On the alleged cultural superiority of the Chinese

[I wrote this post weeks ago, but never posted it.  Perhaps now’s a good time.]

Spend any significant amount of time in China and the title of this post will start to seem like an absurd claim.  And it is absurd.  But it’s wrong in an interesting way.

Tens of millions of ethnic Chinese live in Southeast Asia.  The higher the percentage of Chinese, the richer the SE Asian country.  In addition, the ethnic Chinese tend to be much richer than the native population.  This leads many to conclude that the Chinese culture is good at making money.  And I think there is some truth in that, although government policies obviously also play a role.

But that’s not cultural superiority, it’s a cultural attribute.  Thus one might say the Italian culture is good at making stylish furniture, or that the German culture is good at making excellent machines, or the French culture is good at producing post-modern philosophy.  But no one would claim that these attributes make their cultures “superior” in any overall sense.  (OK, Hitler would make that claim for the Germans, but you see my point.)

In the past when I’ve blogged on cultural differences I find that some people really get emotional.  Liberals in particular seem to be as squeamish about culture at the Victorians were about sex.  (Someone get the smelling salts if the usual suspects have fainted.)  I find this odd, as when I was younger there was a big debate over culture vs genetics, sometimes dubbed “nature/nurture debate.”  And liberals seemed to take the nurture point of view.  I guess things have changed.

I find that some liberals will go to rather absurd lengths to deny the obvious.  In earlier comment sections the economic success of the Chinese in SE Asia was attributed to some sort of selection bias.  Thus I was intrigued by this Lee Kuan Yew quotation provided in the new Coase/Wang book:

I had told Deng over dinner in 1978 in Singapore that we, the Singapore Chinese, were the descendents of landless peasants from Guangdong and Fujian in South China, whereas the scholars, mandarins, and literati stayed and left their progeny in China.  There was nothing that Singapore had done that China could not do, and do better.  He stayed silent then.  When I read that he had told the Chinese people to do better than Singapore, I knew he had taken up the challenge I quietly tossed to him that night fourteen years earlier.

Note that there is selection bias in recent Singapore immigration, but this comment was made in 1978.  So we are to believe that vast numbers of ethnic Chinese moved out of a small region on south China a few hundred years ago and scattered throughout SE Asia.  They were poor and illiterate.  They’ve done very well despite often facing discrimination in their newly adopted countries.  And culture plays no role in this success?   I eagerly await the next explanation from those who think ‘culture’ is a dirty word.

The Chinese seem to be very good at producing lots of stuff very quickly, at very low cost.  I can’t imagine how China would have much trouble becoming a high income country.  At least if by “high income” you mean a country where the vast majority of people have relatively good homes, cars, home appliances, cell phones, education, and a long life expectancy.  On the other hand I find it quite plausible that China ends up near the bottom of the high income range.  They don’t seem to be very good at producing services, and the quality of goods is often rather low.  Perhaps this is just a reflection of underdevelopment, but the Thais, for instance, seem much better at producing services than the Chinese, despite a roughly equal GDP per capita.  (Think Chinatown restaurants.)

Tyler Cowen says he is a revenue pessimist but a utility optimist.  This means that he expects low growth in measured GDP in the US, but signficant increases in utility due to technical innovations that are hard to turn into revenue.  China might be the opposite case; they might do better in terms of revenue than utility.

Now that I’m back from China; a few random observations:

1.  Only geoengineering can save us now.

2.  All Chinese maps are useless.

3.  I greatly prefer the (informal) Chinese table manners, as compared to Western eating habits.  I hope we eventually adopt their more pragmatic approach.

4.  Beijing is one of the least “walkable” cities in the world.  It’s a mindbogglingly poorly planned city, with huge blocks surrounded by walls.  Going “around the block” might take two miles.  It is somehow both too densely populated, and far too spread out.   It’s more polluted than Shanghai, which makes it harder to attract foreign executives.  It’s slightly poorer than Shanghai.    It’s also a more interesting city in many respects.  It contains China’s best universities, and its high tech hub.  It has a much livelier art scene that Shanghai, which is a more commercially-focused city.  And of course it has many amazing historical sites.  The population is partly of ethnic Mongolian descent, from the days of the Qing Empire.

5.  I only spent 4 days in Shanghai and the air was unusually clear, so this may have colored my views.  Shanghai seems much more like a real city that Beijing, in much the same way New York seems more like a real city than Washington.  But the New York/DC comparison can be misleading.  Beijing is more than the Washington DC of China, it’s also the Silicon Valley, the Boston, the Soho/Chelsea, etc.  I enjoyed the old bank lobbies in the Bund area of Shanghai.  We also explored the Peninsula Hotel, and found lots of great art deco rooms.  It’s nice to get a half price cocktail on the roof of the Roosevelt Club at around 5:30, and then sit and watch Pudong as the sun sets.  Only New York, Chicago and Hong Kong have comparable skylines.

6.  Yellow Mountain (Huangshan) is absolutely stunning.  I had originally assumed that all the great, world class scenery was in western China.  Not so, Yellow Mountain, the Guilin area, and Zhangjiajie Hunan (the inspiration for Avatar) all have amazing scenery.  These sites are getting crowded, but the western tourist can benefit from the fact that Chinese tourists tend to clump together like bees in a hive, so it is possible to find areas that are off the beaten path, even in heavily visited parks.  Most Chinese don’t want to get away from the crowd, they assume that whatever the crowd is seeing must be the best scenery.  I used to think those famous Chinese landscape paintings exaggerated the mountain scenery to make it look more dramatic.  Not so, Yellow Mountain looks just like the paintings.  But Thousand Island Lake (QinQaoHu) does not have world class scenery.  It’s a local tourist trap, and I strong recommend that Western tourists not visit that area.  If you are in the Yellow Mountain area, I’d also visit a traditional Anhui water town.

