Active Business Travel China is a must read for the business traveller to China. Written by experts in Chinese culture and business, this guide provides you with the background you need to build your own international business base. Below are four short excerpts from the book.
“The background information and explanations provide really relevant insights into how to do business in China. It helped break the ice and develop relationships with my Chinese contacts.”
George Adcock, Business Manager, London Metal Exchange
“Don’t go to China without it!”
Peter Bishop, Deputy CEO of London Chamber of Commerce
Dress code and clothing
Whilst suits and ties are not always the requisite dress code for your Chinese host (especially in a more industrial environment) this dress code is expected from a Westerner at meetings. It goes without saying that a smart business appearance would give you extra confidence in an unfamiliar country, and would also imply that you have a level of respect for your host. It is easier for men; a couple of suits and a few shirts would cover more or less all eventualities and dispensing with ties in meetings is a good way to relax the atmosphere. However, whilst it can be slightly trickier for ladies, generally speaking, a few smart suits and layered business wear would be suitable. It is important to be mindful of the fact that too much exposure can be embarrassing and uncomfortable for Chinese men, (although it doesn’t mean that they don’t find it attractive!)
It is also important to be prepared for evening functions, but luckily you don’t need to dress up. The early Chinese dinners (about 6pm) normally take place straight after the afternoon meetings and don’t require extra outfits. The most formal ‘black tie dos’ enjoyed in the West are fairly rare in China. Over the Chinese New Year, the traditional ‘retro’ style becomes quite popular. Comfortable shoes are recommended as a one day schedule could comprise a series of meetings, a visit to the Great Wall of China and a lavish banquet in the evening!
It is important to note that the weather changes dramatically from one province to the other and because of the different build of the local men and women and their taste, it may be difficult to find what you want to wear from the local shops. It is also advisable to bring suitable attire to take into account the differing climatic conditions that prevail throughout China.
Business card exchange
The exchange of business cards is a relatively new business tradition. It has only become popular in recent decades, as the economic structure in China has evolved. The card is usually presented with two hands and a slight forward bow. Although this might seem a little awkward at first – particularly in a social environment like a cocktail party – it is important to follow this etiquette to begin to build mutual respect between you and your Chinese counterpart and form the basis of a trusting business relationship.
Business cards: getting it right
Even though a business card only contains a handful of words, it should never be under-estimated! A basic business card carries your company and personal names, the all-important job title as well as an ever increasing number of contact details. Without any common ground in terms of the Chinese language, this little card is of paramount importance in making a positive impression on your new associates so that they can remember who you are for later dealings.
Having the card in Chinese should be your most important preparation for your trip to China. The Chinese language is a pictorial language; each character has a meaning or a set of meanings and combining characters can produce new connotations. In English, you wouldn’t want to give yourself a first name of ‘Don’ when you have a surname of ‘Key’, and a similar situation could happen in Chinese too! It is important to note that some words have negative implications attached to them. It is a good idea therefore always to compile a series of positive words to convey an upbeat profile.
Another powerful feature of the business card is the job title. With China’s historically hierarchal background in mind, it is important not to undersell yourself. Perhaps it is reflective of the business world in general, but certainly in China people prefer to speak to decision-makers. As different companies have varying ways of structuring and assigning job titles, you must ensure that your Chinese associates understand the seniority of your position in relation to business decision-making. At the same time, you must also be careful that your position does not sound in any way superior to your boss. Many Western titles would be completely new to the Chinese due to the international differences in company structure. It is sensible to employ a little creativity in translating the titles to evoke a full understanding of what each individual does and his/her seniority in the company.
It is a well-established Chinese tradition to exchange gifts with visitors, especially during the first visit. Gift-giving is a ritual that plays an important part in any business dealings. Whom to give to, what to give and when to give are all important points of consideration. As mentioned, formal business etiquette has to be adapted to the organisation or the person you are dealing with. A strict procedure sometimes has to be adopted according to the circumstances. For example, if your counterpart works in a government department, the timing and the value of the present is better to be ascertained at a lower level (between the assistants), in order that protocol is suitably followed and no-one loses face. Normally, the highest valued gift should be presented to the key person, i.e. the decision maker and/or the highest ranked official. Other relevant people should also be considered. To avoid missing anyone out, extra gifts should be prepared just in case. The value of the gifts should be relatively moderate as corruption is a sensitive issue at Chinese government level. The most popular gift would be unfamiliar to the Chinese people, representative of your own country and evocative of a meaningful story or positive message. A good choice could serve as an ice-breaker, symbolising a good basis for the ongoing relationship between the two companies/countries. Apart from meaningful gifts, a popular gift would be something that the receiver can display in the office or at home. Initiating business dealings with a Western company in China is still seen as a sign of prestige; it elevates a company’s success, credibility and reputation.
When you meet each other for the first time, a gift exchange normally takes place almost immediately. It could also be part of a contract signing ceremony – normally at the end – to celebrate this milestone. The Chinese are often too shy or feel that it would be impolite to unwrap the present but they would be quite happy to do so if prompted – curiosity is a borderless impulse!
Remember to bring some small souvenirs from your own country. Warm and generous hospitality will be given from the top management to the junior staff. It is not appropriate to give tips or money – small gifts will be always remembered.
Top 10 most popular gifts to bring to your Chinese counterparts
- Alcohol and spirit: a good cognac, red wine, whiskey
- CD with music that is considered from your country
- Kitchen gadgets
- Stamps, if the recipient is interested in them (stamp collecting is very popular in China)
- A cigarette lighter, assuming the recipient is a smoker
- A fine fountain pen
- Cigarettes made in the West
- Handicraft made in the West
- Brand products from your specific country
Suitably addressing your Chinese counterpart
In contrast to Western names, Chinese names are read out in reverse order – the family name is followed by the first name.
