Doing Business in China

Cultural issues to consider when working in the world’s most populous country

With more than one billion residents, enormous market potential, a dynamic economy and hosting duties for this summer’s Olympic Games, China is an increasingly attractive place in which to do business, offering excellent service in its first- and second-tier cities.

Yet, despite the nation’s efforts to modernize and adopt some trappings of capitalism, the Chinese business world still is influenced significantly by ancient customs and traditions. Whether the event takes place in Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai or elsewhere, here are a few tips for meeting planners delving into the Chinese market.

* Be language smart. Don’t presume most people in attendance will speak English. A number of dialects are spoken by the Chinese people. Nationwide, Mandarin is the most commonly spoken language. Hire a qualified translator, and work together at the beginning of the planning process, before preparing the program.

Before hiring, give the translator a call and check his or her spoken English. Beware of using a “professional translator” who is a language student from the local college, with no grasp of business English. At meetings and trade shows, provide both English and Mandarin versions of graphics, slides and presentation materials to support your communications.

* Take note of names. Chinese names appear in a different order than Western names, with the family name first and the given name second. Address an individual by his or her family name, not the given name.

* Greet well. Introductions can be formal in China, involving a nod, a long handshake or a slight bow when greeting. Wait for the Chinese to bow first, however, before returning the gesture. Focus on work-related conversation rather than personal pleasantries, and avoid close talking or the use of exaggerated gestures.

* Know business card etiquette. The exchange of business cards is very important. Cards should be printed in English and Mandarin, and presented with both hands, fingers along the edge, with the Chinese side facing up.

When a business card is presented to you, always receive it with both hands, and scrutinize it carefully before addressing the person by name, showing respect for their business rank.

* Dress well. Attire is conservative, with men in dark suits and ties and women in dresses or skirts.

* Eat, drink and be merry. Entertainment is part of the Chinese business culture, so prepare for lengthy dinners, drinking and even karaoke singing. Keep the business talk spare during this time.

* Be seated. At trade shows, consider a buffet-style meal with both Chinese and Western-style food, and offer table seating. Butler-style receptions, where guests stand and talk over cocktails, are not highly regarded in China.

* Don’t offer to “split the bill.” People can go to great lengths to claim the honor of paying the bill for a business dinner, an honor normally given to the most senior person. Attempting to “chip in” will cause embarrassment.

* Don’t expect comps. Unless you specifically ask, Chinese hotels and conference centers will not offer compensated room nights, discounted food and beverage, or extra meeting space. Ditto for technological services and support staff. Carefully consider and prioritize all of your needs before signing a contract.

* Enlist help. As with other overseas meeting arrangements, finding local allies in China can help significantly to reduce project time and costs. However, business ethics are different between China and the United States, so due diligence should be conducted first to ensure that partner is trustworthy.

Phelps R. Hope, CMP,is vice president of meetings and expositions for Atlanta-based Kellen Meetings. Linda Ding is a senior consultant with Kellen Management and Consulting Co. Ltd., in Beijing.