PS.  I grew up in Wisconsin, a state that received a large number of German migrants around 1848.  Like Germany, Wisconsin is good at producing machines.  It’s in our blood culture.

PPS.  I was comparing Chinese tourists to a beehive in a good way.

PPPS.  I’m going to Singapore soon–any suggestions?

PPPPS.  Is this a picture of Hong Kong, or a sleepy Central American country with only 4 million people?  Answer, it’s the sleepy Central American country with the highest proportion of ethnic Chinese in Latin America (4% to 20%, depending on whether pure or partial ethnicity counts.)



69 Responses to “On the alleged cultural superiority of the Chinese”

  1. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    8. October 2012 at 06:59

    “Only geoengineering can save us now.”

    I cannot WAIT to run a garden hose to the sky. It is going to be so much fun. It makes me giddier than space flight.

    Also, like Mundell, Scott Sumner is going to be working for Bejing.

  2. Gravatar of Justin Justin
    8. October 2012 at 07:09

    “Chinese tourists tend to clump together like bees in a hive”

    Uh oh…

    I’m not sure if you went to Singapore yet since you wrote this a few weeks ago, but my favorite part of the city is the food. Eat at the hawker centers, not in nice restaurants. Aside from being dirt cheap (always under 5 dollars per meal), the food there is better than the city’s nice restaurants and is an important part of the culture.

  3. Gravatar of Matt Waters Matt Waters
    8. October 2012 at 07:11

    The question is, what is Panama? I do wonder why their PPP GDP/capita is twice their nominal GDP/capita. That seems like a pretty big difference to me and I never really liked PPP numbers.

  4. Gravatar of david david
    8. October 2012 at 07:26

    Singapore: bring an umbrella. The next couple of months will be the monsoon season.

    Eat out. Harass your local guide, if you have one, for what is good. Taxis and public transport are cheap, safe, and efficient to get to wherever it is.

    The ‘traditional’ tourist spots in Singapore are a little outdated. Singapore circa the late 1980s has a very different feel from Singapore today, the parts which gave it the Disneyified, controlled atmosphere are much less prominent now.

    The anthropologist in me suggests taking the metro through the so-called ‘heartlands’ and people-watching a bit, ideally on a weekday. Chinatown and Little India are pretty, but not representative. Also, browse the local papers for a sense of local concerns, the English papers have high circulation and aren’t just read by foreigners.

  5. Gravatar of Ben Abbott Ben Abbott
    8. October 2012 at 07:27

    Regarding Singapore, and not in any specific order;

    (1) Marina Bay Sands roof top infinity pool
    (2) Cycling and/or water skiing at the East Coast Park
    (3) Satay at Lau Pa Sat (old market) either Friday or Saturday night
    (4) Dine at the Equinox (roof top of the Suisse Hotel)
    (5) Night Safari at the Singapore Zoo (includes dinner)
    (6) Shopping on Orchard Street

  6. Gravatar of david david
    8. October 2012 at 07:33

    On culture: duly note that modern Singapore has a lot of non-Chinese influences, arguably some for the better (e.g., the civil service culture and notorious aversion to guanxi in favour of cautious planning).

    The English-speaking Peranakan-descent civil-service Chinese crushed the Chinese-speaking Chinese nationalists and claimed the Singaporean Chinese identity for themselves, really.

  7. Gravatar of Adam Adam
    8. October 2012 at 07:33

    Is it culture or is it history? I really know very little about the history of the region, but it would seem plausible to me that the Chinese have a very long history of dominating their neighbors in ways that could have very lasting effects.

    As for walking, I had similar experiences in Shenzhen, where construction and poor planning meant there was only one way to get to the hotel. My attempt to avoid backtracking meant going quite far out of the way around walled off areas. And I had to risk crossing one of the city’s larger roads for want of a crosswalk (and a closed tunnel).

    It was still more walkable than Cairo though.

  8. Gravatar of david david
    8. October 2012 at 07:43

    For a purer Chinese culture, consider Taiwan, which is also rich but less so and much more corrupt still today.

    @Adam: The Chinese did not dominate the region; the British did, and the British entrenched the Chinese merchant/urban-labourer class.

  9. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    8. October 2012 at 08:09

    Thomas Sowell has written extensively on this phenomenon; that the behavior of immigrants can often be traced back hundreds of years and thousands of miles to their country of origin. It’s why overseas Germans were the brewers and piano makers almost wherever they landed.

    He even explains why Bing Crosby made all those sentimental movies about priests, and not Frank Sinatra.

  10. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    8. October 2012 at 08:10

    I will visit in late November–thanks for the suggestions.

  11. Gravatar of Brett Brett
    8. October 2012 at 08:27

    It’s cultural, but not really unique to the ethnic Chinese diaspora. They’re successful commercially for the same reason that the Jewish diaspora could be commercially successful in Europe and elsewhere (between the massacres and expulsions):

    1. A cultural emphasis on education and learning.

    2. Their “outsider” status means that they’re closed off from traditional avenues of power and money (AKA land ownership and war), as well as a lot of professions. That leaves commerce and trade.

    3. They have cultural ties to other members of the Chinese diaspora scattered across the region, which facilitates trade in a low-information, low-rules environment.

  12. Gravatar of Joshua Joshua
    8. October 2012 at 08:37

    Wisconsin is known for it’s cultures.

    (cheese pun).

  13. Gravatar of mpowell mpowell
    8. October 2012 at 08:46

    Assuming you are correct that the Chinese culture is such that minority Chinese populations in foreign countries do well materially, why do you think this should be extended to China as a country as well? After all, the habits and values that can lead to personal success may not translate into forming a society/government with a successful economy. These two things are likely to be correlated, perhaps, but they are not the same thing.