The Chinese have a different custom for calling each other by their names. An individual who is above a certain age and social status will commonly not be addressed by their given name. There is no standard rule as to how to address your Chinese contact in a polite, appropriate yet friendly way. It goes without saying though that you should aim to demonstrate your respect to their age and social status, and to ensure that it is appropriate to the social situation and custom of the country. To avoid complications, it is safest for a Westerner to address a Chinese contact by their surname such as ‘Mr. Wang’, ‘Dr. Ma’ or ‘Madam Yu’. But for convenience and to demonstrate your desire to build a closer relationship, it can be shortened to ‘Wang’ or ‘Ma’ if appropriate. However, it is the norm to address the government officials or people with senior positions by their rank as well as their name e.g. ‘Chairman Li, General Manager Zhang’. But remember, never add ‘deputy’ to their title, even if they are. Using rank to represent a person’s status is especially important between the Chinese, as it is seen to show respect and ‘give face’. Conversely, if used inappropriately, this can create loss of face. In a less formal environment, to avoid addressing each other by name, people generally use a work title such as ‘Engineer Wang’ or ‘Accountant Ma’. ‘Teacher Zhang’ and their surname can often be heard between new acquaintances to demonstrate courtesy and respect. It originates from the teachings of Confucius: if 3 people are walking together, at least 1 of them can be my teacher. Between friendly colleagues, the Chinese would call each other ‘old Wang’, ‘little Ma’. For a non-Chinese speaking Westerner, addressing each other may be the only way of establishing communication with their Chinese counterpart. It sounds complicated, but don’t forget, you can always ask the person directly or seek assistance from your interpreter.
Having said all that, China is changing and becoming more and more influenced by the Western business etiquette. The younger Chinese people often give themselves an English name for fun or simply for easier pronunciation by the Westerners. These English first names are usually employed solely for practical use, they are not official, and often none of their Chinese colleagues would be aware of them. If you need to mention this person to the others, you may also have to get the spelling of their Chinese name.
Banquets in China
To welcome Western friends from afar, banquets are often hosted at lavish restaurants. Typical banquets consist of many courses, often with exotic delicacies not usually eaten in the West. Politeness decrees that you should at least taste the food on offer – especially if you are the guest of honour.
Deciding a table plan could take up a few minutes. The seats that face the door are regarded as the top seats, as such this is where the 2 senior people from each party are seated. Guests are seated further away from the host in descending order of seniority, with the most junior having their backs to the door. The interpreter is usually placed between guests who cannot speak each other’s languages. Don’t worry too much about this protocol – it is easier to let the Chinese party arrange it, and simply follow their lead.
It is usual for a Chinese host to serve food to the guest. If you are the host you should also try to serve your guest. In any case, you will need to join in the process of serving or being served. It is not an option to hide in the background!
Never arrive late for a meal – Chinese people often arrive early. They also tend to leave en masse as soon as the last dish has been eaten. Await the lead from your Chinese counterpart – Chinese hosts make it clear when the gathering is finished.
Typically in China, meals are eaten earlier than in the West. Lunch is served from midday and dinner from around 6.00pm.
There are no hard and fast rules for table manners – it’s more about fitting in. If in doubt, follow your host’s example. Chinese people don’t mind if you ask for knives and forks, though generally only a spoon is available in a Chinese restaurant. Be mindful that Chinese people tend to be quite amused and amazed when seeing a Westerner using chopsticks well – it may be worth having a practice before your trip! One gaffe to avoid – do not leave your chopsticks pointing into the bowl – place them horizontally on the rest provided.
Payment for the banquet is usually made by the ‘inviter’. A welcome banquet is usually hosted by the Chinese party, a ‘thank you’ banquet is reciprocated by the Western visitors. For informal meals, the Chinese would normally offer to settle the bill, but offering to take turns is always regarded as courteous. Splitting the bill has become fashionable amongst the younger generation, but it is not a general custom in China.
Frequent toasts are standard either with locally produced wine or ‘Bai Jiu’ (strong spirit), but ‘Pi Jiu’ (beer) is also widely drunk and it is perfectly acceptable to order one instead, especially when China’s beer has an excellent reputation amongst Westerners!
The head of each party is expected to give a speech and a toast using Chinese wines as part of the occasion. Some Western people become very popular among the Chinese people because of their capacity to drink Chinese wine! To some, it is a sign of being approachable and agreeable. The toasting etiquette can be overwhelming and generally speaking it is more prevalent in the Northwest of China. In these situations, the host may relentlessly persuade you to drink more. To let your host down is to be avoided at all costs; it is therefore advisable to prepare a good excuse in advance!
On many occasions during your trip you may be invited to give a speech e.g. the opening of a toast at a banquet; the opening proceedings of a contract signing ceremony; or meeting your partner company’s team for the first time. A speech is regarded as an honour for both the speaker and the audience. When making the speech, don’t forget to emphasise the following key points:
- Love and respect for your host’s country
- What a pleasure it is to build a friendship with the people you are visiting
- How you will benefit their organisation and ultimately their country
- The fact that you are planning for the long term, not for immediate benefits
- The fact that the relationship you are building is based on mutually beneficial ground
- Its vast geographical area
- Highly regulated and centralised government policies
- The accelerating spread of urbanisation and globalisation
- A continuously evolving technological backdrop
- Environmental concerns
China as an emerging market is undoubtedly going through a complex transitional period. There are many opposing pressures at play between conflicting social and business environments:
- Central -v- regional
- Global -v- national versus local
- Urban -v- rural
- New -v- old
- Modern -v- traditional
- Western -v- Chinese
China presents the world with many business opportunities and yet its challenges can be difficult to manage. Overcoming the language barrier is only part of the issue. The greatest challenge for the Western business person is in developing a real understanding of the cultural differences: the implications behind body language; reading between the lines; adjusting to particular situations; and a strikingly different social environment. If you are equipped with some understanding of the Chinese business mentality and psyche on the following issues, the challenges can hopefully be turned to your advantage. At the very least, you will know where you stand!
