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What Can We Learn from a Chinese Banker?

The Financial Times Beijing Bureau chief recently published a commentary praising the Chinese central banker, Zhou Xiaochuan, for successfully devaluating the Chinese currency without suffering internal political persecution or causing an international currency war. This is a remarkable feat given the intense pressures he is facing both domestically and internationally, from two completely different directions.

Domestically, the Chinese government is increasingly leaning towards more government control in handling economic as well as political matters. Its recent meddling with its stock market crashes was a good example. Mr. Zhou has long been accused for his Westernized manners and cozy relationship with the West, rumors abound that he had under sold government assets during the banking reform in the 1990s and betrayed the mother country by purchasing too much US treasury notes with China’s hard earned foreign currency reserve. As we speak, the Chinese is staging the biggest military parade in its capital since the Communists took power in 1949. Its relentless expansion in the South China Sea and tough stand against Japan are calculated to stir up strong patriotism among its economically and ecologically stressed population. Amid this background a move towards weakening its currency is not necessarily a straightforward message or risk for the Chinese government to send/take.

On the internationally side, the US congress has repeatedly labeled China as a currency manipulator and called for tough sanctions. All signs point to a potential war between China and the West over the handling of its currency. So how did Mr. Zhou do it? According to Financial Times, he did it by selling different stories to his party leaders and the West, respectively. To his party leaders, Mr. Zhou presented the move as a matter of national interest, necessary to boost the economy at a time when growth is slowing sharply. To the outside world, he presented it as a step toward a more market-oriented and freely tradable Chinese currency. Amazingly, both sides bought into his arguments and both China and the world economy scored a significant victory!

Many of us in business and all other types of organizations are often caught in similar cross currents. For example, when a business unit underperforms, a boss maybe concerned with his reputation (therefore next promotion) while the employees worry about their job security (would I be fired?). Instead of condemning boss’ bad character, it will be more likely to achieve a win-win outcome by exploring a long term improvement plan, casting the short term bad news in the light of long term greatness, making the boss shine after all. For the employees, instead of threatening them with punishments, it will be more likely to achieve a win-win outcome by discussing plans to diagnose the root causes of underperformance and opportunities to learn new skills so that the organization may meet performance standards in the future. This is more than merely marketing different messages to different audiences. It requires us to re-frame the situation in a broader context than the current stakeholders are used to and then help them to see themselves on the winning ends of the new context. This is the essence of creative breakthroughs anywhere, in businesses, arts and sciences. It’s not guaranteed to succeed by any means for it is extremely difficult to bring a new vision into fruition in the overwhelming complexity of the human condition. But that’s the only way evolution takes place in Human Cosmos. If Mr. Zhou could pull it off in as harsh an environment as semi-authoritarian and semi-feudal China, what excuse do we have in a semi-democratic and semi-humanistic country like the US?

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