Doing Business in China

Business Meetings in ChinaFor anyone interested in doing business in China no doubt many of you have read websites giving you tips and tricks for business etiquette; but is most of it true?


In October 2014 I will be making my 10th trip to China, 90% of which has been for work related purposes.


Using the Austrade guide to doing business in China I have added and adapted to what I believe you can expect, with a few extra tips and tricks. I will forever consider myself inexperienced when it comes to doing business in China (because how can you begin to understand a country that has thousands of years of culture behind it) but I hope these basics will give you a good grounding for what to expect. 


General Advice

• Relationships, relationships, relationships!!!! Expect the relationship to take a long time and don’t expect outcomes from your first few trips, actually don’t expect anything but relationships to be developed for at least the first few years - building up good business relationships and trust is very important in China. I have found that Chinese will like you to come and visit their company headquarters or in my case development projects. Generally these site visits can be long and repetitive, but it will go a long way to show interest in their company and will develop good guanxi for you.

•Knowing some simple Mandarin will go a long way! Even just hello, thank you etc is really appreciated by Chinese.

•The Chinese regularly engage in polite conversation, especially telling you that your Mandarin is really good! I made the mistake of thinking that yes my Mandarin was actually ok the first time I went to China for business and said thank you very much to the man that mentioned it to me… After learning the language and culture in more detail I soon realized he was just being polite and have now learnt how to modestly respond.

•If you are beckoning to someone, motion towards you using your hand and palm pointed downwards – never palm up. Furthermore, don’t use your index finger or point when speaking.

•Try to speak with your counterparts in short, simple, and jargon-free sentences. I have also found that numbers can be very difficult to translate so either avoid them or don’t use too many at once.

Business Meetings

•A handshake is the standard way to greet men and women, I do not kiss or hug people unless they initiate it first.

•When you are starting a business meeting, make sure you seek out the most senior person first, shake their hand and present your business card. Usually the senior person will have someone with them who will make it known to you that they are the first person you should deal with. Then introduce yourself to others by importance, generally you will be guided by their side as to who to shake hands with next. I have found that when I have picked the wrong person they will point me in the right direction.  

•Business cards are essential in China, and I believe it is essential to have it translated into simplified Chinese on the reverse side 

•When presenting your business card, present it with both hands with the Chinese side face up. It is a sign of respect to spend a few moments examining the business cards you receive rather than putting them away immediately. If I am presented the cards at a lunch I will leave the cards out on the table for the entire event. I also do not write on my business cards as a sign of respect; however you may wish to do this discreetly later, especially if you are meeting numerous people at a function and have specific follow up items. 

Dinner meetings

•A great deal of business in China is conducted over dinners, where very senior people may attend who were not at previous negotiations.  

Doing Business in China

• The head of the table will sit facing the door with the most senior people to the left and right. The seating arrangements are very important and cannot be underestimated. If you are hosting a function make sure you plan this appropriately.

•Never begin eating or drinking until your host does.

• It is polite to try all dishes that are offered to you, but you can discreetly leave anything you don’t like at the edge of your plate. You may want to learn to say I do not want (我不要) or I do not need(我不用)or I am full(吃饱了)

•Be prepared to drink! Dinner speeches and frequent toasts are standard, infact you can expect that you will toast everyone on your table at least once. Expect to hear the words ganbei(干杯)over and over again.

•Generally you will have a very small glass for bai jiu(白酒)with a jug next to it so that you can fill it up, or you may have a red wine glass with a jug next to it to fill it up. Sometimes I have had both bai jiu and red wine…… Don’t worry though, it is literally just a sip of wine, you do not fill your glass up like a normal glass of red wine, sip size is standard. Sometimes servers will fill your glass, it will only be small

• When toasting make sure your glass is lower than you Chinese counterpart, this will show respect.

• Generally dessert is not eaten in China, you will find that you may finish or start your meal (or both) with a plate of fruit…this will also include a tomato, which I still find strange (even though it is technically a fruit!)

• Dinner will generally be served banquet style where everyone helps themselves to the food. It is very polite to serve some of the food to the people on either side of you before serving yourself, also offer tea to others before yourself. You may also find others doing that to you in which case you can politely decline if you do not want to eat it.

• In the banquet style you will generally find that you will need to use your own chopsticks to collect food. Sometimes there will be serving utensils but many times it is the same chopsticks that you put in your mouth, that also get put into the food…. This is the same thing that everyone else is doing…. Don’t worry I have never been sick

• Don’t be surprised if Chinese guests start smoking during dinner, it’s something I have learnt to deal with.

• There are pages of information about chopstick rules, I will let you google them yourself, there are many no-no's such as twiddling with chopsticks, licking chopsticks, or using them to stir up the food, gesture with them or point them at others. Never stick chopsticks in the center of rice, as this is the way to sacrifice and is therefore considered to be inauspicious.

• Don’t be afraid to ask for cutlery if you are having a really hard time, most Chinese expect foreigners not to be able to use chopsticks! (no doubt you will surprise them if you can)

• Expect for food to be left over – if there is no food left over then that is a sign that the host has not treated you well enough, as such it is customary for them to over order food.

• Your host will (generally) always pay the bill, do not try and split the bill as it can show you are ungrateful. Simply thank the host for their generous hospitality and tell them when they come to visit you in your country you will shout. 

Gift Giving

•The Chinese generally like to give small and inexpensive gifts. 

•It is a good idea to bring small gifts with an Australian theme and wrap them in colours such as red, yellow or gold, which are regarded as lucky in China. I always carry extra gifts like cufflinks or chocolates in my handbag as you never know when you may get caught off guard with a gift for you!


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