Lubomir Krupnicki interviewed Segrii Lesnyak, a Ukrainian businessman living and working in China, who was the first to translate the original language treatise Sun Tzu “The Art of War” to Ukrainian about the contemporary use of ancient wisdom. Translated by Christina Gvozdkova. The original version is availble at ZN.UA.
The first Ukrainian translation of the original language treatise Sun Tzu “The Art of War” and contemporary use of ancient wisdom.
Translation of the ancient history treatise on military strategy and tactics (dating from the V century BC), recently published in Ukrainian, has managed to break above the 10,000th edition, which is an outstanding indicator for non-fiction books.
Obviously, such attention to the publication was primarily caused by modern Russian-Ukrainian war. Hence, the work could be considered from the military point of. (The military could be the key concept of this work). However, the “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu is also a philosophical treatise, which is interesting not only for military but for modern businessmen.
The first Ukrainian translation of ancient Chinese work is also a good opportunity to observe current Ukraine-China relations, better understand the past and present of one of the most powerful countries. All this we discussed with the translator of “The Art of War” Ukrainian businessman Sergey Lesniak who has been living and working in China for a long time.
Philosophy of victory
Q: Thousand years had gone since the book was written. Thus, the Chinese and Ukrainian are quite different in cultural and civilizational aspects. Can we state that an advice mentioned in “The Art of War” is rather contemporary, clear and relevant? What is unique about this book?
A: There are certain universal values. If the Chinese find themselves close to and understand European culture (reading Marcus Aurelius, Cicero or La Rochefoucauld), then surely thoughts of ancient Chinese author will not be completely alien to us. Moreover, the “The Art of War” Sun Tzu is a well-known work among all Western cultures.
One of its practical values is that it somehow discipline brain, operates the sound mind and leads to effective thinking.
When reading Sun Tzu it is not always clear how the advice should be implemented. And if you make the effort, a certain way of thinking is attained – systemic vision, it is easier to see causal links, you notice processes that were disregarded before. The method of perception by Sun Tzu teaches philosophy of power, the need of unorthodox solutions and the ability to manage people in critical situations. A business philosophy that grew out of this work is quite common in the globalized world, understanding of its laws makes it possible to be more competitive.
Q: Considering the reaction of military and political leaders of Ukraine to the events of recent years, is there someone familiar with Sun Tzu in your opinion?
A: Hard to say, since Sun Tzu states, “Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak”. I would love to believe that a major strategic plan stands behind. One of the main principles of Sun Tzu is to know the enemy and yourself for 100%. Then you gain a victory. There is a question: do we know our enemy? Do we research Russia? After all, we have absolutely no knowledge of the outside world. No Institute of Russia. (Conversation with Sergey Lesniak was held before a report on the establishment of the Research Centre of Problems of the Russian Federation. – Ed.). We had to be ready for this war, unfortunately, we are not.
Q: Can we observe any examples of Sun Tzu principles in a nowadays situation?
A: Sun Tzu believed that when people see themselves unitary (indivisible) – it is always a ground for victory. It should be noted that some consolidation among the population had occurred. We are more like a single organism now.
As for the tricks and stratagems, I would say that we have this inherent gift from nature. There is a lack of a clear system of rewards and punishments. This is a big threat to our country as it disunites the nation. Unworthy must be punished, and well worthy – motivated. According to Chinese philosophers when all this is not happening, people lose harmony with the governor and assumes the function of punishment and motivation themselves. This leads to riots. When I hear about the meager salaries of our soldiers or abandoned injured, it seems that the culture of the higher echelons of power doesn’t have a simple understanding of how to behave with people humanely; how to fast, humanely and effectively solve their issues even with minimal resources. The most important thing is to take care of soldiers, wounded. The solution for each individual in a problematic situation must be programmed by authorities and brought to automatism. Unfortunately, we do have complications with it.
