Explaining Chinese cars: why so odd?
Let’s be honest. Born in one of the Western states, you sometimes make fun of everything non-Western. Because it looks “natural”, to make fun. Let us take, for instance, Chinese cars. Especially those, which resemble European, Japanese, and American models. How could the Chinese take old-good Land Rover or Mini, make them look uglier, and re-brand them into Changan and Lifan? This is insulting and dull! These actions are the violation of intellectual property rights!
And having arrived at such conclusions, some of you may even start posting angry comments in the Internet. Because juuuuuustice!
However, have you ever thought why that happens? Why the “insulting” and “dull” “violation of intellectual property rights” takes place? Emotions aside. Have you tried to understand why Chinese engineers “borrow” foreign patents and Chinese customers agree to buy “fake” vehicles? Why does this look “legal” in China?
Now, my best guess is that we, in the West, used to look at everything in the world from our Western perspective. We also consider this perspective to be universal by default. Which is not true. Especially if you deal with the Chinese way of looking at things.
Actually, this is not only me who thinks so.
In 1990s, when the Cold War came to its end, the Western world got a huuuuge boost. Because the liberal democracy, so vigorously supported by the US, won over communism. The Western values became triumphant and no other political doctrine stood a chance against them. Stanford professor Francis Fukuyama (1952-) even wrote a book “The End of History and the Last Man” (1992) where he claimed that the humankind entered the finish straight to universal prosperity. The West became invincible and immortal.
At least, that was what majority of people believed in at that time. They all shared much optimism. And yes, “they built the best cars then”.
Buuuuut, in 1993 Samuel P. Huntington (1927-2008), Harvard professor, broke everything down. He wrote an article “The Clash of Civilisations?” and blatantly claimed: “People, you’re fools. Yes, the West won the Cold war, but no, this won’t end all conflicts. New type of conflicts will emerge soon. Between civilisations”. In 1996 he further developed this claim, wrote a book, and announced a complete list of competitive civilisations: Western, Latin American, Orthodox, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Sinic, African, and Japanese. The West, according to the professor, was to stand versus the rest.
And this stance was not foreseen as the military one, no. It was more about the collision of identities. The key Cold war question was “What is your ideology?”; in the 21st century, according to Huntington, it would be replaced by “Who are you?” In other words, even if people from different backgrounds try being friendly towards one another, the differences in how they think about life will nurture conflicts between them over time. Sometimes leading to wars.
But this has little to do with cars, isn’t it?
One of the civilisations Huntington mentioned in his book was Sinic. Or Confucian. It embraced majority of people living in China, the Koreas, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam. This group also included the Chinese diaspora, especially in Southeast Asia.
All people belonging to Sinic civilisation, according to Huntington, used to live their lives as prescribed by the Confucian philosophy. The latter outlined a set of original criteria how the individual happiness, social justice, political order, state institutions, gods of Heaven and other things should look like. It also grew to have impact on... cars.
But let us not rush too much.
Confucius (551-479 BC) or Kǒng Fūzǐ (孔夫子) was a Chinese teacher, philosopher, and statesman. At least, this is what the Chinese official historiography claims. His early childhood was not great. He lost his parents at an early age and experienced much poverty and injustice afterwards. With this experience, he undertook an attempt to improve everything and started travelling between courts to educate political elites in proper governance. He also shared his wisdom to all willing people. By doing this, he became one of the most prominent Chinese – and the world’s – philosophers in history. And even a deity in Daoism.
Confucius believed that people are good by default. They are also teachable, evolvable, and perfectible. However, to make people “better human beings”, much personal and social endeavour is needed. Confucius strongly believed in necessity to cultivate (self-cultivate?) virtue and make the real world better. To make it look like the one in Heaven, which is flawless.
In other words, we are born with a lot of messy things in our heads. We fall victims to desires, griefs, hatred, passion and other “irrationalities”. To live a great life, as well as to allow others feel great in our presence, we should get rid of all these messy things. To structuralise them in our heads, thus changing and transforming ourselves. Ideally, at the end of our lives we should become someone better than at birth. As Confucius stated himself: “From the Son of Heaven on down to commoners, all without exception should regard self-cultivation as the root.”
At the end of self-cultivation process, the most consistent and persistent individuals should evolve into a “junzi” (君子), some sort of a “gentleman” or “superior person”. A “junzi” should be sincere, trustworthy, compassionate, educated, and righteous chap. A “junzi” should also encourage others to improve themselves, thus launching a “domino effect”. All that should eventually lead to a social harmony: “Wishing to be established himself, [a “junzi”] seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others.”
Now, what should we do to self-cultivate ourselves properly? We should practise rituals. Lots of rituals! The idea is that by practising a ritual, like bowing to an elder, we evoke proper emotions. So, the more we practice, the better we master virtues and the closer we get to becoming a “junzi”. Even if we do not understand sometimes why we do things as we do.
In a nutshell, Confucius claimed that people should attempt to evolve into “junzi”. If many people do this successfully, the whole society will benefit: “junzi” will spread the harmony, help others to be happier, and make things better for everyone. Rituals are the only way to accumulate enough Rén (仁 or humaneness) and become a “junzi”. Rituals generate proper emotions, way of thinking, and harmony, even if they look stupid.