China, like many other Asian countries, has a collectivist culture. Its society places great emphasis on its groups and thinks more in terms of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. China bears significant distinctive features of collectivist cultures: harmony and loyalty within a group are very important and should always be maintained. This means that confrontation is avoided at all cost – subtle expressions or phrases are used to describe a disagreement or negative statement instead of saying ‘no’. The relationship between employer and employee or between business partners is based on trust, harmony and a deep understanding of moral values. The achievement, pride of the company and the group are far more important than those of the individual. It is important to ensure that you are aware of this deep-set feeling in any business dealings with Chinese people.
China’s history is composed of numerous instances of invasion and colonisation by various countries and this factor has contributed to significant unrest. In recent decades, Mao’s policy to rule China in isolation produced a deeper chasm between China and the Western world. As a result of its chequered history, patriotism is generally strong throughout China. Chinese people were at one time very conscious of being judged by their own countryfolk for not being openly patriotic, and some will still express distrust when faced with unfamiliar Westerners. Hopefully, you will find that the atmosphere is far more relaxed these days. The Chinese increasingly enjoy Western influences in both business and culture. However, patriotism is still deep-rooted in the minds of the nation. It is unwise to criticise China in any way – even the government – in small talk. It can be detrimental to the atmosphere and generates very negative vibes. In this case, the well known mantra still applies – "Don’t ever be tempted to stand between the people and their country". It is rather like talking about one’s own spouse: it is perfectly acceptable for a Chinese person to criticise their own country, but it is just not the same for you to do so.
Confucianism runs deeper than most people are aware of. One of its teachings is a strong hierarchical system which most rulers have used in China’s history to control the people. Nowadays, everyone has a social rank in the Chinese ‘management’ culture, and all are expected to know where they fit into the hierarchy and to behave accordingly.
There are diverse unspoken requirements in which hierarchy is continually reaffirmed in Chinese management culture. For example, hierarchy is very clear when entering a business meeting with a group of people. The highest-ranking person should be given the priority to enter the room, the lift and any other method of entry. They should then be followed by the most senior member of the Chinese party. However, guests should also be given priority, and seniority in age should be considered. When the order is not clearly defined then a great deal of time could be lavished on observing this protocol. Furthermore, hierarchy also determines introductions in meetings and seating arrangements at banquets. Therefore, it is very important for you to ascertain where your counterparts fit into their hierarchy and then treat them accordingly.
Likewise, you need to understand your position within your hierarchy and your status in relation to your Chinese counterparts. If you are of a lower status in relationship to the person you are meeting, keep in mind that you will be expected to show respect to your higher status counterpart. If you are in a higher position than those around you, you are expected to live up to your status by being more reserved. Take the time to prepare for this and you will ensure that your trip runs as effectively as possible.
Mao Tse Tung’s famous saying is that ‘The individual is subordinate to the organisation. The minority is subordinate to the majority. The lower level is subordinate to the higher level’. This quotation embodies the hierarchical nature of Chinese society and companies. It also explains why Chinese people tend to be oriented more towards groups than individuals and often do not like to take responsibility. In a similar manner this can result in a situation where people are reluctant to give an opinion before their peers, as it might cause disrespect or loss of face.
Apart from Confucius, Tao is another philosopher who has had significant influence on the Chinese psyche. According to Taoism, Qi (pronounced ‘chee’) is a universal energy composed of 2 polarities: the yin and the yang, therefore balance and harmony are greatly promoted throughout society and history. This philosophy extends to other aspects of life. An acknowledgement of this approach will be beneficial during your travels. On a political level, a key government strategy is to build a "harmonious society", and this aim is a signature ideology of President Hu Jintao. This slogan refocuses China’s concentration on economic growth to overall society balance and harmony. In some aspects, it resembles the characteristics of New Confucianism.
‘Guanxi’ means ‘relationship’, ‘connection’ or ‘contacts’. Developing a good relationship between people is the main priority in the Chinese business world and relationships should be continuously consolidated and nurtured. Even in the West, the Chinese word ‘Guanxi’ has become a commonly used term within the Anglo-Chinese business community. Unlike in Western business culture, in China people believe in developing a relationship with a prospective business partner before they do business. Historically, in a centralised bureaucratic state, the use of personal contacts was the only way to get things done. Guanxi therefore has been considered as an effective alternative to a commercial and legal system. In China where the latter can be relatively weak the need to rely on Guanxi continues to be strong.
The members of a Guanxi network are expected to help each other at some point in time in a direct or indirect manner, contributing to a constructive cycle of relationships and development. Guanxi is key to opening doors – without Guanxi you will find it difficult to meet with senior managers/decision makers. It is difficult, in fact, near impossible, for a Western business person to connect with the right network of Guanxi within a short period of time. It is therefore essential that you enlist a dynamic and well connected person to look after this aspect of your business. As relationships are so highly regarded, the Chinese people will automatically honour them. Contacts introduced through a reliable and credible source will receive a friendly reception on first meeting and people often go out of their way to initiate connections. An individual with a widespread Guanxi network is typically referred to as powerful and resourceful, but the reality must always live up to the reputation. You should aim to understand this and capitalise on the power it can create for your business.
