Adapting to Local Chinese Culture – One of the 8 Keys to Success, Prosperity and Everlasting Joy in Doing Business in China

This is an excerpt from my new, as yet unfinished book ‘The Dragon Flies’ or ‘How Not to Lose your Shirt in China.’

The Chinese do not essentially look at themselves as an ethnic people but rather look at themselves as a culture. A culture with a very long history, which for the majority of its existence has developed in isolation from the rest of the world.

There is a widely acknowledged way of doing things and that way is the ‘Chinese Way’ and it is very important getting to grips with the fact that unless you understand and act in a ‘Chinese Way’ then it is very hard to be successful in China.

It is almost a truism that there is a rule book that every one learns in China and that’s the way things are done. Full stop. And it can be really frustrating sometimes dealing with the fact that there is not more movement from the Chinese side. But the ethnic identity in China is completely tied up with the cultural way of doing things – people truly believe that they have figured out the best way to do things after such a long history and changing attitudes and behaviors is well-nigh impossible.

Therefore at least understanding some of these differences is essential to succeed in China, if not necessarily becoming culturally Chinese yourself.

The following insights into the Chinese mindset and how vastly it differs from western countries, and the other points mentioned throughout the interviews.

So let’s start with ‘what is this local Chinese Culture that is spoken about?

This is a big subject but it can be boiled down into a number of points that may be termed generalizations, but they are things that seem to be pretty much ubiquitous in the Chinese culture.

  • Group Consciousness
  • Not Causing Offence
  • Family is Paramount
  • Personal Relationships are extremely important.
  • Work is an extension of the family – people expect to be taken care of.
  • Chinese culture is the most sensible in the world.

The main difference is the concept of group consciousness in the Chinese culture – independent thought and action are not generally seen – people have a huge depth of consideration for the group and not for the individual.

Society operates on the rule of group responsibility, group interaction and group consideration and this is very hard to come to terms with for a foreigner who has been brought up to live in an independent manner with independent thought.

As Julia Monk from HOK Hong Kong says:

In individual entitlement, you’re allowed to have your opinion. Whenever Westerners give an answer to any question, we’re really giving our opinion because there’s no black or white answer when you get down to it. Chinese people are hesitant about giving you an opinion because they have to keep the whole group in mind when they give their answer. It’s not a simple thing. Try to act in the spirit of cooperation that group entitlement dictates. 

Getting to the bottom of someone’s true feelings can be really difficult – it is not the done thing to answer a question directly until all possible ramifications for the answer on multiple levels of relationships have been considered and a conclusion that the answer is not going to upset anyone and cause offence.

Not causing offence in China is a really important thing – there is an aphorism that states “You cannot afford to have even one enemy’ and that is then matched with ‘he was such a filial son that he sought revenge even to seven generations’.

This dynamic means that getting to the truth is sometimes well-nigh impossible. No-one wants to tell the truth in case the person they are speaking about gets to hear of it and is offended and causes trouble – which is very much on the cards.

In meetings in China everyone will sit around and allow the senior members of the team to speak or present. Then there is silence – it doesn’t matter how many times you ask for comment it never comes. Certainly you won’t get any negative or even anything slightly seen to be critical comment.

Frustrating? Yes. But how do meetings get anything done?

You wait – and later that day, the next day or in a few days, one by one the staff will come to you privately and give input into the matters discussed. If you are a lead footed foreigner, who creates decisions in the meeting and then insists on implementation without this private feedback, then those decisions will be almost impossible to implement. You will get total ‘Passive-Aggressive’ behavior from everyone and until you reconcile all of the opinions then things simply don’t move forward.

Do not criticize anyone in public – you will make enemies all over the place.

The concept of aggressive career development is often lacking in the members of the staff, in particular the older, married with children staff.  In the history of China there has never been a time when the state has paid for retirement – or certainly not to an extent that someone could afford to live very comfortably on a pension.

That means parents depend on children. And to get children to behave in the right manner they are indulged and given huge amounts of attention while they are children. The parent will do every single thing within their power to create a better life for the children on the understanding that when they are old and unable to care for themselves then the children will look after the parents. Cue the ‘Tiger Mom’.