Now, how does this relate to Chinese cars?
Imagine that the Chinese engineers continuously work on evolving into “junzi”. This is one of their civilisational missions, a right thing to do, even if they may publicly deny it. They have a proper education, motivation, and social request to evolve into “junzi”. Therefore, engineers start working on cars to fulfil their life-mission. Engineers listen to their elderly colleagues, company bosses, state authorities, and other virtuous people as this is required by rituals. They aim to bring satisfaction to people who will use their car. Chinese designers feel the same. They strive to make a car look better, bring it closer to Chinese customers, contribute to the society, and complete a virtuous “self-improvement”.
In the light of contemporary Confucian philosophy, Chinese engineers and designers are prone to ask themselves the following questions: Have we done a good job to improve ourselves through making a great product? Have we done a good job with the already existing models and improved these models? How do we work with the “messy things” we are born with (in heads) and into (in societies)?
Chinese engineers and designers will rarely look at a car – be it European, Japanese, or American – as on an accomplished product. Because there always remains a space for perfecting it. And they will undertake an effort to make the car better (even if we, Westerners, think the effort is a failure). They have knowledge, power – and thus moral obligation – to try. This is one of the reasons Minis end up becoming Lifans and Land Rovers – Changans. I would like to stress “one of the reasons” here.
Now, mates, can you see a spot for protection of intellectual property rights here? I can not. Confucian philosophy is about the supremacy of social interests, needs, and responsibilities, not nurturing individual egos. Who cares of patents if these patents prevent people from self-improvement and establishing a social harmony?
Surely, some of your friends from China may confess that they loath the majority of Chinese cars. This may be true, but this does not automatically mean that the remaining 1,3 billion of Chinese people share the same opinion. Moreover, you may never know their opinion as they are not likely to deliver it to you in English. They need no English to feel themselves happy and accomplished within the boundaries of their civilisation. They are not interested in what you think of their opinion either.
You may rightfully object that the reason for China to produce these cars are economics, not some pre-historical philosophy. Chinese cars look as they do because it pays off to car-manifacturers to take some proven Western models and make them affordable. Especially if you take the enormous size of Chinese car market and a comparatively poor purchase power parity. Affordable cars mean that whole Chinese economy will get a huge boost.
You may also object that the Chinese take proven Western models and copycat them to learn how to produce good cars. The Chinese are doing the same what the Japanese and South Koreans did earlier on. That is why not only the cheapest Western models are copied, but also expensive SUV’s and luxury sedans.
Both of your objection are correct.
However, the issue remains unclear why the Chinese engineers and designers are so deliberate to “borrow”, “re-construct”, and “ruin” the Western technologies. Why can’t they mass-produce their unique models, like Hongqi L5 or HKG H600, and learn by doing and discovering independently? Why can’t the Chinese, being one of the most technologically advanced nation in the world, become unique? This is the point where I see the impact of Confucian thinking: improvement of already good cars (because nothing is perfect), improvement of cars for the sake of their engineers’ and designers’ status of “junzi”, improvement of cars so that they appeal to society on various levels (harmony, anyone?).
Now, an important remark about the improvement. This term may have a different appeal to the Chinese than to us, Westerners. The cars we consider “ugly” and “wicked” may not be so for the majority of Chinese costumers. The latter may really find these cars improved. Apart from this, the Chinese engineers and designers keep on improving their copycats. And the more they do this, the less the copycats resemble Western originals.
I also advice you to look where the Chinese cars are exported and produced. For instance, the Lifan Group. It has its assembly plants and dealerships opened in Russia, Uruguay, Iran, Turkey, Vietnam, Thailand, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Azerbaijan. In a word, Chinese car-manufacturers expand to the rising states with comparatively low purchase power parity and insignificant influence of the Western values. This allows the Chinese government to achieve a technological domination there. In turn, Chinese engineers and designers acquire a chance to become global “junzi” as they start caring of the foreign communities. All this poses a geopolitical challenge for the West (which, as you know, should stand versus the rest):
Now, coming back to Huntington and “The Clash of Civilisations?”. One of the book’s weak points resides in perceiving the world from the perspective of the West. And making fun of odd things. Or presenting odd things as a threat. But the West is not unique. It is rather exception. Its values are not universal and should not be automatically projected worldwide. Actually, the Western civilisation is a minority, who happened to be more successful in ruling out some key historical endeavours. So far.
This should be considered when presenting any opinion about things which are foreign to you.
Including the design and quality of the Chinese cars.
P.S. Matt Parsons can be reached here: www.behance.net/Matthew_Parsons_SA
P.P.S. What I did above to Confucius is a great simplification of his ideas. I selected only those of them which fit my narration. Confucius was a much wider looking philosopher. Consider reading his texts individually.
P.P.P.S. Be aware: as a representative of Western civilisation, I am influenced by my values and, therefore, could misinterpret Confucius. To a certain degree. I’m also grateful to my friend, Jarosław Jura, Ph.D., specialist in the East Asian politics and culture, for shooting down some of my over-interpretations. They were removed from the text.