Reading Kenneth Pollack’s (“Arabs at War”) observations about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of Arab military culture, I am struck by its similarities with Chinese bureaucratic culture. Lack of trust and lateral communication, a hierarchical relational structure, the withholding of information, compartmentalization, and preoccupation with “saving face” are several observable trends that inhibit Arab military effectiveness; across the Asian continent, many of the same limiting practices inhibit the missions of Chinese bureaucratic institutions at both the highest and lowest levels.
Pollack describes indirect communication and secrecy as permeating Arab military culture throughout the past several decades. For Arab military officers, information is power; by withholding information and technical know-how, they safeguard their own relevance to the mission; however by refusing to disseminate this information the officer also inhibits the effectiveness of his team and can harm the overall mission. What if he were killed or incapacitated? Who would know what do and how to do it then? This is a stark contrast to American military culture, where communication is comparatively open and direct, and all units have undergone basic training have basic technical competence.
Similarly, it is commonplace in China to observe an office where only one administrator has the authority to approve certain functions. Even the most mundane and routine tasks must be approved by this administrator; as a result junior administrators become dependent on the involvement of the superior. By disseminating some authority or knowledge, the administrator could improve the efficiency of the entire bureaucratic entity; however in guarding his/her own authority he/she safeguards his/her own relevance as well.
An extremely hierarchical relational structure and preoccupation with “saving face” also inhibits communication in Arab militaries. Pollack describes how junior officers are reluctant to criticize their superiors and often conceal better performance at the risk of humiliating, and making enemies of, their superiors. Similarly, Chinese workers often do not deign to criticize or even offer suggestions to their superiors, even when they have a critical piece of information, know a certain project will fail and are given the opportunity to speak. A huge gulf exists between those giving orders and those carrying out orders, as everyone is hugely aware of and is almost paranoid about “saving face”. This tendency harms the effectiveness of the whole mission, as each individual is forced to prioritize their own presence and relevance to the mission over team effectiveness.
Pollack concludes that certain cultural tendencies harm the overall missions of Arab military units. Similarly, in Chinese bureaucratic culture, several prevailing cultural tendencies inhibit the functioning of the whole office. An increase in egalitarian attitudes, dissemination of information and authority, and increased trust could improve function in both cases, no matter the mission.