Face is a mark of personal dignity and is a core aspect of the Chinese mindset. The Chinese people are extremely sensitive with regards to gaining and maintaining face in all aspects of social and business life. Face is highly prized and can be given, lost, taken away or earned. ‘Giving face’, for example, can mean to express respect, show support or avoid embarrassing somebody. In a business environment, ‘giving face’ can also mean complimenting staff in front of their employer, or attending a business meeting dressed immaculately as a demonstration of respect. ‘Face’ is also linked with hierarchy i.e. recognising and valuing an individual’s position or status, and behaving accordingly. The opposite of this – to ‘lose face’ – is used to describe an act of disrespect and may involve spoiling someone’s business prospects. It is important to avoid being critical towards individuals in front of a crowd in the company of Chinese people – a quiet word will always be more warmly received. Even making fun of an individual in a good-natured, humorous way can be perceived as a sign of lack of respect, so be mindful of this. Equally, whilst giving face earns respect and loyalty, over-use suggests insincerity, so be careful how you use it!
While dealing with your Chinese counterparts or your employees either socially or in business, you may find them very modest. People are often shy when receiving compliments, or instead, simply reject them to disguise their embarrassment. It is not that they don’t think they deserve the compliments, it is because they are unable to articulate the most appropriate modest reply. It is regarded as ill mannered and arrogant to accept a compliment or boast about it, because in Chinese culture, arrogance is a route to failure. Modesty can also be used before accepting a task or during an interview, as it is the Chinese way to avoid expressing themselves inappropriately. All of these attitudes are rooted in the Confucius teaching, "A superior man should be modest in his speech, but excel in his actions".
Understanding the Chinese psyche and striking a business rapport clearly requires an abundance of common sense and business tactics. If you are equipped with great communication skills, an attitude to adapt, an open mind and a flexible and diplomatic approach, you will have a great chance of success in China. Hopefully, this guide will provide you with a good grounding for your thriving business future!
Entrepreneurship has long been held in esteem by the West. In 2009, according to the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC), there were over 6 million private companies registered in China. Assuming an average of 3 individual Chinese behind each of these entities, then there are almost 20 million entrepreneurs in China.
Some say entrepreneurship is deeply rooted in the Chinese mentality and thinking that benefited from Taoism teaching. It believes in the indirect approach, "the changeable is certain", and applies dialectical logic. Historically, group traders from places such as Shanxi, Anhui and Zhejiang were well-known for their business techniques and philosophies; these hot topics are widely discussed in today’s China.
However, under the influence of Confucianism and the traditional Communist policies, the Chinese entrepreneur as a social class has never gained much respect in modern Chinese history. Only in the late 1980s did the Chinese Constitution admit that private ownership was beneficial and necessary for the economy. In the 40 years prior to that, private companies were absent from the Chinese economy, and accordingly, so were entrepreneurs. Even today, the more conservative members of Chinese society still view the path of the entrepreneur as one of necessity – for school drop-outs and others who have failed to find decent employment elsewhere. However, with an increasing percentage of ‘intellectual’ entrepreneurs coming on the scene, the visible and practical benefits brought by financial achievement and entrepreneurship have become much more acceptable, and even fashionable.
Choosing the most suitable communication channel
The key challenge for any business arrangement between the UK and China is communication. Despite having a multitude of advanced technological tools at their disposal, business people from China and the West are still frustrated by the constraints of communication. There are many factors at play here – including distance, time difference, the unreliability of communication technology, the inability to communicate, or simply the reluctance of business partners to improve communication channels.
While Chinese companies employ communication channels that are similar to their Western counterparts (mobile phones, landlines, faxes, email, post and express mail), it is important to understand that they are often used in very different ways to the West.
Landlines and mobile phones
Make sure that you accumulate your key contacts’ mobile telephone numbers at the outset of your dealings. While a mobile phone is undoubtedly an essential tool of communication in the UK, they are used even more frequently and extensively in China with over 500 million mobile phone subscribers! Today’s entrepreneurs simply cannot live without them. Chinese business people will answer their mobiles whenever and wherever they are – in meetings, at the dinner table, on holiday or at a family gathering. Westerners are often offended when their Chinese counterparts interrupt their meetings with mobile phone calls. However, this cultural dissimilarity is as beneficial to UK businesses as it is frustrating – that phone call could well be yours when you are desperately trying to confirm last minute changes to a specification prior to production!
A Chinese landline is a particularly unreliable communication channel. Unlike a mobile phone it will not always be answered, especially at older or more conventional Chinese organisations. If there is no-one in the office, the phone could ring forever without an answer phone kicking in or the switchboard operator reconnecting with your call! Some companies do have individual lines to each office, but in most cases it is entirely down to luck whether you can reach anyone. Communicating in office hours from another country is complicated further by the time difference. For easier communication, you may find that your Chinese colleagues are happy to give you their mobile number as well as their home number. In many cases, they will invite you to call them at any time of day as your call is long distance and therefore important. However, if you are willing to reciprocate, make sure they realise the time difference – unless you are happy to receive calls in the early hours!
