Along the way to Beijing to attend the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony this past week, President Bush made a stop in Bangkok.
His purpose was to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the alliance between Thailand (Siam when the alliance was formed) and the United States.
In his Bangkok address, Bush paid allegiance to Thailand as a significant leader in Asia and applauded the Thai government for the restoration of democracy for its citizens as well as being one of the driving forces that has helped to transform post-WWII Asia into a thriving and dynamic region.
Bush also took the opportunity to decry China’s detention of political dissidents and religious activists, as well as the lack of freedom allowed to the Chinese citizens, in general. In the weeks prior to the Games, Bush has had to juggle the pressures from human rights activist groups to confront China in its treatment of Tibetans while striving to keep a positive relationship with China as a key trading partner.
Responding to Bush’s remarks, Qin Gang, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman, chided the President by proclaiming that China “opposes any words or acts that interfere in other countries’ internal affairs by using human rights and religion and other issues.”
While Mr. Gang’s carefully crafted direct verbal response matched the means by which Bush expressed his concerns, the true indication of China’s feelings was expressed in another way.
Subsequent to Bush’s speech, a charter flight carrying the White House press corps was detained for nearly three hours after landing at Beijing’s International Airport not long after Bush arrived to attend the Opening Ceremony. The flight crew of the Northwest Airlines 747 had been expecting to park at a VIP terminal (based on preliminary arrangements) but was instead told by the control tower to park at a normal international gate. The nearly 40 journalists who were due to cover Bush’s first appearance of the day – the opening of the new Beijing US Embassy complex – were not allowed to leave the plane until just after 5:00 AM local time and were also forced to go through the normal immigration clearance procedure.
In addition, the luggage belonging to American officials on Air Force One was required to undergo inspection by Chinese officials in spite of long-standing arrangements that such a search would be unnecessary.
U.S. officials attributed the “confusion” over the logistics of Bush’s visit as well as disagreements over security arrangements for the Bush motorcade to “divisions within the Chinese government.”
These events appear to be more a matter of a cross-cultural collision. The issue has to do with cultural differences along a continuum that ranges from low context (U.S.) to high context (China.)
Context in cross-cultural communication is one of the key cultural dimensions – and perhaps the most difficult to define. Context refers to the array of stimuli surrounding every communication event and how much of it is meaningful to both the sender and receiver.
In a low context culture such as the U.S., linear logic and a direct style of communication is the norm. By way of a contrast, high-context cultures, such as China, draw upon intuition and utilize an indirect style of communication. People using high-context communication tend to be reserved, with much being taken for granted and assumed to be shared, thereby giving emphasis to understatement and non-verbal codes. For the Chinese, meaning is couched in the nature of the situations.
President Bush, from a culture steeped in the values of equality and individualism, is accustomed to sending and receiving messages directly using words, which is low context. However, to the high-context Chinese, in a culture of hierarchy and in-group loyalty, the speech was likely seen as blunt and insensitive.
In situations of conflict, people in a high-context culture tend to be less open. Strong emotions are not expressed openly and explicitly in high-context cultures and the communication is typically perceived as vague and ambiguous by people from a low-context culture.
The Chinese response to Bush’s Bangkok address was expressed in the context of meddling with and requiring the immigration procedures and luggage inspections normally accorded to tourists. In short, the message being conveyed to Bush and his entourage was a high-context way of saying “mind your own business.”