  14. Gravatar of philemon philemon
    8. October 2012 at 09:08

    Scott: You are going to be in Singapore?! Feel free to drop me an email. I’ll buy you lunch–something local (and inexpensive, if you are worried about that).

    Zoo (including night safari), Bird Park, Botanic Gardens are all good. if you are more adventurous, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve as well. The newly opened Garden by the Bay is also worth considering. Second Ben Abbott on people watching in the heartland–go by metro (MRT) and public bus.

  15. Gravatar of Bosco Bosco
    8. October 2012 at 09:11

    One could also argue the seafarers were more adventurous (in many ways) and they had little to lose

    For instance, a couple I know, the husband is a hourly wage earner at GE and the wife, after starting as a seamstress, is a clerk. They emigrated to the U.S. several decades ago. First, they saved enough money to buy a condo. Then a two family. You got the picture. Their boy has finished his MBA and girl MD now

    I am not sure if it is blood, culture or predispositions, since it happened to the Jews and Irish before

    As a point of contrast, there are also children who have never experienced hardship. They drift in foreign water without any moorings. It was more prevalent in Canada during the Hong Kong changeover period

    Perhaps the moral of the story is to stay hungry (although being too hungry could invite other problems)

  16. Gravatar of Bill Ellis Bill Ellis
    8. October 2012 at 09:15

    liberals in general don’t have a problem with acknowledging the positive or negative effects of culture. We have problems with people making blanket statements about it. We have big problems with people who confuse culture for race.

    This post is a straw man. It has nothing to do with the truth that phrase “Hive mind” HAS attached to it a racist connotation. “Hive mind” may or may not accurately describe an element of Chinese culture that makes it successful, but accuracy is not the issue. One can be literally accurate and connotatively racist simultaneously. “Hive Mind” could charitably be about to the tendency to work together, to care for each other, and to be able to put aside minor individual wants to work for the good of the whole… But it is almost never used that way. The way “Hive mind” IS used is to describe a group of people as having SUBHUMAN qualities.

    Do you deny that “hive mind” is primarily used in a derogatory fashion ?

    My father-in-law is 84. He is a very good man. Racist as hell. When he refers to black people he and he is trying to be polite…. he calls them “darkies”.

    It is accurate, black people are darker …but it is sooo ugly and offensive. At 84 growing up on a farm, in a relatively isolated community…he just does not get it.
    If he were not an old racist man but someone who should know better, but used the term “darkie” anyway, would you defend his use of the racist term? Would you deny the racial insensitivity of it ?

    Do you really not know better ? I wonder.

    A very few people are sorta naively blind to this kind of thing. If you are one of them, maybe you should write about something else.

  17. Gravatar of Bill Ellis Bill Ellis
    8. October 2012 at 09:34

    The persistence of culture it the most powerful single force effecting humanity.

    It is almost impossible to stamp out. (Thank god). Stamping it out requires Orwellian measurers .

    But cultures can and do evolve. Cultural aspects can be transferred from one culture to another. The most effective way to transfer a positive cultural aspect is through peaceful, respectful contact and coexistence over time.

    The least effective way to transfer a positive cultural aspect is through force.

  18. Gravatar of Jim Crow Jim Crow
    8. October 2012 at 09:44

    If culture isn’t a constant (uh, hello Mao?) then I’m not really sure what lessons anyone can really take from Scott’s post. There’s a lot of path dependency involved in the way nations and people and cultures develop. I find it hard to believe that in the alternate universe where Germany and Japan happened to win World War II that anyone is mentioning Jewish and Chinese money making superiority.

  19. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    8. October 2012 at 10:06

    Scott, how many of these are tourist traps? And aren’t most of them in the East?

    Also, apparently there are really neat spots right in the middle of Shanghai! (Is the art gallery in the picture any good?)

  20. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    8. October 2012 at 10:09

    Wait, what is the East/West line in China?

  21. Gravatar of Adam Adam
    8. October 2012 at 11:13

    David, I was thinking on a much, much longer time frame that that.

    Also, the British were hardly alone in terms of Western influence in the region.

  22. Gravatar of ChargerCarl ChargerCarl
    8. October 2012 at 11:36

    Beijing sounds kinda like dubai. Just a big suburb with spaced tall buildings instead of single family homes.

  23. Gravatar of david david
    8. October 2012 at 11:53

    The Dutch also conquered the area briefly, but in practice the British eliminated all their influence north of Singapore.

    @Bill Ellis – Singapore is a pretty good example of ‘stamping out’ culture, actually. At independence the Chinese majority spoke barely any English (single digits %) and, notably, spoke no Mandarin (<1%). Today they speak majority English as a first language and Mandarin in the remainder. In just two generations!

  24. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    8. October 2012 at 11:57

    Mpowell, I agree, consider the Mao period.

    Bill, You said;

    But cultures can and do evolve. Cultural aspects can be transferred from one culture to another. The most effective way to transfer a positive cultural aspect is through peaceful, respectful contact and coexistence over time.

    The least effective way to transfer a positive cultural aspect is through force.”

    My view exactly–cultures evolve over time. I’m still scratching my head over your other post. Tell me again why the ASIAN Development Journal, and its 12 ASIAN editors didn’t spot that obvious insult. Is it possible that only CERTAIN people view that as an insult. Like you and Noah.

    Jim Crow, Nothing’s constant in this world. Does that mean no category is useful?

    Saturos, Chengdu is where I draw the line.

    Philemon, You said;

    “Scott: You are going to be in Singapore?! Feel free to drop me an email. I’ll buy you lunch-something local (and inexpensive, if you are worried about that).”