Fax and email
Fax machines continue to be very popular in China for a variety of reasons. Firstly, a fax provides proof of a document’s origin and source; secondly, it offers fast and safe delivery to the end user (no computer viruses lurking there!); thirdly, writing Chinese characters by hand is easier than typing on a computer keyboard; and the final reason is that email connections are not always reliable or accessible. The only problem with communicating by fax is that they are not confidential. When a fax arrives at its destination it can be read by anybody within the office and it is therefore impossible to determine whether the intended reader has received your document. Therefore, before sending the document, it is advisable to make contact with the intended recipient to ensure that they are aware that the fax is about to be transmitted.
Today’s business world relies on email as a fast and economical method of communication. But while Western companies enjoy good email connections, the same cannot be assumed of all Chinese businesses. Progressive service-driven companies with forward-looking management will certainly have modern equipment, with all key staff members enjoying their own PCs and company email addresses. This, however, is unlikely to be the case with more traditional and manufacturing-based companies. Even if a business boasts a professional, modern website, it may not have an associated email address, or it may only have a single generic address shared by many members of staff. Under these circumstances, many employees create a private email account for business use. Be aware, however, that these are often poorly maintained. For example, when the private email account has been filled with spam mail, the existing email account will be abandoned in favour of a new email address. Unfortunately, this new address is not often communicated to all genuine customers!
Post and express delivery services
The postal service in China is a less reliable means of delivering a package or letter. It is safer to guarantee the delivery of your package by paying an extra charge for an express delivery. The charge for this method of delivery tends to be pretty reasonable, although sometimes you will find your important package has travelled via five buses, two tube lines and on the back of several bicycles! It does get there though!
In addition to the traditional methods of communication that we have all come to depend upon in recent times as described above, there is an increasing reliance on more modern techniques to keep in contact.
Messenger, Skype and SMS text messaging
Continuing technological innovation in telecommunications channels is playing an increasingly important role in people’s social and business lives. In comparison with other methods of communication, they are cheaper, quicker and generally unobtrusive. They are very popular and especially favoured for communicating with overseas colleagues and business partners.
Face-to-face communication versus telephone conferencing
Face-to-face communication is always the ideal approach to establishing and nurturing a business relationship. Equally, when language is a barrier, it might be better to convey your ideas and opinions to the interpreter by writing figures or drawing pictures on a flip chart. However, this is not always possible for long distance communications, and verbal interaction with your Chinese contact is the next best thing to maintain that personal connection. Whilst video conferencing is a relatively new concept in China, it is not difficult for your Chinese contacts to connect to your conference call through a line set up in the UK. It is important to ensure that a sophisticated conference phone facility is set up so that the group can communicate effectively.
Translating the language verbally is usually referred to as interpreting. Depending on the scale of the event, there are 2 styles of interpreting to choose from – ‘consecutive’ and ‘simultaneous’. Simultaneous interpreting is often used for large seminars and conferences. For smaller business meetings, consecutive interpreting is more appropriate and the quality of the interpretation can be controlled better.
When doing business in China, establishing a contact to act asanintermediary is important. This brings with it multiple benefits. They can act as a reference, be your interpreter and navigate you through the bureaucracy, legal system and local business networks. However, as your business relationship will be predominantly in the hands of your interpreter, it is crucial that you choose someone that you can trust completely in relation to their loyalty and competency.
At the negotiation table, your interpreter’s role becomes even more important. Once the channels of effective communication and trust have been developed between you and the interpreter, you can benefit in many ways. Your interpreter can become your negotiation partner, helping to steer the conversation in the direction you want it to go. They can pick up messages beyond the language; identify the relationships within the opposite party and make an accurate judgement on who the real decision maker is. While the words are being interpreted you can sit back and observe, and then compare notes with your interpreter after the meeting.
How to work with an interpreter
Who makes the arrangements for an interpreter? Normally the Western visitor to China relies on their Chinese counterpart to provide an interpreter. However, it is recommended that you have your own interpreter available for initial and important meetings.
Where do you find an interpreter? There are many translation agencies in China that provide interpreting services, but standards can vary considerably. A recommendation through a reliable source may prove to be the best way, so talk to your business contacts or friends.
Briefing your interpreter: Ideally it is important to use someone you know well and to brief them fully beforehand. In any case it makes sense to involve your interpreter in your pre-meeting arrangements. Ensure that your interpreter understands what you are aiming to achieve.
Clarity is essential: Speak in manageable sentences, at an even pace. Do not ramble! Conversely, do not speak in short phrases and unfinished sentences, as your interpreter may find it impossible to translate the meaning if you have left a sentence incomplete. Try to write down numbers wherever possible, as large numbers can be tricky to interpret in Chinese. Avoid the use of jargon and finally, ensure that any key terminology that may be used during the course of the meeting is discussed and understood in advance of the meeting.
Cross checking: Even with a good interpreter, there is still scope for misunderstanding. By repeating important points and cross-referencing crucial issues, this will ensure that the key messages and outcomes will be communicated effectively.
Observe body language when your words are being interpreted: This is a good opportunity to make your own judgement on who might be the decision-maker and influencer.
Time: Remember that the need to interpret speeches and presentations will effectively cut your speaking time in half.
Humour: It is best to avoid jokes and witticisms. Remember, when conducting business you are representing your company, so always keep dealings at a professional level. This is not because the Chinese are humourless, but instead that jokes may be lost in translation and hence be redundant.
Making your presentation powerful
Chinese, everything in Chinese!
Don’t assume that English is a business language used throughout the world. Your direct contacts in China may speak brilliant English, but the decision makers, their bosses or the Board of Directors may not understand or be too busy to have the time and patience to read the documents in English. Having your company brochure, presentation and any relevant handouts translated into Chinese is essential in order to maximise the potential of your business trip.
