The Chinese Concept of “Cha Bu Duo” Is Not What You Think It Means

Spend enough time in the Greater China region and you’ll learn about “cha bu duo” (差不多), yet the Internet still gets this wrong by suggesting bad solutions. Cha bu duo translates to“difference not much,” but it means, “close enough.” At personal levels, cha bu duo is positive, and a way for saying, “This is practical.” In a professional setting, it usually means something negative.

1. Expressing forgiveness or acceptance

In your personal life, cha bu duo can help you be kinder towards situations you don’t understand, and more tolerant. Not everything has to be a big deal. Short a few renminbi or New Taiwan dollars? No big deal. Cha bu duo.

This also includes Chinglish. For example, “So many luggage?” It should be, “So much luggage,” but many vs. much in a different use case is correct — like, “So many cookies.” Cha bu duo. Still, bad examples where a double meaning applies - “Understanding Wild Asses” at the zoo - should be called out.

2. Describing substandard quality

A half-assed job. A disregard for procedure. Philosopher Hu Shih (胡適) wrote a famous allegory about cha bu duo to protest substandard work by government employees. Shih also wrote, “Each day, Mr. Chabuduo’s name is uttered by countless people to the extent that he has come to represent the entire population of China.” Sadly, that’s still true.

When cha bu duo seems pervasive, it’s fair to question whether everything will be cha bu duo from now on.

The most obvious explanation is there are many more workers than bosses, but Shih put the power in the hands of workers, a reasonable presumption in 1924, when the Communist movement was taking hold in China.

“Mr Cha Buduo doesn’t understand why he misses trains by arriving at 8:32 instead of 8:30, or why his boss gets angry when he writes 1,000 instead of 10, or why Iceland is different from Ireland. He falls ill and sends for Dr Wāng, but ends up getting Mr Wáng, the veterinarian, by mistake. Yet as he slips away, he is consoled by the thought that life and death, after all, are close enough.” — The Life of Mr. Chabuduo, by Hu Shih

Today, a lot of cha bu duo is driven from the top. Most of the time it creeps into cost-cutting, like substandard parts in electronics. Most people won’t notice lower quality, slower RAM chips in a phone.

A Samsung TV board, made in China. Bulging caps are bad. Courtesy: ArsTechnica

More obvious is when televisions fail because the factory used a cheaper capacitor in the power supply. Today, many smart TVs in America are assembled in the United States, although the boards come from China.

Element Electronics in North Carolina is a well-known example, although other brands do it.

Shipping large televisions is expensive, so quality control for low-margin products isn’t the only reason for the production shift. But, it’s more manageable.

Expat Expectations and Chinese Society

The closest comparison to describing cha bu duo in American culture might be the saying, “Horseshoes and hand grenades, close doesn’t count.” One reason Westerners experience “close doesn’t count” is they tend to trust professionals to do their jobs, not tell them how to do it.

That’s hard to do, if you don’t know what they’re doing (otherwise, you’d do it), or how to speak their mother tongue (which could be a dialect). Without setting a standard and being specific, Chinese workers might only do what they think is practical or necessary.

  • Black mold in a room? Just paint over it. Cha bu duo.
  • A pinch of this instead of a teaspoon of that? Cha bu duo.
  • Is the stitching around the seams crooked? Cha bu duo.

Chinese bosses often use an authoritarian style to tell workers exactly what they want. This has pluses if the manager knows what to do, but can lead to bad results if they are uninformed, corrupt, or too cheap.

Take the last year alone. You don’t have a proper cold-storage chain to send vaccines? Well, stick some ice in the parcels and put them in the post. Chabuduo, and children cough to death. Why take the sludge to a disposal site? Just pile it up here, where everyone else has been putting it. Chabuduo, and 91 people are crushed by a landslide in Guangdong. Separate out the dangerous materials? What does it matter, just stick that nitrate over there. Chabuduo, and a fireball goes up in Tianjin, north China’s chief port, incinerating 173 people. — Chabuduo! Close enough … How China Became the Land of Disastrous Cost-Cutting, Aeon

Expats aren’t being picked on or explicitly taken advantage of because of a cultural barrier. They’re experiencing a different standard for getting things done which can create hazards for all. Sometimes close enough is not enough.

