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Ignore, Destroy, Engage?

At the Opening General Session of ASAE's International Conference, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author, and investment banker Sheryl WuDunn shared a story that symbolizes the kind of anxiety that China represents to many Americans. (And likely to the association and business leaders who are looking to find a foothold there.)

When she and her husband, New York Times correspondent Nicholas Kristof, moved into an apartment in China, they were informed that the apartment was bugged. Poking around, they soon discovered an "electronic sound device" behind a grate. The couple stepped into the bathroom, turned on the shower to cover up their voices, and had a quick huddle. As WuDunn recalled, they had three options.

1. Ignore it---why cause trouble when you don't know how things will go?

2. Destroy it---this was totally inappropriate!

3. Engage with it---acknowledge the bug's existence, but feed it inaccurate information.

As it turned out, the anxiety-inducing device turned out to be an innocuous part of a doorbell mechanism. But as WuDunn laid out China's astounding economic growth, as well as its by-no-means-modest challenges, the questions still linger. Here's a new experience you're unsure about---how do you respond?

As WuDunn pointed out, China can't be ignored: It now claims the second largest global economy, is the second largest importer of energy, and is the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. More creepily, the nation is also a hub of cyberwarfare activity, as China-based hackers gather information about and gain access to U.S. infrastructure grids.

But economic power, WuDunn pointed out, does not alone make a superpower. That happens through a mix of "hard" power (economics, military) and "soft" power---the kind of cultural production and general social values that are hard to quantify but which matter when it comes to asserting dominance. To that end, the fact that China is hungry for American films but not vice versa isn't a small thing, WuDunn said---it suggests that the United States has resources beyond economic ones.

There's a downside to this, I think: Keeping ahead on the soft power front perpetuates a lack of understanding that complicates international relationships.The lack of a compulsion to understand the culture you're working with---and just assume your culture dominates---can be divisive. "We don't know China very well, which creates uncertainty," WuDunn says. "And uncertainty creates fear." And though she didn't say it, fear historically leads to option number two above.

For a lot of associations looking to make their first steps internationally, be it in China or anywhere else, facing up to such cultural biases may be the most important thing to do. That doesn't mean being Pollyannaish, but aggression (option two) and deceit (option three) are dead ends in the long run. The "ignore" option may be best---that is, speak freely and honestly, but know that your new partners are paying more attention to what you're saying than you might expect.


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