Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance in China

Geert Hofstede who was a professor of Maastricht University in Netherlands offers the theory of five dimensions to understanding the range of cultural differences. Among them, I am going to deal with two dimensions; power distance and uncertainty avoidance in China.

First, power distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.

Small power distances cultures believe in the importance of minimizing social or class inequalities, questioning or challenging authority figures, reducing hierarchical organizational structures, and using power only for legitimate purposes. On the other hand, cultures that prefer large power distances believe that each person has a rightful and protected place in the social order, that the actions of authorities should not be challenged or questioned, that hierarchy and inequality are appropriate and beneficial.

China belongs to high power distance culture. The average of PDI (Power Distance Index) of Asian countries is 64, but the PDI of China is 80. That is, inequalities among people are acceptable. The subordinate-superior relationship tends to be polarized and there is not defense against power abuse by superiors.

In the Chinese business world, every single member in Chinese companies is willing to follow office regulation and work guidelines made by the owner. Employees do not want to challenge their senior workers or supervisors and just want to obey the decisions or orders their superiors make. That is, the order of rank is anchored firmly and Chinese workers do not want to insubordinate occupational hierarchy.

In Chinese culture, rank is extremely important in business relationship and you must keep rank differences while communicating. For example, when you go to a place where Chinese business partners are gathering, you have to find someone of higher rank and greet to them first. Plus, when meal is ready, you cannot start eating before the highest person start.

Second, uncertainty avoidance is the extent to which the culture feels threatened by ambiguous, unknown situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these. The extent is reflected in the UAI (Uncertainty Avoidance Index) score.

High uncertainty avoidance cultures tend to be worried about the future. They have high levels of anxiety and are highly resistant to change. Therefore, these cultures develop many rules to control social behaviors. On the other hand, low uncertainty avoidance cultures tend to live day to day, and they are more willing to accept change and take risks. Conflict and competition are natural, dissent is acceptable, deviance is not threatening, and individual achievement is regarded as beneficial. Thus, these cultures need few rules to control social behaviors.

China is a high uncertainty avoidance country. Managers are more controlling, less approachable, and less likely to delegate to subordinates than their low-avoidance counterparts. That is, managers in China do not place as much trust in their employees as managers in other countries like U.S., France, or Sweden. Chinese government has usually established very strict legislations to control social behaviors. The most well known law is public execution.

In business world, Chinese people usually don’t like doing business with companies they don’t know and consider “relationship” among various parties as one of the most important factors in business. However, the “relationship” is not based on money. If you want to establish close relationship with Chinese businessmen, you have to foster understanding and emotional bonds. Frequent contact is the best way. When you and your Chinese business partners can feel friendship each other, they feel obligated to do business with their friends first. Here is another way for making good “relationship”. When Chinese visit their business partners, they usualy bring gifts such as wine, cigarettes and the like. If you visit your Chinese business partners with empty hands, you would not give good impression to them.


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