The worst people in Chinese society are those people who do not look after their parents. There is even a LAW specifying how many times the children must substantively visit the parents and the children can be jailed if they do not adhere to the law.

This factor influences every single thing that cuts through Chinese society and realizing the importance of this factor is hugely important.

For example, you will be unlikely to get a positive response if you ask a staff member, partner, prospective client or client out for a meal over the weekend – that’s family time and the person is almost guaranteed to be engaged in family activity, however, if it is necessary to ask someone to work (which by extension is benefiting the family) then the answer will always be yes.

In fact, it is a truism that you have found the right level of relationship with a client/partner/staff member etc. if YOU are invited out to hang out at the weekend in family time – that means you have been accepted into the inner sanctum of the family and can be trusted.

Another way in which this manifests is in staff taking time off for ‘family’ reasons – this is usually because an elder needs to go to a doctor/hospital appointment or another obligation that requires assistance from the younger generation. To refuse that time off is seen as very cold and calculating, and it’s the reason why when you go to a hospital there are ten times more people there than there should be because each patient has 5-6 family members there holding hands.

The group dynamic works in another way – a person making a decision doesn’t want to make a mistake because that will involve a loss of face with his circle – and loss of face within a group means the person loses the place that he/she inhabits in the group. The sense of identity. The sense of position. So not making a mistake means a couple of things – one it brings a deep seated conservatism to the fore so that making a decision will be agonized over for a very long time and it also means that not making a decision is a better decision that making a wrong one.

For a westerner this is really frustrating – because it takes so long to get things underway and the process of keeping coming back to the same things over and over is hard to swallow. But it is simply a way of making sure it is the right decision – and the way to hurry up that decision making process is to supply a huge amount of verifiable information in the presentation that allows the decision maker to feel more comfortable with the decision.

Basically it means that you must constantly ask the question “What can I do to mitigate the risk of the decision to use my company?”

You have to take the time to mix and socialize with the locals. And socializing with the locals is very different than with western associates.

It’s the difference between a coffee in Starbucks or an afternoon in a tea-house. It’s the difference between doings all your drinking at the meal and not going to a bar to drink until possible after dinner but certainly not before dinner.


It means playing ‘ma jiang’ if you have a talent for clicking the ivory tiles and gambling – just remember never to leave the table until you have given an opponent time to win his money back – even if that means playing until 6am.

It means meals become the place for social interaction and if you are invited to a meal then you should invite back. It means never forgetting any of the gifts that are given to you – you must reciprocate in some way.

If you want to understand the local differences, then you need to spend time in the locality – you need to take people out for dinner and ask question after question about that area. Each part of China is different and has a slightly different slant on things – as Michael Liu from Zhi Xin Property Development Sichuan Ltd mentioned:

“You know Beijing is very cold. If you are an architect, when you design residential for Beijing, you never emphasize the landscaping—the plants and flowers. Why? Because with the cold weather it’s not possible to do that very well. But in Chengdu, if you were doing exactly the same residential project, you must emphasize the landscaping because the weather is warm and that’s what people like and expect. In Beijing, you would design an average landscape, but in Chengdu or in Guangzhou you must put more emphasis on that.”

These differences cut across every single part of the society – China is really different in the way it thinks, in the way it appreciates things than western countries – not better, not worse – just different.

If you look at a local Chinese website, you will see it is full to the brim with bells and whistles. Things flash all over the place and it is a riot of color. Compare that with the minimalist websites in western countries.

Compare a western restaurant with subdued lighting, couples holding hands, soft music playing with a Chinese restaurant – voices at the top of the volume control, bright lighting. Noise, clatter, loud enjoyment, laughter – and more obvious – always a large group of people. There is even a name for the bustling clattering that goes on in China – ‘re nao’ – heat & noise. The Chinese thrive on it. Life is not fulfilled unless there is action, lights, camera. It’s an outpouring and bubbling over of joy and happiness and learning to enjoy what seems like chaos is part of learning to enjoy China and understanding its people.


Re Nao – Heat and Noise

The group dynamic is so important – everyone is watching until the group ‘leader’ makes a choice – it may be to buy an apartment in the complex you have designed – but until it passes a group appreciation then it isn’t going to sell.

There is also a committee that you have to come to terms with in China – the fox and dog friends – ‘hu peng gou you’.