    No, if you are buying I’m not worried. 🙂

  25. Gravatar of david david
    8. October 2012 at 12:03

    Certain South and Southeast Asian groups find “hive mind” concepts useful, particularly when it serves certain unpalatable purposes such as implying that Malays are un-hive-mind and therefore lazy (for example).

    It’s still insulting, even if it’s packaged into “Asian values” by Asian leaders themselves.

  26. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    8. October 2012 at 12:13

    David, So it’s insulting to people who are not included in the hive mind. OK . . .

    So why didn’t Noah say so?

  27. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    8. October 2012 at 12:14

    David, Now I feel insulted! I’m going to have to have a talk with Garett . . .

  28. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    8. October 2012 at 12:15

    Saturos, I haven’t been to many of those. I can tell you that 1000 island lake is a tourist trap.

  29. Gravatar of Bill Ellis Bill Ellis
    8. October 2012 at 12:22


    Language is only one aspect of culture. And not a very important one. It has nothing to do with behavior.

  30. Gravatar of johnleemk johnleemk
    8. October 2012 at 13:02


    My only advice re Singapore (as someone who grew up in both Singapore and Malaysia) is to get yourself over to a major Malaysian city (at least Kuala Lumpur and/or Penang) if you can find the time. It’ll be well worth the trip: the food is better and even cheaper, and if you’re interested in cross-cultural comparisons, the trip is virtually mandatory, because in many respects, Singapore and Malaysia are two sides of the same cultural coin (Singapore was once a state of Malaysia). Singapore and Penang in particular are good comparison points, since both are:

    * former Straits Settlements (i.e. they were administered almost identically under the British)
    * Malaysian (well, at least until 1965 in Singapore’s case) island states
    * Predominantly Chinese-populated with substantial non-Chinese communities

  31. Gravatar of david david
    8. October 2012 at 13:19

    Well, then. Behavior. In one generation guanxi got replaced by high-trust low-corruption attitudes.

    Back in the 1980s there were culture clashes already, when Singaporean businessmen got posted to their neighbors: Singaporeans would complain that everyone else is corrupt and grasping, their local contacts would complain that Singaporeans are arrogant but incapable of making decisions without running home to the head office. It took a while for Singaporeans to re-learn that other Asians expect lower-level functionaries to be able to make decisions and pull strings over things that, in the West, would be regarded as a breach of trust to the employer.

  32. Gravatar of david david
    8. October 2012 at 13:24

    I second visiting Penang, it’s very much what Singapore very nearly could have been, if the English-educated politburo had had a weaker grip.

  33. Gravatar of Bill Ellis Bill Ellis
    8. October 2012 at 13:25


    You Ask.. “why the ASIAN Development Journal, and its 12 ASIAN editors didn’t spot that obvious insult.”

    Maybe Because they are Asian ?

    When you said…
    “I have to admit that I didn’t see “hive mind” as a racial insult. But what do I know? I’m a westerner.”… You got it backward.

    “Hive mind” is a term that in the west is widely regarded as derogatory… especially when applied to Asians.
    It would not surprise me at all if Asians on the editorial board were not familiar with the connotations. It would surprise me if Garett Jones was unfamiliar with them.

    I am not saying Garett Jones is a racist… but I am saying he should have known how it would come across.

    It is a fact that “Hive mind” is overwhelmingly used in a derogatory dehumanizing way. It has a real meaning beyond the literal that is understood by most.

    You honestly don’t realize that “Hive mind” is a term that has been traditionally used to denigrate Asians ?

    Hard to believe.
    Garett Jones’ use of the term and your defence of it comes across as Knee Jerk anti PC.

    I would not expect a group of Africans editors to object to the term “Negro” in a paper. But it would not change the fact that it if author of the paper was an American it would have to be seen as racially insensitive.

    “National IQ and National Productivity: The Negro Mind Across Africa.”

  34. Gravatar of david david
    8. October 2012 at 13:27

    It’s very unlikely that Singaporeans or Malaysians (for example) are unfamiliar with “Asians are uniquely communitarian” rhetoric. Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Muhammad both made it a thing back in the 1990s.

    The others on the editorial board, who knows?

  35. Gravatar of RebelEconomist RebelEconomist
    8. October 2012 at 14:02

    Something about Chinese nationalism that has always struck me as a bit silly was the fact that the Chinese are inevitably always comparing themselves with much smaller areas. The Chinese may all look similar to westerners, but I presume that there are large differences between regional cultures and histories. So, a more reasonable comparison is not between China and Germany or France or Italy, but between China and, say, Europe. For example, Chinese sometimes tell me with pride that Chinese civilisation is much older than British, yet, by Chinese standards, London is not that far from Rome or even Athens.

  36. Gravatar of Tyler Cowen Tyler Cowen
    8. October 2012 at 14:16

    Visit Tiong Bahru food stalls!

  37. Gravatar of david david
    8. October 2012 at 14:24

    Tiong Bahru market is no longer the one and only place to go, a lot of hawkers have shuffled around for lower rent elsewhere, and the government has been building many more hawker food stores elsewhere in order to fight the surging rent. One really needs to ask around to find out where the superstars moved to.

  38. Gravatar of ChargerCarl ChargerCarl
    8. October 2012 at 15:20

    Rebel, aren’t like 90% of chinese Han? Not that china isn’t culturally diverse, but it doesn’t strike me as being comparable to Europe either.

  39. Gravatar of Bill Ellis Bill Ellis
    8. October 2012 at 15:21


    The “Asians are uniquely communitarian” meme , might not necessarily be taken as an insult. It could be be a source of pride. There is much to be said for the notion of being communitarian.