Knowing your audience and their needs
Make sure you have done your homework before doing business in China. The Chinese people plan meticulously and will know your business and possibly you inside out. Conducting some research prior to your meeting can help you to understand your audience and the decision makers amongst them far better. Based on the information you gather about their business issues and their local, national and international market environment will make your presentation more targeted.
Give them what they want and more!
Many forward-thinking Chinese companies use PowerPoint. Their presentation is usually full of well-researched data and sophisticated graphics. The same is expected from a Western company.
If the presentation is designed to provide your audience with a profile of your company, then the Chinese audience would want to know the size of your organisation, the number of staff employed and if your client base is made up of established brands within the marketplace. If your presentation can include humorous and more visual illustrations, it is more likely to retain their interest.
International information and your analysis can be very interesting to the Chinese audience. Because of the language barrier and limited resources, many Chinese companies may not be well equipped to absorb in-depth facts and figures globally. Equally, case studies of similar natured projects that took place in another country are always very popular.
Blow your own trumpet and impress!
A presentation stands for way more than a few slides – your Chinese counterpart will want to test out your confidence and technical capability level. The level of preparation you have put into the presentation can demonstrate the level of importance you ascribe to this project. Be prepared to blow your own trumpet!! Your company may be a leading international player in its industry, but you may have to assume that the Chinese people may never have heard of you! So do articulate your ambition, your capabilities, your track record and, most importantly, what you can achieve for their organisation.
As relationships are high on the agenda, Chinese business people are experts at networking and most business deals are struck through social and business networking events.
Top 10 business discussion topics
- General business trends and patterns
- New government policies on business
- New business development ideas and opportunities
- News and gossip on new and existing businesses
- Collaboration opportunities
- Evaluation of return on investment
- Public relations – new ‘guanxi’ created
- Estates and properties
- International and domestic stock market
- Premium business entertainment, e.g. overseas travel, golf, tennis, new clubs
The food culture
The Chinese people are proud of their food culture. Entertainment by banquet is one of the most common and popular ways of celebrating this culture. Frequent dinner entertainment is a way of life for a business person. It is regarded as a very important networking opportunity. A group of local like-minded associates often gather together and talk with each other over dinner, exchanging industry news and trading information. Many people agree that most of their opportunities are created through these lunches and dinners. Before important festivals such as the Chinese New Year, business people will hardly ever have time for their own families! Gifts are given on these occasions, but the participants also recognise that spending time with people is of more importance. Banqueting is perhaps the most popular form of networking, and drinking Chinese rice wine and endless toasting is inevitable!
The Chinese have adopted the Japanese musical invention ‘karaoke’ and it has become hugely popular, if not the most popular entertainment form among Chinese people. There are huge entertainment complexes throughout China that are open 24 hours a day. Private singing rooms are available with designated waiters/waitresses employed to be at your service throughout the night. These venues are equipped with karaoke facilities and you will be served with drinks and fruit. After a few drinks and some ‘singing’ (in the loosest possible sense of the word!!), an informal atmosphere is created. You may find that once you have sung your first song, you may want to develop your career as a singer! Lasting friendships are formed through the camaraderie developed throughout the evening.
Spas and beauty parlours
Whilst corporate hospitality may not exist at football clubs or at the theatre in China, pampering valued customers at spas and beauty parlours certainly takes place throughout the country. It depends on where you visit, but clean and luxurious places can easily be found through word-of-mouth. Men and women are separated when experiencing the spa treatments, but everyone can meet up in their pyjamas (provided by the parlour!) for a good meal or further treatments such as reflexology or massage. These activities are very popular among close associates and friends, but it may be too intimate for you to enjoy with your new Chinese colleagues. In which case, a simple reflexology treatment or a head massage could help with your jetlag and provide the opportunity for a good bonding session with your Chinese counterparts.
Golfing and other clubs
An increasing number of Chinese business people are taking up golf, although it is currently considered to be a very expensive, elitist sport. Their enthusiasm for networking is the same as in the West, although their golfing ability is not quite up to par! Other than golf, there are many private clubs and social circles emerging based around exclusive hobbies, engaged in by the more economically affluent population such as diving or sports cars.
MBA and special training classes
Education is always high on the agenda in China. ‘Recharging your batteries’ for senior management has become a widespread phenomenon. Different training courses to accommodate this trend are designed by well-known universities or large corporate organisations from all over the world. These courses have become a breeding ground for networking at a high level. Despite the huge costs associated with enrolling on such courses, the high networking values and opportunities to be derived far outweigh any monetary concerns.
Food in China
Dining is perhaps the most popular pastime and form of entertainment in China: all important and everyday festivals, occasions, gatherings and ceremonies involve a lot of eating! If you are doing business in China, it will not take you long to discover the importance of food in Chinese culture. Every lunch and dinner is treated with the utmost respect. A quick business lunch can easily expand into a huge feast, even if there is only a small number in your party! The enthusiasm for food itself is a huge topic at the table. People compare notes on the trendiest dish available at the moment, which new restaurant’s food is value for money, or which new eating experience they have had. As a visitor, the host will not expect you to know everything about Chinese food, but it would be greatly appreciated if you are able to display some knowledge of the subject, because it shows that you have respect for them and an interest in their country.
China’s extensive geography creates a diverse climate and a multitude of cultural differences. These and many historical circumstances contribute to a broad and differing range of Chinese foods available in the country. There are generally four types of cuisine: the Northern plains – including Beijing; the fertile East – watered by the Yangtse River; the South, famous for the Cantonese cooking of the Guangdong Province; and the fecund West of Sichuan and the Hunan Provinces. Each cuisine includes a range of different types of dish, the most renowned traditional categories are:
- Cantonese (Yue): From Guangzhou/Canton – the most famous with Westerners, as it is served in most of the Chinese restaurants overseas.
