Professionalism/Drinking Culture in China
In November 2010, Xinhua News published pictures of three young men, smartly dressed with suits and ties, lying on the ground, unconscious. According to the article, one of the students, Sun Hong, is still a fourth-year college student. The next day after he was sent to the emergency room, he was transferred to the observation room, sober, and explained to the reporter what had happened.
He said he was going to graduate next year (2011), and was interested in a marketing job. He passed the paper test and the interview without any problem. All four of the drunken students were selected from 20 competitors. Sun was then selected to perform in the company’s second test. The company held the second test as a dinner in a high-class restaurant. Sun thought it a challenge. He said in his interview “I don't smoke or drink, but this time I have to show a good capacity of liquor." He did not remember how much he drank that night. In the emergency room, one of the four young men was murmuring his resume in English. He vomited several times, but kept murmuring. Another young man was awakened by the noise and started convulsion. Sometimes these two young men talked to each other and cried.
Chinese Drinking Culture
This case is not special. Chinese people drink to succeed in business. It is such a well-known phenomenon that has become an unwritten law in China. Attracting business investments has become the most important task to many government offices. Many district government officials have to host dinners to “improve Guanxi” to attract funding and policy support from upper governments.
This is also the case in most private companies. Many departments hire public relations officers, and these are usually the people who are good at drinking. They talk and entertain guests, and help the company bring in new contracts and opportunities. In some senses, Chinese are good at seizing the grey areas of legal policies, and drinking is such a case because the law prohibits drinking during working hours but never restricted drinking out of business hours.
Moderate drinking is a hobby and pleasure, but business drinking is way beyond the limit. Pints of liquor every dinner and most of seven days each week is the usual amount. Too much going out at night and going home drunk have been the primary cause of broken family relationships, not to mention irretrievable health issues. Use of public funds for drinking can be carefully covered with non-published budgets, increasing the opportunity for bribery.
- Enforced expense of drinking. Hengnan county committee published a “red-header” document (not a kind of document with legal enforcement, but given the name as a kind of document that the higher government departments give to the lower government with a red header) to have the lower-level departments to consume in XinQuan restaurant at least for a certain amount. The 109 lower departments have to spend 17 million Chinese Yuan, which is covered with county government public funding.
- The former deputy director of Tianjin Hedong district labor bureau spent 5 million Yuan in simply 14 months. He host dinners every two days on average, and 2000 Yuan each time. He said, “as long as I don’t put it in my pocket, drinking and eating is just nothing”.
- The secretary of the Xinyang Xinxian county municipal commission of population and family planning died of too much drinking in a treatment. The county then posthumously awarded him “Outstanding Communist party member” and a third class merit. 400 government officials joined his memorial meeting. 
A survey shows that dining with public funds amounted to 37 billion Yuan in 1989, 40b in 1990, 80b in 1992, 100b in 1994, 200b in 2002, 370 b in 2004 and at last 600b in 2005 which is 3 times the national defense expenses. These are never officially admitted figures, but from people’s experiences, the Chinese people can feel an incredibly large amount spent on business eating.
Ethics or Status Quo Trap
The history of drinking can date back to hundreds even thousands years in time. An old saying from 200A.D. in Dynasty of Three Kingdoms says “heat the wine to talk about heroes". Treating guests with good wine is a way to show respect and friendship. A famous poet in Tang Dynasty said in his poetry when his friend was leaving that “please have another cup, because when you leave, you won't see such a friend again”.
The good faith of wine drinking is then distorted. We can't talk about the meaning of drinking without mentioning China’s ethics of hierarchy and order. Chinese people believe everything has its position, every rule should be followed, and the lower-rank people should show full respect to the higher-rank people. Learning about drinking is serious business. The seating position, who should toast first, what to say when toast, games to play, and most important, what kind of alcohol to choose, are very important. A wrong action will easily bring embarrassment, and will be seen as being disrespectful.
Another really important Chinese ethic is that “the rule from our ancestor is always right”. Although drinking is a problem for many businessmen, anyone hardly ask why such habit has existed, nor did anyone try to change the situation. Everyone abide by this unwritten drinking rule. So it is interesting to see that the status quo trap is actually from Chinese ethics.