Close Enough is Not Good Enough, in Pop Culture

Mr. Cha Bu Duo 差不多先生, by MC Hot Dog

For what we care about, it’s clear cha bu duo is not “close enough” for anyone. There’s a hit song which pokes fun at the concept, called Mr. Cha Bu Duo 差不多先生, by MC Hot Dog.

There isn’t an acceptance of mediocrity across Chinese culture. Few people want to marry someone not quite good enough. If you like wine, cha bu duo is fine on most days but not for a special occasion.

However, when cha bu duo seems pervasive, it’s fair to question whether everything will be cha bu duo from now on.

“Apparently for many Taiwanese companies, cha bu duo translates to hakuna matata.” — The 5 Least Business-Friendly Practices in Taiwan, Tricky Taipei

Sadly, there are some very, very bad recommendations for solving cha bu duo on the Internet.

Bad Solutions for Cha Bu Duo (Including Kaizen)

Don’t mix cultural concepts

Kaizen, from the Japanese, is not a remedy for Chinese cha bu duo (links 1, 2). Japanese and Chinese cultures are very different, and the management style is completely different. The negotiation style is different. Problem-solution paradigms. Greeting each other and business entertainment practices. You get the point. No one is using Mexican customs to solve problems in the U.S. on the basis that both are part of North America.

This very bad advice is the kind of uninformed point-of-view written by people who study the Far East as a single entity instead of a diverse set of Asian peoples and norms. Or, don’t have meaningful corporate experience in Japan or Greater China.

Map of 2012 anti-Japanese protests in China. Courtesy: Wikipedia

In modern history, the big players in Chinese and Japanese culture (China and Japan) aren’t best friends. World War 2 saw the bitter Second Sino-Japanese War. In 2012, there was a wave of anti-Japanese riots in Chinese cities. Taiwan has far friendlier links with Japan, but “Japanese lackey” (日本走狗) is still used as an insult. All three don’t like foreigners telling them to how to run their business.

Most Westerners wouldn’t be expected to know this tension exists. But anyone who calls themselves an expert in the region’s affairs or Asian business should be familiar.

Transplanting one cultural concept into the other is at best, insensitive, and at worst, provocative. A company that tells Chinese people they will fix their on-going cha bu duo with good old-fashioned Japanese kaizen will soon have new problems to solve.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in Tokyo to meet his counterpart, Taro Kono. They were relaunching the “high-level economic summit” between Japan and China for the first time in eight years. The rocky relationship between the Asian neighbors has prevented the economic summit, as well as many other bilateral initiatives, from sustaining any momentum. — Behind China’s sudden olive branch to Japan, Nikkei Asian Review

However, this can be a practical solution is if you remove the risk of lost-in-cultural-translation (don’t call it kaizen), and use it in a Western setting to solve a quality control or compliance problem. But at that point, people are unlikely to be using Chinese to describe a Western problem.

It is not about slowing down or having more patience

Suggesting an individual can fix cha bu duo by setting an example (link), generally goes against the group mindset in traditional Chinese society.

He, the Chinese character for Harmony
  • The group mindset is driven by someone with more Status. Because of the special value of Status, those who have Status protect it.
  • Going against the group means disrupting the Confucian ideal of Harmony, and may present a threat to Status
  • If the person responsible for the group has enough confidence in their Status, they may make an example out of you

If you’re worried about cha bu duo in your own craftsmanship, this is a fair point. There is no Harmony to disrupt. As your own boss, you have a personal incentive to meet the professional standard that serves your Status.

Most other times, cha bu duo is accepted by the people-in-charge. This can happen for many reasons. Reaching a quota, a lower standard to pocket cost savings, hitting targets in an ill-designed incentive system, and more.

