The U.S.-China Relationship: A Clash of Cultures

by Patricia Zanini-Graca

Lately, the relationship between the United States and China is among the top ten most newsworthy topics due to their escalating trade war. However, the economic conflict between the two countries has a cultural aspect. International relations scholar Samuel Huntington foresaw the rise of cultural conflicts when he wrote The Clash of Civilizations? in the 1990’s. Huntington’s model is a response to Fukuyama’s theory at The End of History?, in which the universalization of Western liberal democracy is the final form of human government. In contrast to Fukuyama, Huntington’s model emphasizes cultural differences. He separates the world’s nations into eight groups accordingly to their cultural similarities: Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, Western, Latin America and Africa. His main argument is that culture shapes the patterns of conflict, bringing nations together, or breaking them apart. Thus, the most significant distinctions among people are not ideological, political, or economic, they are cultural. Hungtington’s theory highlights that all nations fight for survival and economic power. Despite the various religions, traditions, and cultures prevalent within a region, states make alliances with other nations to guarantee their security and economic growth. When alliances are no longer beneficial for one of the parties, the division is imminent. Congruent to The Clash of Civilizations?, three years later, Huntington wrote The West: Unique, Not Universal, in which he posits that Western cultural hegemony based on democracy only strengthens non-Western civilizations desire to look to resurge their cultural origins.

Chinese collectivist culture emphasizes teamwork, family and group goals above individual needs or desires. Contrastly, the U.S. values individual achievements. For Americans, freedom of choice, personal autonomy, and self-fulfillment are signs of independence. Thus, if you achieve something, it is because of you. In China, people enjoy spending time in groups. Wherever there is a park, there will be a group of people together, either dancing, singing, or practicing sports. It is rooted in their culture for Chinese people to take care of the elderly. Younger people often live with the elderly and treat them with enormous respect and admiration. Chinese collectivism is so strong that wherever they migrate to, they will always strengthen bonds with other Chinese people. In all major cities in the world, you will find Chinatown streets and districts, where Chinese is spoken, and Chinese people share their customs and habits. That being said, Chinese people from private and public sectors will fight back “at any cost” against further negative trade action to defend their families, their country, and their civilization. The Chinese are prepared to get stronger to fight the trade war.

Chinese communication differs from the U.S. as well. Chinese people normally do not look or stare at people they are talking to. Eye contact is not considered essential to social interaction and is instead often considered inappropriate. Too much eye contact can be interpreted as a sign of disrespect whereas Americans use eye contact and direct communication. They are very straightforward, time is money and after all, there is no free lunch in Uncle Sam’s country. It is also important to think before you speak with the Chinese since it shows respect and appreciation. Chinese communication style is indirect, while American is very direct which causes the Chinese to analyze verbal and non-verbal communication signs. They interpret all the messages that are not explicit. Americans focus only on verbal communication thus missing nuances. Chinese President Xi Jiping understands the verbal and non-verbal communication from the current U.S. administration, despite Chinese censorship has blocked Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube since 2016. In response to the U.S. trade attacks, China has been effective and fast. Under China’s burgeoning soft and hard power, the U.S. should rethink its ways of communicating.

When it comes to negotiating style, the Chinese give great importance to relationships. If you plan to negotiate with the Chinese, first you need to socialize. Colleagues and business contacts tend to socialize, building upon relationships and trust, which are essential before doing business with the Chinese. For them, business is a consequence of the relationship. On the other hand, Americans would rather keep work and personal life separate, so they are less likely to socialize with their colleagues outside work. Although happy hours are part of American life, Americans tend to socialize more with friends. When negotiating Americans give little attention to a relationship, they emphasize the ends more than the means, thus highlighting the results and not the process. Emotions, relationships, and optimism are off the table. Different from the U.S. current president, Xi would never jeopardize the U.S.-China relationship. Even though both administrations consider that they are defending their people and their national interests, for China relationships matter. The United States needs to come to terms with the great strategic question of our time: is China an enemy or a friend? Henry Kissinger, American diplomat would have answered this question saying that, “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”

In short, the cultural differences can accelerate the current trade war between the U.S. and China. These differences do not make either culture better or worse, only different. I agree with Huntington when he says that Western hegemony is flawed.. The U.S. tries to impose its values onto other countries, without taking into consideration othercultures. Besides, the U.S. is more concerned in keeping its hegemony, than cooperating with other countries, merging forces, and becoming stronger. Hegemony is also important to the U.S. since it is popular worldwide as a beacon of democracy and freedom. For the success of the U.S.-China relationship, there are certain things that need attention. First, the United States needs to rejuvenate itself in the same way that China has been doing. Second, the U.S. needs to work in cooperation with China as equal partners. Lastly, the U.S. needs to learn from its mistakes as China has been doing for the past 100 years. I hope that the East (China) and the West (the U.S.), find mutual understanding based on their common interests. If not, the tensions in U.S.-China relations based on their cultural differences will intensify and threaten the world order. The preservation of the U.S.-China relationship depends on this. The outcome of this clash of cultures and self-image is important. Besides, the hard and soft power confrontation between the U.S. and China has all the makings of a global trade war where both countries seem to be willing to fight tooth and nail to dominate and shape the international order. A clash may be inevitable.

This blog post was written by Patricia Zanini Graca. Patricia is a first-year graduate student at Seton Hall’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Patricia graduated in Business Administration and she holds an MBA in Business and Marketing. Patricia is a UN Digital Representative at the Center for UN and Global Governance Studies, a Social Media Associate at the Journal of Diplomacy, and the director of International Affairs at the Graduate Diplomacy Council. She specializes in International Organizations and Global Negotiations & Conflict Management. 



One thought on “The U.S.-China Relationship: A Clash of Cultures

  • Tania Heck

    Very well done!
    I enjoyed a lot your cultural aspects comparison.


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