Drink or Fail?
Many companies in China have implicit requirements when they hire people, including the drinking skills. This situation exists not only in job positions that involve interpersonal communications like marketing and sales, but also surprisingly in jobs like engineering. People are forced to drink to get their contracts signed or to improve “guanxi” with the boss or colleagues. Otherwise they face the risk of being fired or losing their contract.
Ms He, who is in charge of the Administration department in a car company in Hanyang, said that she lost her job after one month in the company. She and her assistant were in a dinner party held by the company, and both of them ordered soft drinks instead of liquor. At the time of toasting their boss, they didn’t switch to liquor, and the boss seemed unhappy about this, telling them they were not good at “building atmosphere”. They didn’t take this on board and explained to the boss that they really “cannot drink”. The next day in their office, they were told that they were fired, because the boss thought they were unable to bring up the drinking atmosphere during the dinner, and therefore were unable to work in the department.
Reasons of Failure in Refusing Drinking
It is possible to lose one's job by not complying with China's drinking culture, although people know that excessive drinking harms health. Why it is so hard to say "no" to drinking?
In a psychological experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram (Milgram Experiment), measurements were taken on the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. Subjects were assigned as teachers for a fake memory test, and they sat in a room with experiment assistants. If “students” who were actually actors in another room were unable to pass a test, they got a fake electrical shock from the teachers who though shocks were real. The subjects were told by assistants to increase the voltage of shock every time the “students” failed to pass a test. Some teachers refused but some obeyed and continued. The teachers who continued the test believed that the scientist-looking assistants were experts in electricity, and if they said the electrical current was not harmful, then it would not be harmful. This experiment illustrates that people may fall into mental sets when they make decisions.
Like the teachers in the Milgram Experiment, the drinking businessmen are taught that it is right to drink, and they fall into the mental set that drinking is the only way to success in business. Therefore they would not refuse to drink. Interestingly, research has been done to show that many people who urge others to drink in business dinners are often not their direct bosses. Therefore many times people who are urged to drink actually don't benefit from their complying behaviors.
Fear of Superior Power
The example of Rodney Rocha can explain another reason why people don't often say "no". Rodney Rocha was the head of the Debris Assessment Team responsible for analyzing impact damage on the shuttle during the operation of the space shuttle Columbia in January and February, 2003. He recognized potential damage of the space shuttle when it launched, and asked NASA for high resolution images of the outer structure of the space shuttle, but didn’t get response. He wrote another email to his boss addressing the problem, but didn’t send it out for fear of disobedience. The space shuttle disintegrated over Texas upon re-entry on February 1, 2003, causing death of nine astronauts.
Similarly, why do Chinese people think that they “don't have a chance” and that they are forced to drink? Because they believe that refusing to drink will upset their bosses, and it is not a choice at all. "Guang-ben-wei" is a Chinese word, which means government standard consciousness. The social sense of value is based on one's job position. The higher position, the more valuable the person. Thus, not like in the western world, the fear is not only about being punished, but they morally fear the social concept - that they shouldn't offend a superior power.
Drinking culture is embedded in the Chinese society. Many people, although knowing that overly drinking harms the health and waste money, still comply with this culture to achieve their goals or to avoid severe consequences.
It is a very popular view among many people that if one cannot change the world, he'd better change himself to fit into this world. However, as professionals in a non-professional society, we often have to stick to our rules. We should always try to avoid falling into our mental sets, and be courageous to be different, and this makes our conclusion today.
- 12/11/2010, Xinhua News
- Min Ding; Jie Xu (7 August 2014). "Drinking Culture". The Chinese Way. Routledge. pp. 41–47. ISBN 978-1-317-81830-4. http://books.google.com/books?id=qI09BAAAQBAJ&pg=PA41.
- 04/08/2003, Xinhua News
- 10/27/1998, People’s Daily
- 03/12/2008, People’s Daily
- 7 August 2012, Suzhou Talent Network