For China, it's time to mend broken trust

china flag
The Chinese Government needs to embark on a trust repair campaign. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Gunpowder, umbrellas, movable type printing, paper money, rockets, the compass, tea production, and acupuncture. Many of us can name some of the famous inventions coming out of ancient and imperial China.

From the Shang Dynasty 3,600 years ago with its advances in astronomy and mathematics to the Quin Dynasty uniting the Chinese kingdoms in the east of modern China and its infamous Emperor Ying Zheng 2,240 years ago to the Han Dynasty introducing bureaucracy and hierarchy 2,200 years ago, China thrives as one of the oldest cultures in the world. It has for centuries been organised as the world's most pronounced meritocracies. Unlike British or Kenyan history whereby the most powerful families retained their influence for many generations, in China the most intelligent citizens where promoted to positions of power.

Famed social psychologist Richard Nisbett highlights how Chinese thought, starting with Lao Tse and Confucius, formed the basis for Eastern civilisation. Chinese philosophy, and by extension Eastern philosophy, proved more circular and harmony focused due to agricultural roots than the Western linear thinking with its right versus wrong philosophy due to fishing roots.

Researcher Robert House and team's cultural indicators place China as high in collectivism and high in uncertainty avoidance. Collectivism means that they see their identity more in reference to their families and their broader communities rather than as individuals. Uncertainty avoidance means that the Chinese prefer to minimise anxiety and ambiguity about the future by planning and controlling aspects of their society in order to achieve predictability.

These cultural traits help explain why Chinese citizens tolerate significant government control over their everyday lives. Different countries' philosophies influence their cultural preferences for collectivism and uncertainty avoidance that then regulate their psychological and community tolerance for government control. On a public policy level, the Communist Party of China values predictability, harmony, and economic growth to the detriment of creativity, free speech, and diversity.


Unfortunately, creating political environments whereby local government officials fear being seen rocking the boat and the impending glare from the central government, does not bode well for success in early detection and protecting citizens in a health pandemic.

Sadly, the Chinese Communist Party holds a long history of stifling any opposition, killing free speech, hindering new ideas, and therefore disseminating false information and statistics in order to save face to their citizens and the broader world. The central government in the current coronavirus pandemic and the blame shifting onto local officials rather than taking responsibility for the political culture of fear that led to the crackdown in the first place has bread distrust. Also, the sad demise of Dr Li Wenliang following his harassment by local officials in Wuhan broke trust further.

Here in Kenya, the Chinese Embassy puts out statements on social media, such as Twitter, that get widely copied and shared in our Kenyan WhatsApp groups. Chinese Embassy statements include anything from Covid-19 progress to overemphasising charity efforts to over championing anti-racism efforts in Guangzhou. However, these public relations messages get widely panned and ridiculed with mistrust. But one must understand the historical cultural basis for this type of government public policy and propaganda.

Despite historical and cultural reasons, human psychology faces difficulty trusting again once trust is broken and distrust is rife. The Chinese Government needs to embark on a trust repair campaign.

Famed social scientists Roy Lewicki and Carolyn Wiethoff research institutional trust repair. When faced with an integrity violation that has caused trust to disintegrate, research shows that denial strangely works best. People can move forward and forgive better when an integrity fault, like crushing dissent or spreading false information, occurs. This research is widely published and known. It explains many corporate and government actions around the world and how the Chinese Government diverges from its own extraordinary citizens.

Interestingly, as US President Donald Trump spreads his own propaganda misinformation about the origins of Covid-19, it helped reverse earlier distrust in China as its government had more opportunities and reasons to deny its own real mistakes but also ridiculous false claims by Donald Trump.

But more recent studies by Graham Dietz and Nicole Gillespie found that in major government scandals where evidence exists uncovering dishonest actions, the best course of action entails: apologise for the integrity faults, transparently investigate what actually happened, then announce what steps the government and its officials will take to prevent such occurrences from happening in the future. An example includes the British MP expense scandal from 2009. MPs who followed this three-step process were later reelected at higher rates than those who followed the typical denial model.

Hopefully, the Chinese Government will take a path to redeem and repair the trust broken through years of misinformation and propaganda. Such a change coupled with commensurate actions could build global views on the Chinese Government overtime as a reliable, truthful, and selfless partner for world progress.