Every once in a while a book of history has significant relevance today. For those who have had interactions with China or who are watching the current trade wars this book by Stephen R. Platt is a must read. The book chronicles the attempt by the west to force the Chinese to open their borders to greater trade (including opium) and the various strategies that were used to convince China to comply. 

The end of the Opium War (which was about much more than opium) saw the Chinese cede the Island of Hong Kong to the British along with 12 square miles of the mainland, later supplemented by a 100 year lease of the New Territories. This was my home during my childhood and I had the experience of visiting the residual opium dens still open in the 60's. No I did not inhale - I promise. 

While the events of the book take place in the 1700's and 1800's the essential style of leadership in China related to outsiders doing trade with the same is amazingly similar. In addition, the inability of the West to understand or attempt to understand the Chinese psychology during this period reminds me very much of the attempts of the United States to convince the Chinese to modify certain practices today. 

China is not easily convinced to change their practices and neither force or public shaming have been helpful in that regard. The west is doing both today and China is doing what it has always done in taking the long view and biding their time. A reading of this book indicates that not much has changed in this regard. 

Equally compelling for any business people or missionaries who are going to work cross culturally are the lessons that can be learned from this account of the necessity to understand one's host culture, its way of thinking and its practices based on their historical values. 

The west was wildly incompetent in this regard, not only in their way of relating to the Chinese but in their total disregard of what mattered to China. They were the west after all and knew what to do! In fact, China knew a great deal more about the west than the west knew about China and that is true today as well. Cultural intelligence has not been the west's strong suit in understanding Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria or China. Reading this volume reminds me that the west makes many of the same mistakes today that we did two and three hundred years ago.

If I taught cross cultural studies I would make this required reading for the class. We can learn much from history and particularly from this volume. I give this five stars for the historical account and its relevance for today. 

TJ Addington (Addington Consulting) has a passion to help individuals and organizations maximize their impact and go to the next level of effectiveness. He can be reached at tjaddington@gmail.com.
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  • Jan 03, 2019
  • Category: News
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