    But were the editors you point out aware of how “Hive Mind” specifically has been traditionally used as a dehumanizing term in in America ?
    Would it ring the same bell with them as with Americans ?

    Do you dispute that the term hive mind when used in America especially when describing Asians is derogatory ?

    I mean… it is like Scott and I grew up in alternate reality Americas.

  40. Gravatar of david david
    8. October 2012 at 15:42

    I don’t know, I’m not American. 😀

  41. Gravatar of q q
    8. October 2012 at 17:18

    “Do you dispute that the term hive mind when used in America especially when describing Asians is derogatory ?”

    I’m Asian-American and the term hive mind does not sound derogatory to me at all. In fact, I usually hear it in a positive manner to indicate collective knowledge: “Ask the hive mind, they might know.”

  42. Gravatar of philemon philemon
    8. October 2012 at 17:50

    As an Asian person myself, I have to say that “hive mind” is neither here nor there. (You don’t have to take this as me speaking on behalf of Asian persons in general; taking it as the impressions of this one Asian person will do.) I intellectually understand how it could be derogatory or meant to be derogatory–if one works from some background assumption that individual=good and collective=bad, or something like that. And I take it that such an assumption (and its contrary) is not unknown among the Chinese. But I seriously doubt that it has the same salience as in the US. At least to this Asian person, it seems that the moral indignation over the matter is *mostly* experienced by non-Asians ostensibly on behalf of Asians… For all I know, that moral indignation might well be in order and justified, it just doesn’t seem to have the same pull around here, unless one has already bought into a whole swath of broadly American cultural assumptions.

    Scott: As we might say in the local pidgin, “onz lah!” So please do drop me a line when you are in town–it would be a great pleasure to buy lunch for one of my favorite econ bloggers of all times.

  43. Gravatar of philemon philemon
    8. October 2012 at 18:00

    One more thing–Scott’s “Chinese tourists tend to clump together like bees in a hive” can be roughly mapped onto idiomatic Chinese. Sort of. One way to describe how a bunch of people were all rushing toward something in a group is to say that they 一窝蜂的 (literally, like a hive/swarm of bees)did this or that. Possible usage (found on the internet) includes saying that all of the outbound students were all rushing–like a hive/swarm of bees–to enroll in business courses. Needless to say, the phrase could be used in a derogatory context; but it need not bee, and even if so, it’s not because of any background devaluation of the hive mind.

  44. Gravatar of david david
    8. October 2012 at 19:49

    More notes on food in Singapore: Katong laksa has fled Katong as the neighborhood gentrified; Tiong Bahru pau has likewise mostly left Tiong Bahru.

    The flipside of an efficient market-oriented government that doesn’t yield to localist pressures to preserve a neighborhood is that neighborhood identities aren’t preserved! Cowenian cuisine logic works less well here.

  45. Gravatar of Tyler Cowen Tyler Cowen
    8. October 2012 at 20:35

    And eat pepper crab…better than chili crab, though both are excellent.

  46. Gravatar of DKS DKS
    8. October 2012 at 21:01


    The trouble is that our brains love to unconsciously amplify any statement about groups into an absolute law. If you make a statement about groups and don’t also point out its limits, a lot of readers will take away a much stronger statement than you made, without even realizing it.

    So if you say “Obviously, something about Chinese culture has facilitated economic growth”, it has an unfortunate tendency to subconsciously turn into “Chinese are just naturally, magically, inherently better at business!”

    Statistically true statements about groups are often misleading in effect, despite good intentions. Why? Because they get turned by readers into absolute magically true laws of the universe.

    Do we have to feel responsible for every stupid unconscious tendency a reader might have? No. But it’s a good idea, when you make a statistically true statement about groups, to follow it up with a reminder of its limits.

    So I could say:
    “Obviously, something about Chinese culture goes well with economic growth.”

    But then add:
    “Of course, Japan had high economic growth right up through the 1980s, and China proper had lousy growth under Mao, so culture alone won’t save you from government-mandated famines, central banks bent on curtailing NGDP, or other gross stupidity.”

    And then I could lead the reader to the much more specific conclusion I thought was warranted:
    “So while China may indeed have a nasty rebalancing coming up, I still think it’s worth asking why people from China have been able to deliver so much economic growth, in so many places, when the same doesn’t seem to be nearly as true of people from India or Pakistan.”

  47. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    8. October 2012 at 22:29

    An important element in the extraordinary Chinese success in SE Asia is trust networks. In low-trust societies with exploitive states, having access to high-trust networks with very strong reputation effects was a huge commercial advantage.

    This is why the overseas Chinese have done comparatively so much better in SE Asia than in, say, Australia. They do well in Australia, but not extraordinary, because Australia is a comparatively high trust society with good (i.e. non-exploitive) institutions.

    Jews, Armenians, South Asians in Africa are all similar stories.

    A very useful report is here:

  48. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    8. October 2012 at 22:31

    Oh, and enough about the hive mind. Jones’s paper does not imply that only Asians have hive minds. On the contrary, it is a generic characteristic of societies in his analysis.

  49. Gravatar of Ning Fu(Foenix) Ning Fu(Foenix)
    8. October 2012 at 22:46

    As a Chinese, I found this passage contains many distinctive and novel views of China.(such as, all chinese maps are useless:-)

    However, here is a little mistake of history in the narration. In the 4th bullet point, it is said that “The population is partly of ethnic Mongolian descent, from the days of the Qing Empire.” When in Qing Dynasty(Empire), it is Manchurians that was domineering China. And Mongolian invaded China when Yuan Dynasty(Empire) I know there are too much dynasty, so it is kind of confusing.

    Speaking of Singapore, Chinese culture has an influent on Singapore. You still can see some people speak Cantonese.

