Building Lasting Business Relationships with the Chinese

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Building Lasting Business Relationships with the Chinese -By Abdel

It is said that in the West everything is easy, but nothing is possible. Whereas in China nothing is easy, but everything is possible. Those who have been doing business in or with China understand this maxim well. They also understand that in Chinese society, the personal, professional and political spheres overlap.

Examples abound of businesses that have failed or succeeded in China depending on their level of understanding of this reality. Google’s attempts to make inroads in the Chinese market are a case in point. After years of struggles, its CEO Eric Schmidt stated “China is a nation with a five-thousand-year history. That could indicate the duration for our patience.” Given the non-confrontational nature of the Chinese culture, Chinese people often communicate messages through hints. While we can interpret Mr. Schmidt’s statement differently depending on the circumstances, it is clear that it highlights the fact that there are some things that just take time to happen in China.

One of those things is building a good relationship with the other party. It is a commonly held view among foreigners that building long lasting relationships with the Chinese party is a pre-requisite to getting anything done. In the Chinese culture, that process sometimes takes place around a tea set or a dinner table. How does it unfold?

Reading the tea leaves

It is customary for the Chinese partner to invite their partner to drink tea. Chinese believe it’s better to be deprived of food for three days than tea for one. This emphasizes the tea drinking process as a ritual through which some aspects of the Chinese culture are articulated. Far from being a mundane ceremony, it is an occasion for the Chinese party to size up the other party. When drinking tea, they will often ask questions related to your marital status, personal achievements, plans for the future, experience with China, culinary preferences…etc. That exchange is meant to establish where does the guest stand. Is he/she someone that could be trusted or not? Once answers to those questions are established, the Chinese party might start bringing business topics up.

Trust and patience

If you ask a Chinese businessman whether he would like to do business with someone who is competent or someone who can be trusted, he would likely choose the latter. The ideal match would be someone he can trust, and, at the same time, can get the job done. But with a population of 1.4 billion people, it takes time to find that match. And time is a valuable commodity.

Once the Chinese party starts transitioning the talk towards business, the topics will be addressed in broad strokes. At this stage, everything seems opaque to the foreigner businessman who has his mental boxes and checklists. The Chinese party does not answer any key question with a straight yes or a straight no. Not yet, not at this stage. For now, a “basically no problem” means “big problem”, and a “yes” is not an indication of agreement. Things change and start getting clearer as the exchange progresses, and as the relationship is cemented.

Think of the tea drinking ceremony as an interview to get accepted by the other. Go along with it, sit back, and be patient. It is said that patience is also a form of action.   

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