It is meant to be a Chinese thing. Face is very important. A western synonym might be a combination of pride and credibility. At any rate, it is important that a person not be seen to lose face; that they are not made to look foolish or stupid.  

In addition, the person who is right has to be careful not to look too superior. They are all too conscious of the Western proverb: “There but by the grace of God…”

The West, on the other hand is an “I told you so society”. It loves to rub the noses of its politicians in their mistakes and failed promises. It positively drools at the prospects of adopting an air of righteous superiority.

Asian politicians will often give their opponents a way out—an honourable exit. Their Western counterparts, will hound, pester and plague their rivals to the bitter end.  Their aim is to strengthen their position with an adversarial political system that allows nothing less than the total humiliation of their foe.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. The retention of face is more of a long game. It recognises that today’s enemy could be tomorrow’s ally. Forcing a loss of face is more a winner takes us all scenario.

The prize in the West is higher. But so is the price paid the loser, which is why they fight so hard to win, and if they can’t win they fight hard not to lose. When caught in a lie—or a mistake– they double down, fabricate, invent,  cover-up, issue counter-accusations, rant, rave… almost anything and everything short of an admission of  error or wrongdoing.

It is not only the specific politicians who act this way. Their supporters follow suit. They are so afraid of being made to look foolish in the eyes of friends, relatives and neighbours that they will mimic whatever their political leader says because they have no option to do otherwise if they wanted to avoid the dreaded phrase: “I told you so.” The dangers of division and the opportunities for compromise and common purpose are hampered.

The Asian view, however, may ignore painful truths with the danger that they may blow up in their faces at a later and inopportune time.

One system lends itself to the more free-for-all democratic system with representatives elected by the public at large. The other leans towards a centralised totalitarian state or what some political leaders are wrongly labelling “an illiberal democracy.”

At the moment the democratic system in Britain, America and the rest of Europe has thrown up extremism and division. The recent election of the far-right Vox party in Spain, Matteo Salvini’s League in in Italy, the success of the Alternative for Deutschland, Marine le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Donald Trump and his impeachment and Brexit and an extreme left-right election in the UK.

Political systems are constructed by fallible humans and thus riddled with flaws. The democratic system is currently foundering, Itsfailings are becoming apparent for all to see. But often the choices are not between good and bad but between bad and worse. A combination of common sense and common humanity dictates  it must be worse to deny people the right to participate in the political process.

However, the West can still learn from less representative systems. Its politicians and their supporters can learn the value of saving face for themselves and their opponents. When the dust finally settles—and it will—then the emphasis must be on finding a renewed common purpose. To do that Western political leaders should take a leaf from the book of the East and avoid crowing: “I told you so.”

Tom Arms is currently completing a new book on Anglo-American relations.

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2 Comments on "Losing Face"

  1. Thanks for an interesting article Tom.

    The refusal of Western politicians to ‘do the honourable thing’ is, I fear, a recent development. A politician who resigns their post because it’s the right thing to do is now the exception rather than the rule. Now contrast that with Japan where weeping ministers appear on TV apologising to the voting public whilst bowing in respect. I can’t imagine anyone doing that in the House of Commons.

    However the Asian weakness of never saying no to something because it means loss of face can sometimes come back and bite them in the backside. Outsourcing is the current fad and if you ask your chosen organisation ‘can you support package ‘X”? the answer is always an enthusiastic yes, even if they have never heard of the software.

    Choices choices.

  2. As the world shrinks West can learn from East and vice versa. Hopefully they will learn the good things

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