30 Guidelines for Doing Business in China

For my first post of the year, I thought I would offer a useful list of things to consider when doing business in China or with a Chinese company. This is obviously not comprehensive, but I hope it is robust enough to help you consider some important issues that will arise in your international relationships.

1. Accept business cards with 2 hands

They will accept yours with 2 hands as well. If you are sitting, then it is polite to stand up, even if just enough to pull yourself off the chair slightly. Also, it is even more meaningful to hold the card firmly, so that the receiver has to rip it out of your hands ever so slightly. This is the beginning of the relationship and this is your chance to show your sincere desire to start the relationship off right.

2. Express admiration for their culture, food, or country in some way.

This gives them honor and “face”, which puts them in a much better mood and feeling good about the longterm aspects of the relationship.

3. Expect after hour activities, such as karaoke, dinner, or massages.

Chinese people don’t have credit reports. They have “guanxi” or relationship oriented business. This is changing and morphing into something different, but it is still vital. Just don’t do something you are uncomfortable with. Those massage and karaoke places can offer “special services”, so be clear about your intentions very early if a line of girls are brought out to sing with you and the host is choosing which girl will pair up with you for a special duet.

4. Only eat everything on your plate if you want more food.

This may cause your host to order more food, so keep this in mind because he/she won’t ask you, they will just order more.

5. Learn the language

Any amount, even a few sentences, will impress the Chinese. It really does mean a lot to them. Maybe in 10 years it won’t be such a big deal, but right now it will have an impact.

6. Treat sensitive topics with sensitivity.

Let them save face. If it doesn’t need to be brought up, then don’t bring it up. Let it go and move on to topics that make them look credible.

7. Don’t complain about the toilets.

The reply to “How do you like China so far?”, should not be your chance to be honest about the hygenic differences you have struggled with in the few days you have spent there. If you peed on your shoe because you didn’t know how to use the squatty potty, tell your spouse or co-worker, but don’t embarrass your host by calling his country under-developed and dirty.

8. It’s best to have bosses talk to bosses and techies talk to techies.

I have talked with Chinese CEOs who have canceled business relationships because the boss is talking to the engineers to solve problems in the relationship, rather than keeping his conversations at the boss level.

9. Don’t expect to put together a deal in one weekend.

Have patience. Set patient expectations for your superiors, especially in the beginning. It takes time for the Chinese to build relationships strong enough for them to even start business discussions.

10. Live in China for a time

This really opens your eyes to all the little things you should be paying attention to as you conduct business in China. The other expats will also be a good group to associate with as they have learned many of the unique cultural differences and similarities between the US and China.

11. Tell them something personal.

I always shared pictures of my family with my Chinese associates. It made them feel like they knew me. They want to know if they can trust you and sharing the sincere parts of yourself with them communicates that answer strongly.

12. Offer them the same level of treatment when they visit you.

This can seem a bit daunting if they went all out for you on your visit, but when they visit your offices, you must give them equal or better treatment. It can’t be a one-sided relationship.

13. Bring a gift

Nothing too lavish, but something unique to where you come from is usually a good idea.

14. Have a translator with you, especially when you start discussing agreements or contracts.

Our languages are very different and English is not as established in China as it is in places like Europe, so make sure the official stuff is handled with official translators. 

15. If you are Jewish, be sure to mention it.

Chinese people love Jews! If you tell them you are Jewish, they automatically identify with many of the Jewish stereotypes of being really smart with your money. I have personally seen it offer an initial advantage (obviously, I don’t claim this and you should be honest).

16. Create friends by doing favors.

Doing a favor for someone can be a part of their relationship “game”, but it can also accelerate a sincere and lasting business relationship.

17. Be careful what favors you let others do for you.

Remember that eventually you will have to respond with a favor of equal or greater value!

18. Steer away from politics and religion.

These are not topics that Chinese people are used to discussing. Even if they lure you into these topics, I advise you find a way to change the subject and focus more on culture, education, business, personal lives, and economics.

19. Try and have one-on-one talks with everyone in the constituency you are trying to work with at your level.

There are a lot of things that each person is thinking about and not saying because of Chinese culture and they don’t want you to lose face. The real issues can be initiated offline in a more personal setting.

20. Help them build a larger network. Introduce them to someone useful for them.

This can be one of the best favors you can do for someone. “Guanxi” is all about the power of their network and if you can increase that power, then you become very important to them.

21. Have something to drink in your glass at all times.

If you don’t drink alcohol, coffee, or tea and everyone else does, then you need something in your glass as a substitute. Otherwise they will pressure you to drink what they are drinking until you either give in or they lose face in front of everyone. I have made the mistake of not ordering a drink and the pressure begins only to have beer bottles thrown and shattered at my feet for making them think I was too good to drink with them.

22. Complement them on their English.

Yeah, even if it’s not good. Just give them props for trying. Our languages are very different and they have probably put in a lot of time to say those few sentences.

23. Take a lot of pictures with them.

The more official an event, the more pictures you should expect to take of the whole group.

24. Meals are for meetings and long conversations, not for eating.

Don’t eat too quick. Pace yourself or you will start gaining a lot of weight.

