10 Tips for the China Business Traveler

1. Read books. If you’re going to go to China for business with any regularity, you’ve got to read about it, and that means moving beyond websites and The Wall Street Journal. The best book for businesspeople is Tim Clissold’s Mr. China. However, business books about China are often the most shallow and sensationalistic China books available, so be careful when searching for one. Books that tell you about Chinese culture and the Chinese mindset are often more valuable to businesspeople than books about doing business. Read narratives – first-hand accounts –

not how-to books.

2. Don’t speak Chinese. Westerners often try to memorize a few phrases thinking they’ll make a good impression. But although you might learn how to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you,’ it’s unlikely you’ll say them correctly because Chinese is tonal. Imagine a non-musician visiting Paul McCartney and thinking a good way to impress him is to play few bars of “Yesterday.” Don’t go there. Unless you’re serious about learning Mandarin, speak in plain, non-idiomatic English.

3. Address people by their working title. It’s not Mr. Chen; it’s Vice-president Chen.

4. Don’t bow, pat on the back, or hug. The Chinese do not bow and they consider a pat on the shoulder or back condescending, though most are probably aware back-patting is just a harmless, touchy-feely, Western bad habit. Public displays of affection are still rare in China and hugging could be taken to mean all kinds of things. Don’t waste money on books about Chinese social etiquette. Just exercise decorum and common sense.

5. There is business card etiquette. When someone gives you a business card, hold it in front of you at chest level with both hands and read it, smilingly, out loud. “Assistant Manager Jim Zhang. Dunhua Heavy Equipment. Very good. Thank you very much.” Then stick the card in your front pocket. Bring plenty of your own business cards.

6. Remember: what is said is not always what is meant. If the take-home message in Confucius’ Analects is “obey” then in Sun Tzu’s Art of War it is “deceive.” It’s difficult to know what’s true and what isn’t in the Chinese world. There is a lack of forthrightness that drives many Westerners crazy. Be cautious and if you think there’s funny business, ask questions. Try to deal with someone you can trust.

7. Think like they do. It’s easy to say, but difficult to do. Many long-term expatriates develop an alter ego, a Chinese identity complete with Chinese name. They learn to handle things the Chinese way when dealing with Chinese people and they revert to handling things the Western way when dealing with Westerners. It takes years to learn how to do this, how to shift back and forth between the two worlds, but if you read and are observant, you should gain some understanding about the all-important mindset, something you should strive toward.

8. Stay away from the baijiu and be careful of the boys’ night out.Baijiu (literally: white liquor) is rice wine and it is powerful, paint-stripping stuff with the clean and refreshing taste of gasoline. You’re probably going to be wined and dined, and although that could happen at an upscale hotel with a Western menu, it’s most likely to occur at a Chinese restaurant with too many courses and too much booze. Have a glass, but then switch to something lighter. Terrible things happen with baijiu. Ambulances get called, consulates get telephoned…. Baijiu is bad news. In East Asia, business is often a boys’ club and business deals and negotiations are sometimes marked by a visit to dubious karaoke or some other questionable establishment. This is a bizarre ritual you don’t want to partake in. Businessmen bond with each other in seedy settings, but they also collect dirt on each other, ammunition – blackmail – to be used down the road if necessary. Don’t compromise yourself. After a dinner and drinks, go back to your hotel or at least to a place where the word ‘massage’ isn’t a euphemism.

9. Be careful what you say. Obviously, the last thing you want to do is offend someone. The problem is, in China, you could offend someone simply by raising a subject, cracking a joke, or relaying an anecdote. Don’t talk politics and don’t say anything that can be construed as denigrating. Your chain-smoking taxi driver couldn’t read the Chinese address you handed him and mistook a sidewalk for the highway? Consider it a war story you can trade with another Westerner.

10. Don’t project, set aside preconceptions, and observe. Neophytes are often shocked to discover much of what they’ve heard about China is wrong. The reason might be because they got their information from Westerners who never took the time to really think about China and obliterate a few of its associated misconceptions. One misconception is the idea that guanxi (connections) is an ultra-important component of Chinese culture. But it isn’t. Rather, guanxi is an important part of any culture, especially in the developing world. But it can seem more important in China because Chinese people like to talk openly about advancement and making money, and to advance and make money it helps to know people. You hear the word guanxi a lot, hence its alleged magnitude. Connections is a simple idea blown up into a behemoth one.

Overemphasizing and exaggeration are responsible for the notion that China and everything about it is mystical or inscrutable, but very little about China is mystical or inscrutable. Anyone can figure it out – by reading, observing, and thinking. You don’t have to become an old China hand to do business with the Chinese, but it helps to arm yourself with knowledge.

Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World.

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