walk to the Immigration Museum for the 2010 Ellis Island Family Heritage Awards ceremony.

While the ceremony, which featured celebrities such as rock icon Bruce Springsteen, is big news to Americans, what Iacocca and Peterson did on the ferry seems more newsworthy to Chinese.

Few of the rich and powerful in China would behave like Iacocca, one of the greatest CEOs in the world, and Peterson, the former United States commerce secretary who is better known among the Chinese as cofounder of the private equity firm Blackstone Group.

Those with fame and fortune in China would most likely be the first to come out of the passage boat, leaving everyone else waiting far behind.

If the ferry ride had taken place in China, a county government chief, a big corporate CEO or a rich businessman would have just chartered a luxury boat or at least lie down on a soft sofa in a private room.

It is the status symbol for those people in China. It is also probably why the rich and powerful have such a bad reputation.

For Iacocca and Peterson, their public respect comes from their extraordinary achievements as well as their humility.

During the ceremony, both were addressed by TV news anchor Brian Williams and others as Lee and Peter. In China, Peterson might well be called former Secretary Peterson and Iacocca as Chairman Iacocca since he is the chairman of the Ellis Island Foundation appointed by former US President Ronald Reagan.

During a recent interview with a Fortune 500 company CEO, a young man from the corporate communications office called his boss by his first name, Matt.

While this is nothing unusual in the American context, what the young man did would be deemed as disrespect in China. It may well cost him his job or his future in the company.

As more Chinese companies become global players, their corporate culture has not changed much. The senior management, which has a direct influence on cultivating such a culture, is often a major obstacle.

In one gathering, several of my friends said they have to address their big boss and the immediate supervisor by titles all the time, such as Chairman Li, General Manager Wang and Director Zhang.

Others described how as subordinates, he or she has to carry the laptop bag for the boss while traveling, although the boss is a young man in his 40s.

Still another talked about his boss' luxury office, which would undoubtedly overshadow the offices of many Fortune 500 CEOs, especially Silicon Valley CEOs still sitting in cubicles.

The best parking space, when I visited some of the US' most admired companies, is often decided by seniority rather than hierarchy, as is the case of most Chinese firms and government institutions.

All of my friends seem to agree on one thing: Their boss acts like a ruthless emperor and dislikes any debate. All he wants is obedience.

Most Chinese tend to think that American culture smacks of arrogance and that the Chinese culture is about restraint and humbleness.

While it might be true in some regards, it certainly does not apply to most of the rich and powerful in the country as well as the leaders of many Chinese enterprises.


(China Daily 04/27/2010 page8)