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  • August 19, 2011

As Economy Booms, China Faces Growing Diversity Challenges

by Andrés T. Tapia and Susan Welch,  Diversity Best Practices —

Truly homogenous populations exist perhaps in only a few tiny regions in the world–in ancient, relatively untouched cultures. Everywhere else, cultures, ethnicities, and genders clash. Here is a look at one country’s, China’s, diversity issues.

China appears, on the surface, to have relatively few cultural issues. After all, its dominant Han population accounts for 91% of all people in China. Mandarin is the official language and is widely spoken. Improvements in health have increased longevity.

Despite this somewhat rosy picture, challenges persist:

Myriad Ethnically and Language Diverse Groups
According to this Wall Street Journal analysis, China faces challenges fully integrating its Han culture, within which there are distinctions between Cantonese, Hakka, Fujianese, and others. Eight different languages make up the Han culture, and while Mandarin is officially spoken, it isn’t necessarily the language spoken at home. The other 9% of the non-Han population is made up of another 55 cultures.  And in a population of 1.3 billion, 9% is equal to 117 million people.

Brewing Ethnic Conflicts
As China seeks to expand its economic growth beyond its Tier 1 cities, minority cultures feel the crunch. In 2009, ethnic tension resulted in bloody conflicts between China’s Hans and Turkish-speaking, Muslim Uighurs. China has invested $100 billion in the remote Xinjiang region where the violence occurred, so addressing ongoing tension will be critical. Unfortunately, as the region grows in importance, so, too, grows the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Gender Imbalance
A more obvious challenge for the Chinese is its ongoing gender imbalance, which threatens to get worse in coming decades. Centuries-old cultural tradition places greater value on male children in China. Under the one-child policy, parents have abandoned or aborted girls. Today in China, 119 boys exist for every 100 girls; in some regions the ratio is 130 boys to 100 girls. It is anticipated that by 2024, some 24 million men in China will have difficulty finding wives. Exacerbating the problem, girls and young women in China are moving to urban areas for work, and often finding husbands there. Thus, the poor, rural men in China are those who will be left behind. As noted here, men in China do not “marry up.” A slew of single rural males will be a population to contend with in the future.

Caring for the Aging
As observed, health–and thus, longevity–have improved in recent years in China. This is a good news/bad news scenario, because, as fertility rates remain low, the elderly population in China is rapidly increasing. Ironically, as noted by the Population Reference Bureau, only 25 years ago China thought it faced the opposite problem: too many children. Today, in fact, China’s youth face a future described as “1-2-4: one child caring for two parents and four grandparents.” Although they fly in the face of Chinese cultural tradition, nursing homes are proliferating. Elderly citizens increasingly will need care for their chronic conditions and diseases. Today, 9 working-age adults exist for every senior citizen in China, but by 2050 that ratio will decrease to 2.5 to 1.

Normalizing Disability
For China, disability is a mixed bag. Even today, disabled people are referred to in discriminatory language: The disabled most frequently are called canji, which literally translates to “deficient/deformed and diseased.” But, according to this BBC article, China is changing, albeit slowly. According to the Disaboom disability website, 83 million people in China are disabled. A 2003 assessment, reported here, found that 84% of China’s disabled population was working. But it was only this past January that China enacted laws to ensure wheelchair access. Other laws, some addressing specific disabilities such as paralyzed or missing limbs, are in the works.

Wrestling with Granting LGBT Rights
Gay rights represent another mixed bag for China. For centuries, relative tolerance existed, but from the 1950s onward homosexuality was forbidden. In 2004, an estimated 5 to 10 million Chinese men between ages 15 and 49 reported being gay. And yet, this analysis projects that 90% of LGBT people in China will marry a member of the opposite sex, due to familial and societal pressure. More than 60% of gay Chinese men had not “come out.” As described in The Guardian, it was only in 2001 that homosexuality was removed from China’s list of state-approved mental illnesses.

Being Equipped to Manage Global Diversity
As Chinese companies go multinational, they’re falling into the same ethnocentric traps other economically expansive countries such as Britain, the US, and Spain have experienced throughout the centuries. Anthropologist Chan Wan, who is also assistant professor in the Department of Chinese at Lingnan University in Hong Kong says that China not tending to encourage or even acknowledge diversity hinders its business growth. “I think it is a barrier to actually operating in the world,” says Chan. “The Chinese find it difficult to expand overseas because they don’t understand foreign cultures. … I think the advantage of [engaging] diversity is when an economy starts to expand outwards and do business with overseas countries.”

From this quick audit of diversity issues in China, it’s evident that despite China’s booming economic strength, and now more because of it, it too must seek to effectively manage the inclusion paradox in order to optimize its ability to create a sustainable  society and sustainable economic growth.

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