25. Watch out for the bones when you take a bite.

Much of the meat in China has bones. They cut the meat up with the bones still intact and you can be fooled very easily. My first bite was always a tentative test. You don’t want to go to a dentist in a foreign country.

26. Prepare for many toasts to future cooperation.

You should make at least one toast during your meal. Try and clink your glass to the bottom of theirs as a sign of respect. They will usually beat you to the punch and go lower than you.

27. Save disagreements for the right setting and the right timing (usually at an indirect time).

Save major disagreements for one-on-one conversations.

28. Typically, you should wear a suit or formal business wear to scheduled meetings.

29. Take off the tie for later activities.

30. Resist compliments.

Appropriate responses include, “You are too kind,” and, “I should have done more.”

Feel free to share your thoughts or other business practices you have found beneficial around the world.

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About Global China Blog - Biz, Culture, and Life

I am a lover of China. I graduated from the University of Hawaii's China International MBA in 2010. At BYU, my undergraduate degree in history focused on modern US and Asian history. I am an expert negotiator and recently negotiated a multimillion dollar contract with the LPGA and IMG to bring the first ladies professional golf tournament to Mainland China since its first tournament in 2008. While in Utah, I helped an online marketing start-up company grow from 20 employees to over 120 employees as Director of Operations and later VP of Sales and Marketing. Whether its China, strategy, or sales, I love being with people and helping them see their own unique offering and how to align themselves accordingly.
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11 Responses to 30 Guidelines for Doing Business in China

  1. see chor bill says:

    informative and good advice.

  2. Philip C says:

    Best advice. Do NOT trust anyone doing business from Mainland China. The “Elephant Graveyard” of people who brought business to China during the Olympic Games and got their products stolen or sanctioned will agree. Chinese business has a convenient way of stealing, misrepresenting or overselling and under-delivering to any business outside of China because they don’t have anything to loose by taking your assets and insuring that you cannot get to them. Do not believe that China wants to come in to the global business economy, they will only do this if everyone becomes Chinese first.
    They will lie, cheat and steal from you. Do not let their cheap food and drink fool you, they will get you drunk to trick you into thinking they are your friend. They will pretend not to understand English or your culture to take advantage of you.
    I have signed several contracts and they change them after you have signed them; they rarely pay the money they commit to providing in the deal and will ALWAYS short change you.
    Best advice for doing business in Mainland China: double retail and 50% up front or you will be sorry. I’ve warned so many people and so many think that they are beyond this experience until they return robbed.

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  4. Gary says:

    Great advice.How important is to learn the language to do business in China and what is the best method of doing so?

    • Philip C says:

      Gary,
      Have an interpreter 24/7. So many meetings I have had and apparently only subordinant’s understood English. That is, until the end of the meeting and then I heard a lot of English from people who said they did not speak it. Interesting strategy to “win”, but not straight up. It’s not that they are “bad”, it’s just a different culture and winning is what it is about. But losing so very much they ask “Why do you take this so personally?”.

  5. Green City says:

    this is encouraging to read and hope some collabos will be established here!

  6. Simply desire to say your article is as surprising.
    The clearness in your post is simply cool and i could assume you’re an expert on this subject. Well with your permission allow me to grab your feed to keep updated with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please continue the rewarding work.

  7. BOA Victim Members says:

    IMPORTANT
    INFORMATION

    From: Members of Japan and USA Victims Association and the legal defense

    This is an important information and we hope disclose to you because we not hope more Asian market victim members, and of course we hope avoid the increase of victims of fraud from this person, his name is Takahito Sakagami he use to make a fiduciary bank account and collect funds from the public but this persons never receive refund or any benefit that he promise. We, the victims, lost a big amount of money and receive his fraud.
    In order to find him and prevent the victims increase, we contact a USA international investigation team, that is well known for this cases, this team had been working for the past month and report as a preliminary result the information described below:
    Mr. Sakagami, had receive the investigation of USA government entities and from prosecution offices in some South American countries, also in Japan he all ready receive a police notification letter and for this reason he cannot stay in Japan so he was force to move to another friendly countries, of course is possible that he not use his real name or use another person name to work in his scam.
    Mr. Sakagami had a partner with whom worked in South America, Mr. Saito he still is in South America but he is sick and cannot moving and because of this he cannot working anymore, our group realizes that Mr. Sakagami escape from South America and move to Asian area to restart his activity.
    According to the above if you or any organization support the illicit activities from this person (scam or fraud) the Members of the Victim in USA and South America Association, will denounce to the authorities the activity and we will attack all your company and business.
    You can find plenty information online about him and his activities, please search his name online.

    BOA Victim Members in USA, South America and Japan & Legal Defense

  8. Nelson says:

    According to this interview one of the most important things is getting the right partners in China to work with. The person in this interview did that the easy way by finding some of his future partner’s products in a trade show. Anyway, here’s his interview on youtube.

  9. s a huge number of other furniture and home improvement stores, you’ll
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    s continued development, such wage growth has demonstrated zero warning signs of
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