Six Things Nobody Tells You About Doing Business In China


Six surprising things about doing business in China.

1. Yes does not mean yes.

When you’re negotiating with people in China, yes means, “I understand what you’re saying and would like to agree,” not I agree and will do what you say.

Typical example: “Is it possible to source these widgets locally?” “Yes”… (I hope it is but I have no idea).

Phrases that mean “no” may include, “It is inconvenient”, “I am not sure”, and “maybe”.

2. Flattery will get you everywhere.

In conversation, Chinese people are taught from an early age to reflexively flatter their counterparts and denigrate themselves. No matter how crappy your situation or offering, your Chinese counterpart will always praise it while saying their own is rubbish. Reciprocate.

3. Chinese people are very well informed but extremely touchy.

Don’t believe all that stuff about Chinese people living under censorship and not knowing what’s going on in the world. The average Chinese person probably has more idea what’s going on than the average American.

But avoid talking about the three T’s: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen. In fact, avoid politics altogether. Chinese people are very touchy about the Opium War, Japan and any criticism of human rights. Good topics for conversation are food, family, education and sport (especially soccer and basketball).

4. Fighting for the bill.

You might have seen Chinese people fighting over who pays the bill for a meal. It is serious loss of face to let someone else pay. In China there is a big emphasis on face and etiquette. It’s a sweeping generalisation, but many Chinese see themselves as a mini Emperor/Empress/VIP – treat them as such and you will go far!

5. There is no line between business and pleasure/friendship.

Don’t be surprised if a late night drinking or eating session turns into a business discussion, and vice versa. In any business relationship, Chinese will expect more than just gestures of friendship and ‘sincerity’. They like to see their partners go the extra mile with a personal touch, though this is often construed in western eyes as bribery.

6. The key to a Chinese person’s heart is through their stomach.

While many of the younger generation may have a taste for pizza or Maccas, don’t assume this is so. Many Chinese people simply cannot stomach any kind of western food.

If in doubt, ask the Chinese person for their advice on eating and drinking, and claim that you know nothing. Likewise beware the Chinese drinking culture based on downing endless toasts with the lethal maoatai or baijiu.

This is a common strategy for getting you to drop your guard. It’s perfectly acceptable to make an excuse for not drinking – tell them you’re a Mormon or you have a gastric ulcer. Same with food. You don’t HAVE to eat chickens feet or monkey brains. Just claim to have a stomach ache or say you’re vegetarian.

Michael Woodhead worked as a journalist in Beijing and he speaks fluent Mandarin. His frequent trips to the major cities and rural areas of China over the last 20 years have given him an insight into Chinese culture and business practice.

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