- Shandong (Lu): Often regarded as an everyday meal served in the Northern area in places such as Beijing and Shandong. Soy Sauce is an important ingredient.
- Sichuan (Chuan): Its distinctive taste is chilli, making it very hot and spicy. It is likely to be an interesting experience for fans of Indian food.
- Jiangsu (Su or Yang): Quite light in comparison with other Northern dishes, and with a sweet taste.
- Other major types of cuisine include Fujian (Min), Hunan (Xiang), Zhejiang (Zhe) and Anhui (Hui) styles.
Other than the traditional meals, there are many new and unusual dishes appearing in the trendy restaurants in major cities. Their incredible array of ingredients can range from Western goat’s cheese and potato chips to Chinese Soy Sauce and Sichuan chilli pepper. In addition, there is also a vast selection of foreign food available in China: Italian, French, Indian, Brazilian, Thai – to name but a few types. Western food can always be a good choice for taking your Chinese contacts out for a change.
Typical Chinese dishes to sample:
- Peking Duck, Beijing – Its authentic taste can’t be found in any Chinese restaurant in the West.
- Chinese Hotpot, Mongolian – A national dish to help endure the harsh winters in the North.
- Pork Stew – Mao Tse Tong’s favourite dish, it is interpreted in many different ways throughout the country, but the basic ingredient is the same: pork belly. It looks fatty but tastes great.
- Spicy Fish Hotpot, Sichuan – A very stimulating experience if you have a strong enough palate for chilli and Chinese pepper.
- Dim Sum, Guangdong – As popular in China as in the Chinese restaurants throughout the world, it is worth comparing it to your own experience of the dish!
- Little Steamed Dumplings, Shanghai – A mouth-watering experience, worth queuing at the Nanxiang Restaurant for!
- Dumplings, Northern – A typical dish for Chinese New Year’s Eve, representing the union of the family.
- Hand-pulled Noodles, Northern – This dish is more of an artistic display than a cookery process. Witnessing the production of the thread-like noodles is a truly amazing experience.
- Steamed Pot, Yuannan – A soup with a healthy mixture of meat and vegetables.
Made from camellia leaves, there are 6 major types of tea – Green, Black, Wulong, White, Scented and tightly pressed tea (sometimes called ‘gunpowder’ tea due to its colour and shape). Green Tea has the longest history and remains the most popular, enjoyed for its freshness and natural fragrance. Famous green teas include Longjing (Dragon Well) from Hangzhou, Maofeng Tea from the Huangshan Mountain, Yinzhen (Silver Needle) Tea from the Junshan Mountain, Yunwu (Cloud and Mist) Tea from the Lushan Mountain, and Wulong from Fujian in the Southeast of the country. Scented tea, made by mixing green tea with flower petals is unique to China. Sweet osmanthus, jasmine, rose, orchid and plum flowers are all available.
The contribution of Chinese people to the world
- The Compass – Invented in China during the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC). In the 15th century, Zheng He made several ocean crossings using the compass.
- Paper – In 105 AD, bark from the mulberry tree and bamboo fibres were blended with water and pounded to a pulp. Once dried it formed an excellent writing surface.
- Printing – Block printing is probably one of China’s most significant inventions. This occurred during the Tang Dynasty sometime between the 4th and 7th centuries AD.
- Gunpowder/fireworks – A mixture of saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur, and powdered charcoal invented in the latter part of the Han dynasty, during the 3rd century AD. Mixing gunpowder with other elements that burn to give different colours led to the creation of the first ever fireworks. The above four inventions are the most well known contributions made by Chinese people to the world’s development.
- Porcelain – In the 13th century, Marco Polo described the beauty of Chinese porcelain in his book. It wasn’t until the 18th century that it was successfully produced in Europe.
- Silk – One of the strongest natural fibres, stronger than steel, was obtained and woven from silk moth caterpillar cocoons.
- Trade Routes – transcontinental trade routes such as the ‘Silk Road’ which ran from Xi’an to Rome were developed.
- Seismograph – During the Han Dynasty, Emperor He’s Royal Astronomer – Hang Chen – was responsible for the invention of the seismograph to predict the strength and direction of earthquakes.
Sport in China
Also known as ‘ping pong’, this has always been a sport in which the Chinese people have excelled on an international stage since the 1960s. In 1971, the Chinese table tennis team invited the American table tennis team to visit the People’s Republic of China. During this all- expenses paid trip, significant bridges were built between the American and Chinese people in the sports arena. It is testament to the value of the sport in China, that the US team was the first group of Americans allowed into the country since 1949 when China was founded. This was coupled by an economic development, as during this trip, the US announced plans to remove a 20-year embargo on trade with China. Table tennis is still one of the biggest amateur recreational sports in China today, with an estimated 200 million players.
Once again, sport became entwined with politics during the defeat of the Japanese women’s volleyball team by the Chinese in the 1981 World Championships. Although the political context was a period of significant modernisation in the country, this sporting victory spurred the nation on in a sense of national pride – previously only seen before the Cultural Revolution. Not only did they defeat China’s traditional Asian rival Japan, but they also went on to win at the Olympics and five consecutive world titles. China had previously held the embarrassing sporting label of ‘the sick man of East Asia’ – a label that was removed by this period of victory.
