Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: July, 2014

The language of Confucius

Learning Chinese has become the latest fashion in the Western world. Even public school systems want to teach it. High enrollment in courses is boasted about by educational bureaucrats and teachers. Whether Western youngsters who take these courses in such large numbers will actually learn the language to any real level of proficiency remains to be seen.

I have seen such fashions come and go over the years in Canada – English Canada, to be precise – and I have always had to wonder: if the kids have so much trouble learning French, a related language, how are they going to learn Chinese or Japanese, an exotic challenge in comparison? Well, at least the enshrinement of Chinese in the school curriculum is of some use to the Chinese-Canadian community, enabling them to keep up their language among the younger generation. This is far cry from the days when you could hear elementary teachers trying to badger Chinese parents to stop speaking Chinese at home so the kids would learn English. We seem to have come a long way.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government’s pet soft-power project, the Confucius institutes, are a growing phenomenon. The institutes establish themselves in universities, colleges and school systems. Cash-strapped institutions are on the whole keen to take the money and support offered, and set up a Confucius institute on campus. There are now 350 of them around the world. It has all the makings of a new industry – though it’s only a drop in the bucket compared to the ESL industry in Asia.

Bashing Confucius institutes seems to have become an industry too. There is never any shortage of academics and commentators to condemn the institutes as a sinister plot by the Chinese to take over the world.

Shying away from all the controversy, some universities and other partners that were keen at the outset have backed off. In Canada, one could mention McMaster University and the Toronto School Board. Canadian university professors have condemned the institutes too, in the name of “academic freedom” and the precedence taken by “official propaganda” over “scholarly review” (though the latter can be as tyrannical a force for group-think as the former).

There is a lot of cold-war hysteria going on: fears of spying, for one thing, or mind control, and the creation of sinister fifth columns in the shadow of the hammer and sickle.

This has to raise a smile. Do other governments not use cultural and language institutes to make themselves look good and even have a listening post in each foreign country? It sounds like a smart thing for them to do. It even sounds like a good idea for both East and West. Not a perfect idea, but one that can be improved on with experience. If we could get past the hysteria, it might just turn out to be a win-win situation.


Two cultures – sort of – again

C.P. Snow talked about “the two cultures” and made the phrase famous. He was not talking about national or ethnic cultures, of course, but about educational traditions in the West – the literary tradition and the modern scientific tradition. People who belonged to one did not usually belong to the other, and they did not talk to one another, he found. But Snow also thought that the scientists and technicians had “the future in their bones” and that the whole world was going to take the scientific and technical path and industrialize in a matter of a few years. This was in 1959. It didn’t happen then – Snow was too optimistic – but it seems to be happening now.

Snow was not much interested in national or ethnic cultures. He assumed that industrialization and technology could happen anywhere. He seems to have thought that whereas the literary “culture” he described is national and culture-bound (in our sense), the scientific and technical “culture” is not.

Snow was partly right, and partly mistaken. The scientific and technical “culture” he spoke of is Western. It grew up in Western countries and is gradually being exported to other places like Asia. Today it is increasingly mediated by the English language. English is becoming the world medium of education for science and technology, even for Asians. The old classical cultures of Asia seem to be losing their place as the focus of education for the Asian élites and being replaced by an imported version in English. Has this no consequences? Is it not likely to cause impoverishment of Asian national cultures?

This kind of impoverishment has been going on for a long time in India. Under the British Raj, smart Indians made it their business to learn English fluently, though the British invariably made fun of them because they sounded so pedantic and so inaccurate at the same time – they did not have the culture that went with the language, which is entirely understandable. But today in India, as a result, there are “two cultures” – not the two cultures described by C.P. Snow, but the two cultures mediated by English on the one hand and Indian languages on the other. English mediates science and technology, and learning about these has replaced traditional education as the aspiration of the élites.

India likes to think of itself as being “ahead” of the rest of Asia because of the English language left behind there by the British, but other nations in the continent are busy trying to catch up. It just remains to be seen what this will do to their age-old national identities.


Japanese takeovers

For a while now Japanese companies have been extending their global reach by investing in and acquiring companies in Europe and elsewhere in the world. In Switzerland, the list of Japanese acquisitions for the past few years has been impressive. In 2011, for example, Nabtesco acquired Kaba Gilgen AG (automatic door and gate systems), Toshiba acquired Landis + Gyr, Takeda acquired Nycomed, and Toyota Automatic Loom acquired Uster Technologies (quality measurement and certification products for the textile industry). In 2012, Tokyo Electron acquired Oerlikon Solar (solar cells), Citizen Holdings Co. acquired Prothor Holding SA, UCC Holdings acquired United Coffee, and Fuji Seal International acquired PAGO Holding AG (labelling).

In an interview with Swissinfo, Paul Peyrot, executive director of the Swiss-Japanese Chamber of Commerce, explained that they are doing this because, among other things, the Japanese domestic market is shrinking, the companies are cash-rich, and credit is cheap in Japan. He also pointed out that the Japanese economic ministry (METI) has been explicitly encouraging home companies for the past two or three years to diversify internationally.

It is interesting to see what happens when the Japanese take over well-established companies here. They are wary and respectful of European ways. They have presumably learned the hard way about cultural problems in business and management.

Yet the whole process has an Achilles heel, all the more striking in that it hardly ever seems to be mentioned. It is language. You may be sure that the Swiss are not learning Japanese, and one also takes it that the Japanese mostly will not bother to learn German or French. Inevitably, they communicate in English. This means, however, that where you started dealing with two cultures, now you’ve got three to deal with.

For English is not somehow a transparent medium of communication. No language is that. English is the language of the English-speaking world, which has its own culture – not just one, but a variety of cultures – expressed in the language, and constraining it. English does not allow a Japanese-speaker and a German-speaker to encounter one another as if they were looking through glass.

Verbal communication can be difficult enough, but in my experience, written communication in the third language is a real challenge, and a minefield of misunderstanding. It is as if the two sides needed an English-speaker to demine the terrain on a regular basis – something which I, for one, increasingly find myself doing.


Swiss pioneers go East

Swiss companies both large and small have a world reputation for making precision products. It begins with watches but it doesn’t end there. Since the Euro crisis these manufacturers have been hit hard by the strong Swiss franc, which is a millstone around their necks as far as exports are concerned.

What do they do? They have to cut costs and sell cheaper. One thing they can do is to dump their Swiss and Western European suppliers, who cost too much, and replace them with suppliers in Eastern Europe and the Far East whose labour costs are low.

But another thing they can do is manufacture in these places. This way they can do it much cheaper, but also, especially in the Far East, they are going to be close to a large customer base that will appreciate an Asian presence.

One mid-sized Swiss company that did this was VAT Vacuum Valves. They were originally a family firm making a specialty product for a range of industries, but they have recently been bought by investors.

In the meantime, they have been globally sourcing their parts instead of relying on local suppliers. This has been helped by the fact that they already have sales operations in the Far East for quite a few years. But now they have gone further. They have built a new factory in Penang, Malaysia. It is in a government-sponsored industrial park that has just been developed. This plant is staffed by local people, and it is producing some of their valves for the Far Eastern market. It is also receiving supplies from the company’s Asian suppliers.

Nothing could be so different, you would think, as a Swiss precision company with its traditions of workmanship but also its intense local loyalties, cloning itself in a place half a world away like Malaysia. It’s the pitiless logic of the global marketplace that is driving it. Yet you have to admire the courage of these pioneers. They are part of a shift in the world economy from West to East that we are only beginning to understand.