  50. Gravatar of Jim Crow Jim Crow
    9. October 2012 at 05:12

    Scott, I can see your point about categorization. Especially if you’re trying to link it to policy recommendations that can incentivize the traits you happen to think are positive. But I guess the way we refer to cultures via weird ethnic-nation combos kinda bugs me.I mean, I’ve lived in a number of places and even though California and Texas are part of America I’m still amazed at how different they are culturally, politically, etc. etc. To me there is no real American culture. It’s too diverse. On the other hand, if you keep drilling down into the weeds of description like Californian 2nd generation Asian American culture in the year of 1970 your posts will read like arguments from Seinfeld. I happen to think China which is even BIGGER than the US is almost as diverse, if not more. So same problem applies there in my opinion. So I would tend to focus on the traits themselves I like (high saving, high trust networks, etc.) then the vague culture that we sorta kinda associate these traits with. Or, you could start an Anthropology blog. That would work too.

  51. Gravatar of philemon philemon
    9. October 2012 at 05:47

    @Ning Fu(Foenix)

    Until recently, the bulk of the ethnic Chinese came from Fujian province, Chaozhou people, and only after that, Cantonese speakers from Guangzhou, and after that, the Kejia (Hakka) and Hainanese. A generation ago, most would speak some form of Hokkien (Fujianhua), or Teochew (Chaozhou), or Cantonese (Guandonghua) as their mother tongue–until deliberate government policy enforced Mandarin instructions in the schools. And even today, you can still hear a lot of ethnic Chinese (mostly of the older generation) speaking the various Chinese languages, though most from the younger generation would be conversant in a form of Mandarin (with some Fujianhua, Malay and English influences) and English.

  52. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    9. October 2012 at 05:59

    Bill, Your argument simply won’t work. The journal also has lots of editors stationed at places like Stanford, Harvard, Berkeley, Penn, the World Bank. There are a bunch with Western names.

    I’d never heard the term “hive mind” in my entire life, until I read Garett’s paper. I assure you that if it was an ethnic slur, it was unintentional. Why would Garett do something like that on purpose? It boggles the mind what some people will believe.

  53. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    9. October 2012 at 06:01

    DKS, Good point, but people who read blogs like this tend to be highly educated, so I tend to treat them with respect, rather than always stating the obvious as if they are morons.

  54. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    9. October 2012 at 06:06

    ChargerCarl, China is both more and less diverse than Europe, depending on which issue you are thinking about. You can find certain consumption/style/fad patterns that are amazing ubiquitous throughout China, and yet you have both people living in caves and people living living in ultra-modern Shanghai at the same time. Culture can be measured in many dimensions

  55. Gravatar of Bosco Bosco
    9. October 2012 at 06:35

    Revisiting this provides me with a couple of thoughts

    Not sure about East/West China but definitely there can be a North/South dichotomy

    Foenix is right about the many dynasties and Qing is Manchurian. In standard Chinese history books many decades ago, there was a discussion of five foreign tribes fusing (this is sanitized, the literal word is “mess with”) in China. One can’t really whitewash 300 year history

    Speaking of history and Mao, he was a librarian. According to my sister – she was a Chinese History teacher – Mao learned a lot of his realpolitik from the Three Kingdom Chronicle

    While Hans doesn’t denote a good connotation these days (think Tibet), an alternate form is People of Tang. Tang Dynasty was even more cosmopolitan than Han. Foreign religions were tolerated. Do people know there were Jewish settlements in China?

    So, in terms of history, Communist China can very well a blip

  56. Gravatar of Mikio Kumada Mikio Kumada
    9. October 2012 at 07:03

    Cultural arguments can be misleading, and can be driven by biases. For me, some nations in Asia are wealthier that others and more, shall we say, advanced is not the percentage of the Chinese population, but the timing and the depth of the adoption of Western principles (science, the rule of law, democracy, etc.), not necessarily simultaneously, but at lest gradually, over time.

  57. Gravatar of Mikio Kumada Mikio Kumada
    9. October 2012 at 07:13

    I mean: The reason some nations in Asia are wealthier than others is not their “Chineseness”, but their adoption of post-enlightenment modernity. There are (predominantly) Chinese as well as non-Chinese societies that did well, and will probably continue to do well.

  58. Gravatar of Kelvin Kelvin
    9. October 2012 at 07:17

    Shanghai’s “cityness” may be because in Chinese terms it is a baby. The historically significant cities of the Yangtze delta are Nanjing and the ones passed by the Grand Canal: Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuxi, etc.

    Shanghai was too much of a swamp for development until the Qing, and even then it was more of a port city of little cultural significance to the literati. And then the Europeans came and really shook up the place. So its development is certainly much less planned along classical Chinese lines.

  59. Gravatar of chris mahoney chris mahoney
    9. October 2012 at 09:04

    I hold a very similar theory for Latin America. There is no need to describe Latin American countries as poor or rich, since this is a demonstrable derivative of ethnicity. Europeans, wherever the live in Latam, are rich. Africans and indigenous peoples, wherever they live, are poor. National per-capita income is a direct function of the ethnic census. Thus, social success in Latam is not a function of policy choices, but rather of race or culture. The imposition of Chilean neoliberalism onto Bolivia will not make it rich. It won’t hurt, but it won’t be transformative.

  60. Gravatar of DF DF
    9. October 2012 at 16:05


    It shouldn’t surprise you that East Asian editors don’t take objection to racial/ethnic/cultural classifications. Not to be racist, but they view almost everything with through the racial/ethnic/cultural lens. (I hope this doesn’t end up on Noah’s site) It doesn’t mean their own clichés and stereotypes about themselves are accurate, though.