“Construction projects require huge budgets and bank loans- by cutting corners here and there, developers and contractors can pocket large sums of money. This means skimping on things like wall insulation, substituting quality exterior and interior cladding materials for inferior ones, and even using cheaper plumbing and electrical equipment.” — On Poor Quality: Corruption and Construction in China, Smart Cities Dive

Most people are just trying to get their job done, and they’d like to do it the most efficient way possible. Sometimes that means cutting corners in places people aren’t carefully looking at. However, a large number are probably just doing what their bosses told them to do.

Practical Solutions for Cha Bu Duo

Collapsed 13-story building in Shanghai. Courtesy: Telegraph

Sometimes, cha bu duo is because of a flawed system. Major construction projects in the U.S. manage quality through contemporary construction administration. This multi-stakeholder process involves architects and designers, two groups often left out in China, once they have fulfilled their duties. Fewer checks and balances may lead to cha bu duo construction.

Without proper construction administration in the U.S., details will be missed and mistakes might happen. Instead of terming this cha bu duo, Americans will file a lawsuit. You can see how characterizing a culture as “a lawsuit waiting to happen” can create awkward moments.

Try not to think of cha bu duo as part of how work gets done in Chinese culture

Turning something that should be a positive in personal lives into a negative, is a difficult way of making friends — which you will need to establish professional relationships with Chinese. Everyone has already suffered, so Chinese emotional intelligence means not making a bad situation worse.

Use the concept of cha bu duo in positive ways

Most people don’t have a say in what their bosses say is “close enough,” especially in top-down Chinese management. Questioning authority violates Status and Harmony, which threatens professional survival. In Taiwan, an entire profitable division that makes demands may be fired.

Use cha bu duo as a way of developing common understanding

Another way cha bu duo happens is when customers demand too low a price. More corners will be cut so the manufacturer can profit. If you ask for too good of a deal, at a certain point, the other side gets the deal.

Knowing where to set this boundary is challenging. Experienced shoppers at Chinese electronics markets know if they push too far, they may receive a grey market part instead of the retail SKU.

The question to ask ourselves is what satisfies the immediate needs of the situation we’re in? Also, at what point should we say, “close enough.” Ultimate quality work is not always practical, especially in mass manufacturing. Maybe the yield isn’t high, or the cost is too great.

  • If customer satisfaction is the goal, then how the customer manages and measures quality is as important. A mutual understanding of this is important for effective communication.
  • Consider what is more and what is less correct, and where to set the boundary for incorrect
  • Some German companies evaluate suppliers by asking for the best price, some American companies push for the lowest. There isn’t a right answer.

Set appropriate standards at the very top

Companies run by Chinese are capable of high-quality and professionalism. A lot of phones are haphazardly made in China, yet most iPhones are assembled in China. The expectation has to be set at the top by people with Status.

  • If people see the boss acting out and getting away with it, this is the kind of boss they will become.
  • If low quality is tolerated in all areas — not just when low quality is specified, then this will be the new standard.
  • The key is setting standards, and establishing realistic quality controls so they can be effective.

Mixing Business and Pleasure to Manage Cha Bu Duo

Cha bu duo, as a term of understanding and forgiveness, builds relationships. And guanxi (關係), the Chinese word for relationships, is important for doing business with Chinese people. It’s too broad a term, and more important in some regions, but Business and Personal often go hand-in-hand. Chinese culture is full of grey areas, and this is where things get mixed up.

Cha bu duo can help you be kinder towards situations you don’t understand, and more tolerant

There are also many zero-tolerance boundaries. Effective standards are managed with accountability, though many Westerners and Chinese confuse accountability with responsibility. Simply put, everyone has responsibility, and leaders have accountability. Businesses talk about who’s responsible, but because responsibility can be shared, it’s too easy to blame someone else. Chinese people blame each other, then Westerners blame Chinese for cha bu duo. What distinguishes Accountability is it can’t be shared.

Making it clear who’s accountable, in more manageable pieces, supports roles and honors cultures. Use the concept of cha bu duo in positive ways. These are the best tools for protecting and developing relationships, what every Western business — and person — around China, needs to grow.

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