Everyone has their group of friends that make up an inner social circle. These are the people that a person meets regularly if not daily. These are the people that sit in teahouses and chat constantly abo0ut what is going on in each other lives. Generally, this circle is the innermost circle that can be trusted beyond the family.

This circle carries a huge amount of influence in people’s minds and are one of the most frustrating aspects of the group consciousness in China. And it all too often works something like this (and I have obviously simplified this):

You have a wonderful meeting with a prospective Client/JV Partner/Investor/Developer and you leave the meeting full of optimism. You have endured the 12 people on the other side of the table frantically taking notes, and you have guided the General Manager/Chairman to a point where he is ready to move forward with the proposition/design commission or association.

Drinks all round.

Then at the next meeting things seem to have gone off track. The Chairman/GM is no longer so optimistic. There are 15 objections to the idea that weren’t there last time. Things are now looking a lot less likely than before.

What’s happened?

The foxes and dogs have had a bite at your idea. The decision maker has taken your idea/design/proposal to the court of the canines and they have poured cold water on it. What if this goes wrong? What if that goes wrong?

And in a culture that is based on ‘face’ or shame, the person is not able to proceed, regardless of what he personally thinks because IF the idea doesn’t work out then his ‘face’ will severely diminished and he will literally be embarrassed beyond repair.


‘hu you gou peng’ Fox and Dog Friends

There is a very strong cultural emphasis on business success. Everyone wants to be seen as a clever businessman, particularly in front of the inner circle of friends. This is why there is conspicuous consumption like nowhere else in the world. This is why a person will save their entire monthly salary and eat noodles every day so they can buy a carton of really, really, expensive cigarettes and hand them around on the night at the club.

To succeed with a business transaction, you need to be able to provide clear and incontrovertible proof that the transaction is going to be a success and is strong enough to pass muster with the inner circle.

No matter what it looks like on the outside, every single Chinese businessman has a circle of peers like this and they are listened to and their advice is sought.

You need to be ahead of this game and make the proposition compelling and clear. Get a small job under your belt in China before going for the bigger jobs – this ticks the box of ‘well, it’s all very well in your country but have you worked in China before?’

  1. Come from a large company with a demonstrable portfolio.
  2. People in China respect awards and achievements because it makes the loss of face much less if it doesn’t work out.
  3. Get really close to the prospective client before doing business with them so you are already in the groups view. If you are already seen as a strong relationship, then half the battle is won.
  4. Try and meet the group itself – put on a dinner/evening and ask your prospective client to invite his friends and then look after them really well.


Get to know the group dynamic and understand that everything will be part of a group decision not just one persons.

36-strategiesDo not, however, become beguiled because someone has shown you great hospitality and plenty of smiles. One of the really incisive statements of the 36 Strategies (which it is my advice to learn off by heart in a business sense) is ‘Knife Hidden Behind Smiling Face’ – you don’t want to be the receiver of that knife – so be wary until you get to know the people properly.

Recently, I had occasion to conduct business with a business man who we had not known for a long time. On the surface he was personality personified. Outgoing, warm, friendly.

My wife advised me over and over to be careful when I got excited about such a great guy – yes, even after 22 years I get excited in these situations – and quoted one of the 4 million aphorisms I have been the recipient of: ‘You get to know your friends on a long journey’.

This is not exactly the same as a ‘friend in need is a friend indeed’ – it’s an expression of the fact that after 5,000 years of smooth talking salesmen type characters and 5,000 years of bitter history, that you should be careful before getting excited over new friends.

And… of course my excitement was misplaced – at a meal with some of the others in the company the leader showed his true colors by the way in which he treated the staff, and the way in which everyone on his team thought it was funny to see someone small humiliated.

On the way home my wife said: “You wait. This business transaction will not go well” – and sure enough it didn’t.

There is an Indian saying that perfectly explains this dynamic – ‘The tongue has no bones’ – the tongue can go anywhere it wants and therefore it can tell whatever lies will make you happy and you should take care for a long time before trusting the person completely.

The overriding moral of the story is simply that you need to spend a lot of time in China to understand how it ticks – you can’t possibly get the depth of understanding from sitting abroad and visiting with a hot deal in the briefcase.


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