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LAST WORD: Chabudou Culture.….But Why?
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Chabudou Culture...But Why?

By Mike Cormack

BT 201612 001 Last wordMy wife and I took a trip to the UK sometime back and hired a local handyman to do a bit of decorating in our apartment while we were away. We were renting, so this was purely cosmetic: some wallpaper stripping and painting the walls, skirting boards and window frames. When we came back, the walls were good but the window frames were half done and their undersides appeared completely neglected. We'd paid beforehand, of course. So I suggested to my wife that we call and ask them to finish the job, to which she said they would refuse. I insisted, she called and she turned out to be right. The job was cha bu duo, "good enough", they insisted.

This Chinese phrase is one that gives away a culture. You see the result of it all too frequently. I once worked in Jiangsu University, which had lovely marbled floor in one of its teaching buildings, but whose paintwork was raw and unfinished. Cha bu duo. I once ordered a ham, cheese, lettuce and tomato sandwich in a Silk Market cafe (there was a picture on the wall). They delivered a ham and cheese sandwich. I asked for lettuce and tomato. They added lettuce. Cha bu duo. A friend of my wife had recently bought a new apartment. There were already cracks forming in the concrete of the drying space. Cha bu duo. One time a boss had a leaving do in a street-side BBQ joint. The food that arrived was a rough approximation of whatever we had ordered - they just kept plopping stuff down. Cha bu duo.

BT 201612 001 Last word02
A recent article by British writer James Palmer named "Chabuduo! Close enough..." jogged my memory of these and countless incidents of the similar nature. After listing his own examples, Palmer analyzes why cha bu duo culture is endemic in China. Improvisation was essential to keep things going in an economy that was once lacking in most essentials. It's also a "casual dismissal of problems", where you are supposed to accept what's procured for you. If you have an intermittently-working fridge when your neighbor doesn't have one, what are you complaining about? But this indifference is also, as Palmer notes, endemic in industry where health and safety forethought is minimal. We've all been dumbstruck at bamboo-scaffolding, fâ€Ã‚¦-you-buddy driving and aghast at gutter oil and fake foods. Cha bu duo. But modern life demands precision just as the trains that first brought standardized national times and factories that brought regimentation, timing everyone to the minute.

But this modernity, Palmer says, did not come to China. He gives a number of reasons why: modern "industrial feedback loops are severed" because workers often make products they cannot afford to use. Companies avoid blame wherever possible, with the complicity of local governments who need to maintain employment. Regulators and judiciary lack independence and trade associations are similarly toothless.

All of this might well be true but there is, I think, a basic economic-philosophical principle that explains the prevalence of cha bu duo. In an open market, as Adam Smith noted in The Wealth Of Nations, the butcher provides good products not for your benefit but for his. This gets him repeat business and more money. This is "the invisible hand" of the market operating for the benefit of all. But this can break down in China owing to the gargantuan population and the opacity and untrustworthiness of information. In the classic situation that Adam Smith posits, the butcher operates locally with a reputation that he has to protect. Customers know him and can assess his merit as a butcher.

But let's say you go to a cafe as I did and receive shoddy service. Beijing has countless cafes and restaurants and a massive population. The happiness or unhappiness of customers, beyond a certain point, is essentially unimportant compared to the footfall of its location. If a cafe fails to induce repeat customers, there will always be more people passing by. How can they know its reputation? Smith's analogy can only apply in places with populaces who can know each other well enough to exchange information. This is the reason why bar and restaurant chains are so popular in large cities: not so much for their quality as for their predictability.

There are a number of business areas where local knowledge breaks down and cannot generate a reputation for a vendor. The black market will always be murky: businesses operate underground, customers often do not talk about them and the desire for a good deal overcomes the risk of poor service. Shops, bars and restaurants in tourist areas similarly are notorious precisely because their transient customer base prevents a reputation from building, whether for good or bad. While the actual tourist location is dependent on being known as a good place to visit, places nearby can get fat off it by ripping off customers. We've all been there.

How can this be overcome? Some websites enable people to review businesses so you can see what it's like. But even here information can be hard to trust. Is that glowing five-star review actually by the business owner? Who can tell? The only thing that can improve certainty is trustworthy knowledge. But at the moment this is still only cha bu duo.

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