Q: Serious confrontations create the conditions for new opportunities. Where do you see these opportunities in Ukraine? Where would it be necessary to direct the efforts and energy at first?
A: We have passed certain confrontations. And there are indeed many opportunities nowadays, at least in the better circles. Perhaps it should be developed in a way so the society becomes more humane and works for the common good. When this happens society develops more trust. Francis Fukuyama believes such society is very effective, with the better-developed economy. I am sure that after the war new interesting start-ups will emerge, especially in logistics, supplies, clothing industry, precision equipment, medicine, drone deliveries. I presume, entirely new branches will emerge, which we do not expect.
Q: Sun Tzu, respected among businessmen, argues that war is the art of deception. Business authority Adrian Slywotzky states that the brand (essential business component) is a test of honesty. Is there any contradiction here? Where is the line between lies and honesty in business?
A: If you run a business, then your competitor does not have to know all your moves. If you’re too open, it will harm your business. It is not about deception. Just when you do something, focusing on the advantage, you should not shout loud about it. According to Sun Tzu, you need to create a place where you are invincible, where you are incompatible – such as a new industry. As for the brand, reliance is the key feature here. For Sun Tzu, soldiers are clients. An army is strong only when the soldiers trust their general. If the business is fair with customers, there is a strong brand that people trust in.
The Art of War against corruption and inefficiency
Q: Ukrainian business is already working in China. What Ukrainian trusted brands are on the market? And what does Ukraine export there?
A: In general, it deals with the military, aerospace, welding equipment, which is good. Although there is not much to be happy about, as in many cases, our experts are the subcontractors, which means that high value added goes to other countries. It happens, perhaps because of the lack of knowledge in international marketing – how to do something efficiently and quickly, and successfully sell internationally. I also think that our engineers do not always understand what is on demand. Previously, engineers used to solve a lot of things. But nowadays there must be a design, promotion. And our engineer has the habit of looking at the product from the customer perspective. It means we have engineers, but there is no marketing. This is a problem of the Ukrainian business, which is still working under the old rules. Another problem – poor knowledge of English. Moreover, there is no strong branding of Ukraine as a country.
Q: The roads are the best indicator of economic development. And everything seems very good in China. What should Ukraine start with to build roads for ages?
A: Stealing is common everywhere, but far less than in Ukraine. The sudden increase by 30, and possibly 50% could be possible if we were able to resolve the issue with theft, corruption, when thieves, in fact, were beheaded (of course, figuratively). This is important because it is a matter of national security. For example, Confucius said that man who throws dirt is losing ground. And if someone does so, then he should be punished by cutting his head off. It would be too cruel, but Confucius explains: If people do so, they will not get along with the neighbour and he will become angry, and the neighbours will argue. The quarrel or a fight breaks harmony in a society that can lead to anything. Our roads – is a complete violation of harmony. As a result, we always have accidents and ruined lives.
There are examples in modern China. Some businessmen were using an industrial thickener adding it to the protein in children dry milk mixture. This greatly affected the children’s kidneys and, it seems, seven children died. Four owners were shot. In our situation, there is no correlation between “problem (crime) – liability” and understanding that stealing leads to unhealthy and inefficient society and thus destroys the country from inside.
Q: And Ukrainians and Chinese people are known for their diligence. And how is our approach to work different?
A: First of all, in my opinion, the Chinese work better in groups and perceive leadership better. From the time perspective, Chinese perform better, follow algorithms if they have well-written instructions. They are very skilled in the transportation, logistics, and have less rest. Financial reward is of more interest than leisure time. Ukrainian workers can make better decisions individually. They are more inventive. In this sense, God has given us the ability to move to higher added value. It’s is in our culture, that, unfortunately, is neglected and wasted.
Q: What do Chinese find the strangest about Ukrainians?