    I’m not scared to admit culture plays a huge role in economic success, but come on, the arguments you’ve laid out are really poor. Sorry, but they border on Niall Ferguson simplistic.

    Starting from the bottom, that’s Panama City, as in adjacent to the shipping mega-nexus, toll-collecting, full-capacity Panama Canal. Come on.

    I’ll give you this one, that Chinese do the best business-wise in SE Asia… but the Brits did more business than the natives of the Indian subcontinent during the Raj too. There is much more at play here than just what kind of culture you have, namely which culture do you belong to. Proximity/access to the home market is a big factor.

    In Latin America and Middle East, the Chinese shopkeepers, importers, etc. do the same thing. They are the only ones qualified to buy stuff from China. Is this saavy, or just some mechanical arbitrage?

    I know you didn’t use Asian wage or unemployment in this article, but I think you have before. Excuse me if I am wrong. However, for every statistic that says Asians earn more than Whites in White-majority nations, I can find you one with the reverse trend in Asian-majority nations. The credo of educated immigrants and immigrant’s children everywhere is not to settle for being a bus driver or construction worker in the “foreigners’ country” (if they are even allowed to work these jobs).

    Also, the biggest wage earners in the US aren’t Chinese or East Asians anyways. Indians are leading them by a wide margin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ethnic_groups_in_the_United_States_by_household_income). What does this say about comparing Chinese to Indian culture?

    And lastly (but most importantly), how do you view Chinese culture in light of the relative economic failure of China in the past 500 years (ex-ante the last 30)? Why wasn’t the world importing cheap Chinese steam engines? Where was the rapid integration of practical Western know-how? We can selectively move the viewing window to see whatever we want.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have many Chinese friends and acquaintances and see a deeply ingrained will to succeed and beat the average. But romanticizing their culture is a weak tool to analyze their current relative success.

    Right now, Chinese people are just very quick. They are quick to step up and seize the opportunities that are evident and abundant to them at this point in history. If Chinese history can tell us anything is that China is long overdue for an ascent.

  61. Gravatar of Canadian Canadian
    9. October 2012 at 21:45

    “I’m going to Singapore soon-any suggestions?”
    Oo oo! I’ve been there! And lived there for several months. But lots of things I was going to say has already been said. So I’ll second the most important things imo and give my 2 cents:
    1. bring an umbrella- people say there is a wet and a “dry” season, but it is actually always the wet season there.
    2. eat at the hawker centers- low cost, high quality, non-touristy food. They are everywhere, but Lau Pa Sat is a big downtown one.
    3. I enjoy walking around cities. If you do too, I would recommend along the Singapore River (yes, they have a “river” there) and around Marina Bay.
    4. Lots of people like to shop… if that’s your thing I hear Orchard Road is good for that. (it’s not my thing though, so I wouldn’t know)
    5. if plants are your thing, I thought the botanical gardens was cool (and free!) but kind of out of the way. The Orchid gardens is right beside it too.
    6. Sentosa Island is the biggest tourist trap on the island. Still kinda neat though. Kids will probably enjoy it, your wallet won’t.

    Wikitravel is a useful website.

  62. Gravatar of mbk mbk
    10. October 2012 at 00:32

    Scott, I’m a bit late to see this, but if you’re in Singapore by all means drop me an e-mail and I’ll be one more candidate to take you out somewhere, or to take you around period.

    Lots of good advice on what to visit already. Generally, you might want to see the prestige items I presume, just to check them off the list (Marina Bay Sands, the whole new Marina area, Boat Quay and Clarke Quay along the Singapore river and the CBD). I actually rarely go there. It’s a tourist and banker destination. My personal favorites are Katong, Siglap, East Coast Park. Yes Katong is now very crowded but so is pretty much everything else. Little India has got o be seen, the only place that’s still somehow allowed to be a mess. I am there all the time because it’s the only place outside industrial areas where you can actually buy useful stuff. Like, tools, screws, lumber.

    But all these places above are atypical. They’re very very special. To get a feel for the way Singaporeans actually live, I’d really, really recommend to take the MRT (subway) or a taxi to places where the bulk of people live, the “towns”. Examples: Ang Mo Kio, Toa Payoh, Tampines, Woodlands. Spend the day there. Walk around. It’s safe. Eat where you find food (everywhere). Go to the “suburban” malls. Just to get a feel for the reality that Singaporeans live in.

  63. Gravatar of Benny Lava Benny Lava
    10. October 2012 at 05:00

    “Chinese tourists tend to clump together like bees in a hive, so it is possible to find areas that are off the beaten path”

    Rugged American individualism on display in China.

  64. Gravatar of Pacemaker Pacemaker
    10. October 2012 at 07:00

    Late but Singaporean here, if that helps:
    1. Sentosa is generally a tourist trap unless you intend to just walk around or laze at the beach and pay for nothing but the ticket in.
    2. It’s the migratory bird season at the wetland areas. If you’re interested, check out Chek Jawa on Pulau Ubin, Sungei Buloh, or Pulau Semalau. You can also cycle on Pulau Ubin and see the old village-style houses on the island. Pulau Semakau is an offshore landfill.
    3. Many food stalls at the hawker centres in the Central Business District area don’t stay open for dinner. They are best for lunch on weekdays before the office crowd arrives at 12. If you’re at Maxwell food centre, you might also want to visit the URA City gallery right beside it.
    4. If you can help it, have seafood somewhere other than Newton Food Centre, because some of the seafood stalls there have a record of preying on unsuspecting tourists. East Coast Lagoon Food Village is a good alternative and if you don’t mind spending more, the East Coast Seafood Centre is nearby. Unfortunately, East Coast Park is not very accessible from any MRT station.
    5. Word of caution on suburban malls and Orchard Road. You probably have to settle for food courts (worse except for the pricier upscale ones) or restaurants in the malls because hawker centres aren’t likely to be in the vicinity.
    6. Sim Lim Square is notorious for being the place to get cheap consumer electronics but it’s easy to get cheated. Alternatively, SITEX 2012 will be held around Late November at the Singapore Expo but beware of the crowds.
    7. The Esplanade usually has some free performances at the Concert Hall, Concourse, or Waterfront: http://www.esplanade.com/whats_on/esplanade_presents/series/index.jsp
    8. Consider taking a trip to Malaysia or Indonesia. Johor Bahru is across the Causeway while Bali and Batam are a ferry ride away.
    9. Botanic Gardens are nice, as is the Orchid Garden. The new Gardens by the Bay (near Marina Bay Sands) wasn’t that amazing for me (too “built”) but the cooled conservatories there (paid entry though) may be better.

