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Swaddle up: Observations inspired by a confinement nanny

There was widespread shock on Chinese social media platform Weibo in May 2015, over an event that happened halfway around the globe.

Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, had just given birth in the United Kingdom. That very afternoon, the wife of Prince William emerged to pose for the paparazzi with her new-born daughter.

The No.1 question typed on Chinese keyboards: “Doesn’t Duchess Kate do confinement?”

The sight of a mother fresh out of the delivery ward, basking in the sun with an hours-old baby in her arms, must have stirred consternation across this part of the world.

It is a taboo act under the confinement practice, where new mothers have to stay indoors for about a month to recuperate while consuming only certain foods. Even bathing is banned!

But turn your nose up at this custom at your peril: The belief is that non-abiding mothers may have health problems later in life such as arthritis. Babies are also shielded extensively, often shrouded in layers of cloth as they transit from womb to world.

The postpartum nanny (月嫂) industry has boomed in China, home to an increasingly affluent middle class that still holds on to cherished centuries-old traditions. Some families pay up to US$29,000 for mother and child to have a month of round-the-clock care at dedicated maternity care centres.

As newly-minted parents in a foreign land, we saw the benefits of having a confinement nanny at home. As the Duchess anecdote illustrates, postpartum care is an interesting microcosm of the cultural disparities between East and West. Here are my three observations on how it relates to the world of politics and business:

1. Wrapped in safety

I recall being taken aback when I saw my tiny son bundled in our nanny’s arms. He looked like a well-packed burrito under layers of swaddling! The nanny reasoned that it was to protect him from chills, even though the weather was rather warm.

Many consider China to be a nanny state. Maybe it is a confinement nanny state, with multiple levels of protectionism across industries meant to protect its “baby” population. Digital censorship is par for the course: Facebook, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Skype and Google have all been restricted to different degrees.

Go to the cinema, and Hollywood blockbusters have been pre-selected for you – only 38 were allowed to be screened last year. Also, foreign investment in China’s media-related companies is banned.

Retaliation has come thick and fast, seen clearly in the recent attempt by United States President Donald Trump to ban social media apps TikTok and WeChat. It is unlikely there will be a prolonged ban if it does happen. After all, the West is associated with a laissez-faire culture – postpartum care for an American mum could be a drink at Starbucks, with baby in tow.


The confinement nanny is usually a strict, matriarchal figure and the overriding principle in a traditional Chinese family is harmony. The nanny exudes quiet authority; the new mother accedes to both her caretaker and culture.

I can’t picture an obstinate nanny taking her place in a Western-influenced, straight-talking family where every practice is questioned repeatedly. “Why can’t the mother even leave the home for a quick stroll? You mean the baby can’t even be exposed to a bit of sunshine?”

It is exactly like Eastern versus Western styles of management. Leaders like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk actively promote corporate cultures where employees shoot from the hip in critiquing one another. Ray Dalio, CEO of hedge fund Bridgewater, believes in radical transparency where people sound out brutal truths. The rationale is that the best ideas will be borne out of disagreement or conflict.

In China, a spirit of cooperation, rooted in Confucianism and collectivism, is paramount – even if it may lead to some inefficiency. Alibaba chief Jack Ma summed it up: "China emphasises that harmony gives you fortune. And in Western culture, competition makes you better," he said. "But without the communication or respect and appreciation of others, you only have trouble and conflict on your hands."

3. A meeting of worlds

We were fortunate that our nanny was receptive to some Western thinking in child-rearing, and there was wiggle room for adjustment according to our wishes. This worked out for the best – balancing age-old wisdom with the practicalities of modernity. We ensured our baby was not becoming overheated by shedding some cloth. My wife left the home for a short walk after a fortnight instead of a month as the four walls had simply become too stifling.

Similarly, the best business outcomes may arise when you marry East and West. Just look at Huawei, which is taking the world by storm with more than US$100 billion annual revenue and at the cutting edge in 5G. Its founder Ren Zhengfei, who has a military background, maintains a tight grip on power. But he has ingeniously allowed for sufficient creative freedom and Western corporate strategy to compete globally, by hiring IBM to implement management structures and empowering employees to make research decisions. Appropriate centralisation and limited democracy – the “Hua Way”.

Maybe the greatest ideas are birthed if you are not confined to a single set of ideals.


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