Posted by: David Stewart | September 21, 2008

When worlds collide

“You Americans don't save any money. Why?”

The question came over a dinner in Beijing, and it came in the context of differences between our respective countries.

My Chinese friend was seeing this lack of personal savings as a systemic cause of economic weakness in the US, dollar weakness, etc. “You may be right,” I responded, “but let me tell you what we try to practice.” And I proceeded to describe our family's practice of giving 10% of our gross to charity, saving 10% for retirement and 10% for general savings. Within this framework, we try to live within our means and pay off our credit cards each month, although admittedly we don't always succeed.

Now get this: the question had come in response to some joking from us Americans at the lack of openness of the Chinese government to criticism. For example, this blog is not visible to average people in China, because contents are blocked by the Great Firewall of China.

It makes me wonder – is this the most fundamental values mismatch between our peoples?

In China, wealth is highly valued. This comes primarily from a deep-seated drive to provide for the next generation. The best thing that a Chinese person can do is leave a name, a legacy for ones children. Saving money and passing it on to them is a key way to achieve this. Chinese will sacrifice all sense of personal freedom or openness to protect this basic value.

In the US, we primarily value freedom. We treat it as the most basic dogma that freedom is the most cherished and valuable commodity in life. We're willing to die for our freedom, even willing to sacrifice financial gain for freedom. We naturally assume everyone has the same value.

So it's not surprising that the Chinese would shake their heads and tut-tut our lack of savings while we do the same about their lack of freedom. It really comes down to what you value most.


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