…and the interpreter replied—No

Have you ever seen the joke where two businessmen, an American and a Chinese are working out a deal with the assistance of a Chinese interpreter? The American businessman asks a question which gets interpreted through a great and lengthy process involving multiple conversations, a lot of symbolic writing on the palm of the hand, and many looks of consternation. After several minutes the interpreter turns to the businessman and simply says “no” —which is the answer to the question. While humorous, this is in fact a real phenomena as anyone attempting to do business in China can attest.

What we have here is a failure to communicate—not between the American businesman and the Chinese businessman, but between the interpreter and the Chinese businessman.

A little background is in order. China is a large country aggregated from multiple totally indigestible chunks–even for a maw as large as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). There are two major languages, Cantonese and Mandarin, which are essentially incompatible with Cantonese having 9 tonal variants and Mandarin four. Within China it is estimated that there are over 200 dialects of Mandarin alone. Plus there are other essentially separate languages used in the autonomous regions.

A person from the north Chinese province of Xisang has little chance of being understood by someone from Shanghai. What is actually occurring in the parable above is that the two Chinese are attempting to converge concepts so that they may actually communicate.

When each draws on his hand, he’s referring to Chinese characters, each a symbol for a concept and each mnemonically stable over the various dialects. Once the question is properly framed, the answer become possible to elucidate.

As a result, ideas, innovation and commerce tend to be predominately local. However, there are a great many Chinese, even in a local area bounded by dialect. From outside this looks like either a great untapped market or the scariest thing since Japan reinvented the transistor radio. More optimistic (or scared) Westerners look at local markets and say things like

Oh Shandong Province has 90 million people, I can extrapolate this market to the entire Chinese population and get numbers in the potential billions of customers.”

.. or

This group in Shanghai is innovating like crazy. What the hell happens when the rest of the country does the same.”

A more astute observer wonders whether the people of China can become the engineering and dynamic powerhouse of the 21st Century when they cannot even talk to each other. The CCP has taken notice of this and has mandated that Mandarin be taught as the common language. Dialects are still a major problem.

And then there is the written language which resembles the paths of an ink-dipped drunken rooster. On the plus side, (upon further reflection) since it’s derived from pictograms, it’s stable across all these various dialects and languages. On the minus side, building vocab requires learning an ever increasing set of new characters. By some estimates, a minimum of 5000 symbols are required for family level discourse. 20,000 are required for an educated Chinese to read a newspaper on the level of the New York Times. To read the Wall Street Journal from front to back: 50,000-70,000 symbols. A paper in computer science or biotechnology has symbol sets in the 100,000 range per discipline. Cross-discipline or interdisciplinary research is off to a crashing halt—you need to learn the discipline specific set for yours and the additional set of your coworker. So basic research has a chance— integrated applications —eh—not so much.

Stangely enough, the common language (with its attendant symbol set) for engineering and research is de facto becoming English. Mandarin is not particularly suited for engineering and science as it forces both sides of the brain to work. Chinese learn English if they are going to be doing science and engineering because to not learn English is the equivalent of clamping on concrete overshoes at the start of a 100 meter race.

Enter St. George.

This gives the Western world a unique opportunity. In order to promote Democracy is China, we have only to insert some “viral memes”, perhaps as English ‘borrow words’. The French are always complaining about how English is tainting their ever-so-pure language, so let’s do it on purpose with the Chinese. Some of this is already happening—witness the CCP’s attempt to restrict Google search engine output, or restrict what terms are available in Microsoft Office’s built-in lexicon. The Western world should make every attempt to load up the scientific and technical disciplines with dual use connotations for essential engineering concepts. The CCP still views politics as independent of science and technology—a glaring flaw in their world view, as it is the free exchange of ideas that promote advancement in science.

The CCP’s position is essentially self-defeating anyway. What absurdity prompts them to sponsor thousands of students to Western Colleges where they learn the language, absorb and train in the technology; and yet expect them not to be exposed to democracy? The CCP will either have to allow the nasty democratic connotations or disallow English.

If they do the latter, they are hobbled and Chinese hegemony is no longer a threat—it becomes in fact a paper dragon. If they do the former, we also win, as the concepts the CCP wants to suppress are put to use, leading to increased awareness of the benefits of democracy and economic freedom.