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The Chinese culture of failure

The evolving sentiments towards entrepreneurship in China

· miscellaneous

{{{Gerald Pollak}}}

China is on the rise in many of the global start-up rankings. With $30.9 bn venture capital investments in 2018 the total amount of invested VC capital in China surpassed the amount in North America for example. The sum of investments keeps rising and many of the most successful uni- and multicorns are coming from the middle kingdom. For instance, Bytedance, the originator of TikTok, with a valuation of $75 bn the most valuable start-up in the world, and SenseTime, the most valuable AI start-up globally. However, as everywhere else entrepreneurial success stories are always directly connected with risk taking, fears and set-backs. In a country like China, where entrepreneurial mind-sets have started to develop since the opening of the market in 1978, the culture of failing has not yet fully arrived in the society but is slowly being more accepted.

铁饭碗 („tie fan wan“) – the iron rice bowl as communist career goal

Traditionally jobs related to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or public institutions have high reputation. After years of one-child policy, six people (four grandparents, father and mother) focus on the education of children. These children learn from these two generations at home that a state-near job promises a stable, riskless income and thus a secure future for the whole family. That job security when working for the government is represented through the idiom 铁饭碗 („tie fan wan“), meaning the iron rice bowl. Such an iron rice bowl cannot break and thus promises saturated stomachs.

The Chinese government is aware that a change in mind and promotion of entrepreneurship is necessary to be competitive globally. The policy and reforms of opening up have been used to take fears of failing from the people in China and to increase attractiveness of starting a business. State subsidies and funds are used to give entrepreneurs the necessary financial support. For example, a national venture capital fund for emerging industries of $5.8 bn was founded in 2015.

中庸 („zhong yong“) – the philosophy of balance in life 

The wisdom of Confucius is still being used in Chinese culture. One of the philosophies or thinking patterns is that life is determined by balance and harmony. Even though Chinese people traditionally want to avoid failure and prefer high job security, they are aware that success and failure are highly dependent on each other. Success and failure create a balance in life. One could say that failure is part of success and success without failure is no ideal balance. Combining that thought with the fact that in a capitalistic world higher risk leads to higher return, there is a rising awareness that failure is a chance.

世上无难事只怕有心人 („tiān xià wú nán shì , zhǐ pà yǒu xīn rén“) – nothing in the world is difficult, as long as you want to do it

One of the reasons why especially younger generations in China start to accept that risk and fear failure less are the huge success stories from entrepreneurs like Jack Ma. The founder of Alibaba was a teacher before starting his own company and made it to become one of the richest people in China. Despite the growing middle class in China there is still a large portion of the population who do not have a lot to lose. Thus, risks are being taken to realize the dream of wealth. Especially younger Chinese have dreams in life and is optimistic that they can be realized. A Chinese saying is that nothing in the world is difficult as long as you want to do it. As a result, a culture of failure as mother of financial success is slowly finding its way into society. Maybe in a few years from now parents will not teach their kids about the iron rice bowl but the golden rice bowl of being an entrepreneur.

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