Face and Trump’s Chinese Coronavirus

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These last weeks, Mr Trump is not talking about coronavirus anymore. Now he is talking about the Chinese virus, or the Chinese coronavirus. This small change will have huge consequences.

One of the most important aspects of Chinese culture is Face. It’s difficult to translate because we don’t have this concept in western culture, and some people mistakenly simplify by translating it as “honor” or similar. There are full books talking about it, and many different definitions. To understand Face it’s important to understand that social relationships in China are based on belonging to a group. Work, university friends, family etc. But also city, province, country… Inside of a group, you act according to your rank in that group, not according to your feelings. And your rank in that group is determined by several issues, but probably the most important is the Face that you have in relation to the other people in this group. In the west we have bank accounts, in China they have Face accounts. Everybody is aware of the Face they have on each group relating to the others (so in small groups, you are aware of the Face that others have)

This is one of the pillars of Chinese culture, probably its most important concept, and the root of most of the misunderstandings between the East and the West. Face rules everything.

For example, Western cultures tend to think in terms of “truth” and “rightness” (where being innocent and right is most important). In China, Face is more important than Truth and Rightness. So, many times, truth is disregarded because you MUST do what the situation demands in order not to loose face, or to avoid somebody else from loosing face. Westeners do not understand this fact and are exasperated when Chinese say a thing and later do another.

Is this wrong? No, it’s simply another set of core values

So, one of the worst things that you can make in China is make someone loose face, especially in front of others. In western cultures, it would be tantamount to telling someone he is a son of a bitch, and continue the conversation as if nothing happened.

Sorry, that was longer than I anticipated. But it’s very important to understand the concept of Face when you are dealing with your Chinese counterpart. and clearly Trump does not (or, most likely, does not care)

It’s important to understand that the first weeks of the Covid-19, when it was inside of China, some individuals in the government were loosing Face for their handling of the situation. But once the virus gets out of China, and begins killing people all around the world, China as a nation begins loosing Face. A lot.

What would Chinese expect? Whatever the truth is, you need to GIVE them face. This means, even if you think they have mishandled the situation and that’s why it has spread, you need to tell them the virus is so hard to control, it was impossible to contain, etc… Giving face is super important in Chinese culture.

The opposite to giving Face is taking Face, and that’s what Mr Trump is doing. Not only he is not doing what is expected of him, giving Face, but he is remarking, again and again and again, that Chinese are to blame for the virus. So every time he says the adjective “Chinese” before the word “Virus”, a minor earthquake shakes China. And Chinese can not allow someone to be taking Face from them like this, so then they are forced to expel US reporters because they don’t show the truth accurately. Or you have the Chinese news agency saying that the world should thank China for its handling of the coronavirus. Or you have Chinese diplomats saying that the US made the virus and put it in Wuhan. Is this true? Not important, you MUST act like this, because that’s what the situation demands to avoid loosing even more face.

From our Western perspective, these are poor attempts to cover the truth (yes, always the Truth, because we are Truth centered). But from the Chine culture point of view, we are forcing them to act like this. From their point of view, it’s the way to try to save Face.

So what now? As I explained, making someone loose face is the western equivalent of insulting him. So every time Mr Trump says “chinese” virus, he is insulting China as a nation, and all the Chinese that belong to this group. And, especially, Xi Jinping, who has put himself in the position of ultimate responsible of everything that happens in China.

So, even if Trump changes course, too much damage has been made. This small adjective that he has been using will affect the way Chinese handle negotiations with the US and Mr Trump from now on. Would you work with someone who is insulting you repeatedly, in front of the whole world? Yes, while you need him. But the moment you don’t need him, you will ditch him and, if you can hurt him, you will.

Marc Torras