  65. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    10. October 2012 at 11:26

    DF, You say you disagree, but all your arguments support mine–except the Panama example which was obviously a joke.

    Everyone, Thanks for the Singapore tips.

  66. Gravatar of DF DF
    10. October 2012 at 17:18


    Sorry, I missed the Panama joke. I should be more careful reading your posts because your facetiousness is subtle.

    However, I don’t see how my arguments support your claims. By simply looking at relative performance, everything I said can be used to argue that being BAD at business is a particular Chinese attribute.

    If it’s available, I could look at wage and unemployment data in the PRC by country of origin and conclude that Americans and Europeans clearly are better at doing business than Chinese. Indeed, many Chinese think this, that is why they send their students to the West for education and immersion in our “innovative” culture.

    Similarly I could look at US wage data and conclude Indians have a stronger business acumen than Chinese. Maybe this attribute is stronger in Indian culture that Chinese culture? What does this say about the 21st century?

    Going back to 1980, we could say (and many did) that China was uniquely bad at economic growth, technological progress, human development relative to nearly every other major civilization. Mainland China went from very competitive circa 1500 to pretty much dead last by 1980. Perhaps this is a hallmark of their culture? That’s not to say that other cultures are “superior”; China still has the literary and culinary arts, and a rich history. Maybe I shouldn’t assume Chinese culture in the past 30 years was the same as its culture 500 years before that, but I don’t think that’s what you meant.

    So indeed, if you are just looking at relative performance and at selected windows of history, you can (erroneously) conclude that Western, Indian, and other civilizations are much more competitive than Chinese.

    I think you are viewing this from a popular but largely unsubstantiated perspective. Culture seems like a particularly weak indicator for business success, especially when there are so many more convincing factors…

    How about obvious ones, like recently liberalized trade and tariff agreements benefit the average Chinese much more than the average Westerner? Or empirical ones, like patterns and preferences in immigration tend to be correlated to that group’s success and standard of living in the host nation? Or historical ones, like its uncharacteristic that China remains down for this many centuries? Or comical ones, like economic competitiveness is determined by how much value is placed cigarettes and liquor? The West has had its day (à la Mad Men), now it’s time for the next vice-ridden society to take its place.

  67. Gravatar of Mark C Mark C
    10. October 2012 at 23:34

    Seems like everyone here are subject to some form of cognitive bias:

    First, two biased reasoners considering the same
    stream of evidence can shift their beliefs in opposite directions””both sides selectively
    accepting only favorable evidence. Gathering more evidence may not bring biased reasoners to agreement. Second, people who are more skilled skeptics””who know a larger
    litany of logical flaws””but apply that skill selectively, may change their minds more slowly than unskilled reasoners.

    Taber and Lodge (2006) examined the prior attitudes and attitude changes of students when exposed to political literature for and against gun control and affirmative
    action. The study tested six hypotheses using two experiments:

    1. Prior attitude effect. Subjects who feel strongly about an issue””even when encouraged to be objective””will evaluate supportive arguments more favorably than
    contrary arguments.
    2. Disconfirmation bias. Subjects will spend more time and cognitive resources denigrating contrary arguments than supportive arguments.
    3. Confirmation bias. Subjects free to choose their information sources will seek out supportive rather than contrary sources.
    4. Attitude polarization. Exposing subjects to an apparently balanced set of pro and con arguments will exaggerate their initial polarization.
    5. Attitude strength effect. Subjects voicing stronger attitudes will be more prone to the above biases.
    6. Sophistication effect. Politically knowledgeable subjects, because they possess greater ammunition with which to counter-argue incongruent facts and arguments, will be more prone to the above biases.

    Ironically, Taber and Lodge’s experiments confirmed all six of the authors’ prior hypotheses.

    Notice point no. 6.

    Here’s the source http://singularity.org/files/CognitiveBiases.pdf

  68. Gravatar of Ning Fu(Foenix) Ning Fu(Foenix)
    11. October 2012 at 07:21

    philemon, What you said is true, but all places you mentioned are in the south of China, and the history you said is only within 200 years. It can not be referred as ancient chinese history, i.e. different dynasties. As Scott said in the reply of “keynesian world” qing dynasty was directed by manchu, and ming and yuan dynasties were directed by mongolians. After these dynasties, china developed in a way as you mentioned.

  69. Gravatar of philemon philemon
    11. October 2012 at 08:02

    @Ning Fu

    I was responding specifically to your line “Speaking of Singapore, Chinese culture has an influen[ce] on Singapore. You still can see some people speak Cantonese”. –Until recently, the bulk of the ethnic Chinese in Singapore came or are descended from people who came from south China, specifically, places such as Fujian, Guangzhou, Hainan. And the Cantonese speakers are not the largest group. (Just reread my comment and realized that I didn’t make explicit the point that I was doing that, sorry.)

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