Another sport in which the Chinese people excel is badminton. This means that it continues to be one of the most popular recreational sports in the country today. The Chinese team has achieved many sporting victories, including winning the World Championship, the England Open, the Sudirman Cup and several Olympic medals. Many Chinese people enjoy playing badminton in the open air, without a net or a court, meaning that it can be enjoyed by anyone at anytime.
There is a theory perpetuated by some historians that basketball originated in China as an evolution of the ‘shouju’ game. This was a street-based handball game with a circular net that was in existence way before basketball. Regardless of its origin, the sport has grown from strength to strength in China, and increased significantly in popularity since Chinese professional basketball player Yao Ming signed for Houston in 2002. Yao Ming was named a global ambassador for the Special Olympics World Games in 2007 and is one of the country’s favourite athletes.
Football is hugely popular and attracts more fans here than anywhere else in the world. Unlike China’s other popular sports, however, the Chinese people have not yet triumphed in football despite their best efforts. This means that international teams attract more interest than their national counterparts – in particular the teams in the English Premiership, the Italian Serie A and the German Bundesliga. If a Chinese player signs for a particular team, this can unleash a high level of Chinese support. This has happened with Everton and Manchester City among other teams – fuelled by extensive media coverage. Major European competitions can attract hundreds of millions of followers and have helped to make football the most televised sport in China. Support for the national sides, however, comes nowhere near this figure. Some top of the table teams attract gates in the 10’s of thousands, but in the mid-table, teams only tend to attract low gates of 3,000 to 8,000 with 1,000 or fewer fans for the teams in the relegation zone.
Like table tennis, a victorious Chinese team allowed the sport to increase in popularity. At the turn of the century, some female Chinese athletes won at the World Championship and several victories followed, including a gold medal in the women’s tennis double at the 2004 Summer Olympics, the Grand Slam at the Australian Open in 2006 and many others. Tennis has become increasingly popular, and tends to be played at leisure centres and hotels.
Ding Junhui is a popular current snooker player. In 2003, he became China’s top ranked player and now lives in the UK during the snooker season. In 2005, he defeated British snooker legend Steve Davis in the UK Championship final. All of his tournaments are widely publicised and scheduled in the Chinese sports calendar.
The Chinese Grand Prix is a Formula One event held at the Shanghai International Circuit in October every year. The track was designed by the German architect Hermann Tilke and is the most expensive Formula One circuit in the world, costing about $240 million with the capacity for over 200,000 spectators. Around 150,000 tickets were sold for the first race in 2004 and the superb quality of facilities continues to attract a huge audience.
Golf is a status symbol and a networking tool as well as a sport in China. It elevates one’s status to be a member of a golf club and the sport is widely discussed in business circles. There are around 200 golf courses and clubs in China for amateur golfers, and this number continues to rise year on year. During the last decade, China has developed into one of the most active golfing communities and has attracted several key events to the country – including the PGA European Tour and the Asian PGA Tour in 2004. Volvo, TCL and BMW are all involved in the sponsorship of the sport, indicating its stature in the business world.
The Chinese zodiac follows a pattern of 12 years and each year is represented by its own unique creature from the animal kingdom. These take turns as the dominant sign in a particular year – for example, 2009 is the year of the Ox.
In the same way that Western cultures are often superstitious with regards to the number 13, the Chinese also attach good and bad omens to numbers.
- "8" is regarded as a lucky number, as the way it is pronounced in the Chinese language sounds similar to the phrase "to get a fortune".
- "6" symbolises safety and an easy journey.
- "9" is very lucky – there are 9 door knobs positioned horizontally and vertically on the imperial doors in the Forbidden City.
- "73" and "84" are regarded as bad omens for the elderly, as they are deemed possible years for death or illness.
- "4" is considered bad luck as its pronunciation is similar to the word for ‘death’ in Chinese.
- "7" can also be a symbol of death, but this is not as commonly regarded as the number 4.
Doubles are a good omen, for instance a pair of vases, not a single vase, would be given to a newly married couple.
Colour symbolism is important and it is practical to know what each colour represents in public places:
- Red symbolises good luck and is used for ceremonial purposes. It can be seen at weddings, on slogans and on welcome messages in the New Year.
- In Chinese culture, white is not a symbol of purity but is, in fact, a symbol of death. This is a long-held belief among people who live in the countryside, in particular. However, Western culture has influenced the modern Chinese bride, with white wedding dresses becoming increasingly popular.
- Yellow is reserved exclusively for imperial palaces in China. Although there is no longer a monarchy, the colour is still regarded with reverence.
- Green: the Post Office.
- Red: the ambulance service.
- A hospital is designated by a white background with a red cross.
- The association of pink for girls and blue for boys is not relevant in China.
In Chinese culture there are 3 central colours: red, black and white.
Red, being the colour of blood, symbolises the positive aspects of life such as happiness, wealth, fame etc. Red is always associated with good luck.
Black, being the colour of faeces is associated with dirt, sin, evil, disasters, sadness, cruelty and suffering among other negative things. Black signifies bad fortune and must not be worn during festivals, wedding celebrations or similar happy events. Black should also not be used in home decoration. While black has traditionally symbolised a lack of civilisation and backwardness, traditions associated with this colour are quickly fading, and the younger generation can frequently be seen wearing black as a trendy colour.
White symbolises the mother’s milk and is the central ground between red and black, balancing the 2 colours. It signifies moderation, purity, honesty and life, but it is also used at funerals as it is believed that it can harmonise all elements. It can be used in all rituals and ceremonies as it is essentially neutral. Other colours are classified according to their relative darkness and lightness and associated significance with white as the benchmark.