The inability to plan ahead – A Chinese phenomenon

As many people in China can attest to, it is not uncommon for events to be organized extremely late. Alternatively, they may change in a hurry, with individuals finding out moments before an event starts that it has been cancelled.

In the time I have been here, I have often wondered why this was the case. It was particularly common among my fellow foreigners when working in schools. I might turn up to give a class, and there is already a teacher there giving a different class. Alternatively, the students are not there at all because they are doing something else. Sometimes, we would be told that an event would be happening that afternoon that we would need to attend – after hours. The opposite could also occur, where an event was organized and then cancelled at the last minute.

I’ve also experienced this in other workplaces, where events on weekends are organized that people are expected to attend. I am the sort of person that likes to plan my weekends out in advance and do not appreciate being given “compulsory” work activities on a weekend for which I will not be paid. Fortunately, my actions never seemed to cause too much trouble for management in this sense.

If people are unfamiliar with such compulsory events, this is one such retelling of a terrible one.

In fairness, this is beyond the normal scope of events, but the lack of organizational skills isn’t too far off. The late arrival of buses and of people, the extremely late announcement of the event, the requirement to arrive super early – I’ve heard of this and experienced it before as well.

On the other hand, once you understand the way Chinese organizations operate, it makes a lot more sense.

Chinese organizations tend to be very centralized, with information being held by those that need it until they believe it needs to be distributed further down the hierarchy. As a result, the next group receiving that information will hold it until they need to pass it on, and so on. This is not a problem when organizations are pretty flat, as data gets spread quickly through the few layers. However, in other organizations, this can lead to highly disorganized communications.

I had an incident like this in my previous employment. I was preparing to write some articles about a group of students, ahead of the end of year celebrations. Out of the blue, I was told that 11 articles needed to be written in the space of a week. When I inquired about the materials for those articles, I was sent various Chinese documents that were the student’s responses to their vague questions.

Apoplectic does not come close to how I was feeling at that moment. While my colleagues could work together to write these articles, I was basically on my own. I was supposed to generate these articles by myself, with the first due on Monday (I received this information on Friday morning). In all honesty, I was starting to break down. It would be a massive volume of work, alongside the considerable workload I already had.

In the end, I wound up coming in on multiple weekends to get through the backlog, with no thanks from my agency or employer for finishing my half on time. In fact, my supervisor never finished reading all my articles for her to check – she said, “She would get to them.”

Anyway, I’m not there now – I’m where I am now, and things tend to get organized in advance. That makes me happier, being the personality type that I am.

Have you experienced anything like this? Let me know in the comments below!


3 thoughts on “The inability to plan ahead – A Chinese phenomenon

  1. Honestly I find the title pretty offensive. Comes off a bit as the usual China bashing expat who knows how to fix everything.
    reads like “Chinese people are unable to think” (ahead). If this is strategic communication, it’s a pretty mean strategy.


    1. That’s a totally fair call and I understand where you are coming from. It is click-baity… I won’t deny that.
      However, I would argue it is something I have experienced far more with Chinese people than I have with other cultures, albeit with my limited experience.


      1. If you’re happy with a post that sports an offensive, colonially flavored clickbait title for a post based on anecdotal and limited experience, then that’s your prerogative entirely, sure.


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