The Unwritten Rules for Doing Business in China

As the Chinese economy mushrooms and western businesses rush to get their feet in the door with their eastern counterparts, you may find yourself suddenly having a surprising amount of dealings with Chinese enterprises.  Whether these take place on American soil, overseas, or in cyberspace, it is imperative that you understand how business works in China and the differences between your respective cultures.  Trying to succeed in a culture so different from the one you’re used to can be difficult, so here are a few important rules to remember in your business maneuverings.


Don’t act without thinking.  Spontaneous actions and “following your gut” can be seen as aggressive and decisive in the American business world.  Not so in China, where this will be viewed as brash and irresponsible.  It’s also almost certain to blow up in your face, as you’ll be acting in an environment you’re unused to.

Don’t give anyone the benefit of the doubt.  In America you sometimes have to take leaps of faith regarding business partners, trusting that government regulations will discourage them from offering you subpar service or quality goods or otherwise deceiving you.  In China, still a developing country, there is a great deal of corruption, shoddy or impure raw materials, and trade secret selling. 

Don’t compete with local businesses.  It will be a lost battle every time, as Chinese companies are sure to offer the same product for cheaper and less legal complications.  If you want to hold your own in the Chinese market, make sure that you’re selling something that’s unique in their eyes.

Don’t enter into joint ventures.  This are widely out of style in the Chinese business world, as they come with a lot of corruption, red tape, intellectual theft, and bullying from overseeing bureaucrats.

Image 7Offer appropriate deference to senior partners.  In Chinese culture, age demands great respect, so be sure to observe this hierarchy in the business setting.  Not only should you greet people higher on the corporate chain with enormous politeness and people below you with a sense of authority, but in many cases you’re best only interacting with people on your same level.

Be quick on your feet.  A long-term goal is admirable, but as China is a country that’s constantly changing, you should keep your eye on a series of short-term prizes as well.  You should be able to think fast and adapt, and never rely on a written contract.  (They are viewed as merely symbolic in China, unenforceable and easily amended.)

Keep multiple partners.  They will all be able to keep tabs on each other, lessening the likelihood of you getting cheated.

And above all, the best thing you can do to get a firm grasp on how business is done in China is to go and see it for yourself.  Before you travel to China, though, be sure you have at least a beginner’s understanding of Chinese to help you get by.  Take a look at our free online Chinese language level test, or send us an enquiry for more information.

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