A: We have different priorities in life. Perhaps they do not understand our restless spirit. And I think of it as positive about our people. Restless spirit is based on a desire to live with dignity. I mean not just comfortably. In China, I think, it is of less importance. If the Chinese have a certain level of living comfort, they are very happy and are not concerned about delegating their freedom to the country. The Chinese can devote most of their lives to work. We have a wider range of interests and priorities, that are probably harmoniously distributed.
Q: What models of East Asian countries could be useful for Ukraine?
A: Of course, Singapore and Japan could be good examples for us. Both of these countries have a good team, engaged in attracting investment and businesses from other countries. In addition, properly motivated, they were able to prove the effectiveness of state officials to the level of business. As for China, I would single out Shanghai and industrial zone north of Hong Kong, Dzhuhay, Guangzhou, Shenzhen. We can observe how they develop, bring some businesses closer to their markets (eg Europe) but use Ukrainian labour. By subdividing economy and making a big European factory supermarket in one place, Ukraine would not just produce a product but offer complex solutions. We really would benefit if a small percentage of Chinese manufacturing was based in Ukraine.
One country, two systems, a thousand-year history
Q: Why is it that a country that has enriched the world of so many inventions, now is primarily known as a skilled producer of copies? What caused this situation in China today?
A: Firstly, the Chinese historically feel very comfortable being isolated. They just want to have everything around them safe. Everything else that is far for them is uninteresting and unnecessary. For example, there was the famous seafarer of the Ming Dynasty (XIV-XVII centuries. – Ed.). He had visited all Asia and reached Africa with a huge fleet. He brought a lot of different sorts of plants, animals, people that were showed to the emperor. Emperor looked at everything … and burned the fleet, possibly the best in the world at that time. He understood that it is unnecessary because he can not control it.
The Chinese “have been stewing in one’s own juice” for a long time and missed the industrial revolution, thinking that they are the strongest, and others are the barbarians. But when Britain and other colonial countries came, the Chinese have realized that they have lost something. Moreover, modern Chinese school system is focused more on memorization. Critical thinking is not encouraged. And without questioning, there is no culture, no creativity. Thus, the Chinese can study quickly, imitate and efficiently develop. And, perhaps, creativity and innovation in China will be based on this.
Q: The two key figures who have had a decisive influence on the development of China in the twentieth century were Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Who is more respected among Chinese society?
A: The educated Chinese respect Deng Xiaoping, less educated – Mao Zedong. It worth mentioning that Deng Xiaoping was also a “product” of that era, though faced harassment and “re-education”. For a long time, he and Mao Zedong were brothers-in-arms. Later he decided to do something else. He said no matter what colour the cat is, the main thing is to catch mice. Since then, in fact, the dual system began and allowed the existence of a communist and capitalist economic models.
Q: Modern China resembles a typical capitalist country with a relatively developed market economy. What is the role of the Communist Party, which functions it performs? How can it be compared with the Communist Party in the USSR?
A: The system in China, mostly by virtue of private enterprise, is much more effective. The Soviet Communist Party was more ideological than the current Chinese. The Communist Party of China has rather meritocratic structure, which means that the promotion occurs by virtues. With the help of recruitment system, higher levels are reached according to knowledge, merit. They form a kind of technocratic club (what, in fact, is called the Communist Party), which governs the country. Communist Party is a government career path, and state work is prestigious. I knew young people who gave up their businesses in order to work for the government. There are absolutely legitimate types of motivation: high salary, good social package. The greater influence of the Communist Party is common in the province. In big cities, like Shanghai, its impact is more difficult to notice. At this stage, it is important that they are elite. I can not predict how things will happen in the future, but for now, it works.
Q: Ukrainians know little about China. But the Chinese, perhaps, know even less. What is the good advice for us?
A: Firstly, the Ukrainian business does not have to be afraid to introduce its products to China. Ukraine must make a cultural expansion as well. For instance, create interesting modern cultural products and promote them, using the tools of “soft power”, as does, in particular, Confucius Institute (Chinese analogue of the British Council, USAID, etc.).