Cultural responses to the coronavirus | An example from China

Since the coronavirus spread outside the Chinese borders it has become a pandemic. As a result, it has demanded the attention and immediate action of almost every country in the world. How countries deal with a crisis like this differs per country and per culture.

When you look more closely at the nature of the governments’ policies, the ways in which they are communicated to the public and the transparency of the communication, it becomes clear that these approaches are all culturally determined. 

How does your country deal with the government’s measures and approaches to COVID-19?

This week we will discuss the effects of cultural dimensions on the corona crisis in China. A special thanks to our sinologist and trainer Lilian, who co-created this article.

China – Mixed messages from the top 

Wuhan, where it all started

At the beginning of the year, the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan city. The country proved to be swift and skillful when putting virtually the whole country into lock-down. The Chinese government poured billions into society to build a number of new emergency hospitals. They also developed technologies that could aid detection of the virus and help control mass surveillance.

Strict measures 

No one (depending on region or city) was allowed to leave their homes. If someone was detected as having the virus, the whole apartment building could be cordoned off. Tests, travel history, temperatures, health checks and the use of contact tracing technology were used to systematically find and isolate infected people. 

Culture and corona. China responds to corona by detecting fever.

Although this is an intrusive approach, there was an exceptionally high degree of understanding and acceptance of such measures (WHO) by the population. A degree of acceptance that cannot be as easily achieved in all cultures, as we will see in the article about America next week.

The effect of hierarchy and power

Before the lock-down was in place, several doctors in Wuhan had already sounded alarm bells that something was seriously wrong. Rather than paying attention to their warnings, local leaders arrested them and made them publicly admit to having spread false rumors. 

When one of these doctors (Doctor Li Wenliang) died as a result of the virus, Chinese anger about the cover up started to spill over onto social media. 

The connection with cultural dimensions

China has a strong collectivist culture which means that people have a preference for a tightly-knit framework in society. Individuals expect their relatives or members of a particular in-group to look after them and they provide their unquestioning loyalty in return (Hofstede). 

In times like these, you can clearly see the preference of the Chinese by looking at the high rate of acceptance and obedience to the rules and measures imposed by the government. You can also see it in the nature of the measures taken; the emphasis is less on the individuals’ autonomy or privacy and more focused towards the greater good of a larger group. 

China scores high on power distance

Furthermore, it is visible that the Chinese exhibit the cultural dimension of power distance to a considerable degree. They accept the hierarchical order in which everybody has a place. More specifically, they accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. However, when the Chinese believe something is not done in the best interest of the population, they will speak up.

Hierarchy or power distance is a cultural dimension on which China scores highly. Influence of hierarchy and power on the discovery of corona.

The high degree of power distance is clearly shown by the fact that Doctor Li Wenliang was arrested and forced to publicly admit to spreading false rumors. However, when the government did not listen to the warnings of the doctor(s) and this information came out, people reacted with anger. This reaction is something that you would not readily expect in a collectivist society that places a high value on hierarchy. 

Interestingly, even though Chinese culture is characterized by a high degree of power, the government responded by issuing a formal apology to the relatives of Li Wenliang. This example indicates the complexity of culture and shows that numerous factors can have an impact which can lead to different behavior than you might expect. 

Become a cultural expert yourself

Would you like to know more about effective behaviour in international business settings like China? Check our country or expat courses here.

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