Why Entrepreneurship Is So Different between US and China: A Comparative Cultural Perspective from a Chinese Student
I still remember that 4 years ago, when I just entered my first year in a university in Beijing, my friend introduced me to two Chinese students studying at Harvard and University of Virginia. I was astonished hearing that they were starting their own company, and asked one of the silliest questions ever: “How could you do this at such a young age!?” This was the first time I met a “student entrepreneur.”
I know my reaction may sound weird in the US, where entrepreneurship is so common that nobody considers it a big deal when you say you are starting a company. This is especially true at Carnegie Mellon, where you never know if the quiet guy sitting next to you is developing a new fancy product to conquer a vast unexplored market. In the Masters of Entertainment Industry Management program we even take entrepreneurship as a required class. I had no idea what entrepreneurship even meant prior to coming here – everyone has the potential, we’re told, and is encouraged to become an entrepreneur.
I think entrepreneurship is deeply rooted in the American culture. I just interviewed a screenwriter who returned to Pittsburgh from LA to start a non-profit entertainment organization out of love for his hometown. He doesn’t consider himself an entrepreneur, and told me: “Everyone in Hollywood is an entrepreneur even if nobody will call himself that.” He also made it more relevant to me, “If you do the same thing in China, you would be an entrepreneur.” He is absolutely right.
But, in China, entrepreneurship is not that common. If you say you want to start a company, people will think you are drunk; if you really start getting hands-on, people will tell you “don’t be ridiculous;” if you have failed, people will say “now you can go back to reality;” but if by chance you have made progress and even succeeded, people will think you are a legend.
Why is there such a huge difference in the perception of entrepreneurship? There are many reasons, and many argue that it is a problem of China’s macro-infrastructure. As analyzed in the article “Why China Doesn’t Have Its Own Steve Jobs”, Chinese enterprises remain as “units” rather than “firms” within a central plan controlled by the government. Even with reform, Chinese regulation and taxes still favor foreign investment and put new enterprises at a disadvantage. As a result, young entrepreneurs generally lack the financial and non-financial resources, information, freedom, and incentives to develop pioneering products.
While I agree with the article, I would like to focus on a more intrinsic reason underlying Chinese culture – something I’ve felt myself.
Throughout its history, Chinese society values stability and harmony above anything else. In spite of implementing reform and “open policy, and having embraced cultural and economic liberalization in the last 30 years, the Confucian conformity to existing norms is still deeply rooted in people’s minds, making the very concept of entrepreneurship different from western societies. While successful business pioneers are considered heroic and hard-working social leaders, as well as role models for their fellow workers and society, most parents wouldn’t encourage their children to craft things they are not familiar with; they want their children to have a secure job. One criterion of a good husband for most girls is his having a stable job – a bank clerk has a better chance to reproduce than an entrepreneur!
I personally think it is not that society possesses a disrespect or hostility towards entrepreneurship; rather, it’s a different perspective of seeing it as a great risk, and thus an unrealistic mental state. For example, a friend of mine at CMU is about to launch a new product and is thrilled about it. When I asked “what if it doesn’t work”, he told me that “worst case scenario, I can always start up another company.” He does want success, but is also aware of the potential for failure; he won’t base his entire life on a fear of it. But for the Chinese people who don’t like change, choosing a career is a life-long decision. Becoming an entrepreneur sounds will take away your whole life with no way back. As discussed in the book “China against Herself: Innovation or Imitation in Global Business”, it’s hard to blend Schumpeterian entrepreneurship – pioneering new markets and products – with this established notion of order.
It is somewhat incredible that I am thinking about these problems right now because I am in the process of transitioning to become a “student entrepreneur” myself, without even noticing the inherent change within me. Coming from a culture that underestimates the role of women and never having thought about having my own business, I am encouraged here every day by the new things happening as well as the people surrounding me. I increasingly realize that there is huge opportunity in China, and lots of ideas can be realized. Entrepreneurship is indeed not something mysterious – it can be “unleashed,” my entrepreneurship professor (Babs Carryer) says. This is why I feel so lucky to have come to CMU. One cannot count the benefits of having entrepreneurship planted into his or her bones – it is an entirely different perspective of seeing the world and living life.
However, not every young Chinese has this fortune, and they are still asking the silly questions I did. What worries me is that China, currently faced with a hyper-growing period in a globalized and electronic age, needs the social innovation and business initiatives from this new blood. It will never realize its true potential and achieve long-lasting economic prosperity by merely relying on foreign investment and entrepreneurs. The writer of “Why China Doesn’t Have Its Own Steve Jobs” correctly indicates that China must develop a consumer-centered market economy to allow people to release their ingenuity and search for novel ways to change consumers’ lives. I think one thing should come before this – entrepreneurship in education. Creativity and an adventurous spirit should be encouraged in kids and teens, and entrepreneurship should be formally cultivated and treasured. Only in this way can we improve the country’s entire social value. Otherwise, if it is just an introduction of a new policy, the first thing that comes to people’s minds will be, “yeah I could work for a start-up,” rather than “oh, I could start my own business.”
Everyone is born to explore the world and make a difference; the problem is that whether you could wipe out the worries in your heart. But within the Chinese society, there is another threshold – whether you can break the norms posed by the culture. This is not purely an issue for the government, but one that every Chinese person should reflect upon. We, as a brave and bright people, have the right to learn, possess, and pursue entrepreneurship.
Jamie Wang is a Chinese graduate student studying at Carnegie Mellon University. A talented singer and hip-hop dancer, she transferred from Finance to studying Entertainment Industry Management to pursue her passion and dream in the film and music industry.