Preparing for life, and business, in China

Cultural considerations when relocating to the Far East
By Laraine Kaminsky
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/27/2005

What are your images of China? What would be your first thoughts the moment it is confirmed that you are moving to live and work in Beijing, Shanghai or Chongqing? For many people, these initial words would include “crowds, noise, bicycles, strange, unfamiliar, smells and chaos.”

However, similar to Canada, each region in China has its own cuisine, dialect, politics and infrastructures. Just as working in Vancouver is somewhat a different experience from working in Quebec City, so does an assignment in Beijing differ from one in Shanghai. In the capital city of Beijing, even a tricyclist or a taxi driver can talk about politics with a stranger for hours. By contrast, in the modern, more westernized coastal city of Shanghai, locals have little interest in politics, and instead pride themselves on their century-old reputation as “Paris in the East” — or, as the Chinese central government now intends it, their desired reputation as “New York in China.”

Therefore, it is critical not only during the preparation for the family departure, but also on arrival in China, to understand as much of the specifics of the city and province as possible.

Rapid changes in the Chinese economy, reflected in both the social life and the country’s business activities, have resulted in a dramatic increase in the presence of foreign students, business people and tourists in the major cities over the past few years. China now has the world’s fastest-growing economy and is undergoing what has been described as a second industrial revolution. As the notions of collectivism and “face” remain important in Chinese society, in both personal and business interactions with Chinese people, it is therefore essential to honour and respect these advances in a very explicit way. So, whenever you’re tempted to criticize the laggard pace of change at work, or the visible increase in income inequity seen on the streets, consider instead a more tactful comment on how far the Chinese people have come in just one decade.

Dealing with bureaucracy

So you thought dealing with the layers of government in Canada was bad? Well, be prepared, be patient and be resourceful, as inevitably you will encounter multiple layers of bureaucracy in many of your day-to-day dealings in China.

Understanding the system and the local politics is not only important, but absolutely essential, to get things done. The socialist political infrastructure — which may still govern interactions even in a neighbourhood or a workplace setting — can be extremely frustrating, particularly in contrast to the booming capitalist economy.

Take one example of a French company that had rented an office in a decent downtown Guangzhou building. When it attempted to have the office registered, the company found out that the landlord had not received the property certificate for the estate, and that’s because the developer of the building did not comply with one of those countless government regulations. Without the property certificate, the company could not register. To solve the problem in the end, the company had to work the landlord’s contacts.

The lesson to take from such examples: the more information you have and the better prepared you are in terms of having required documentation and the other formal requisites for permits, access to services, and so on, the less frustration for you, your family and your business venture.

This is where having an agent or “go between” in China can be extremely useful. Working with a local person whom you can trust, and who can act not just as a translator but also as a facilitator, is invaluable. In addition, you can seek assistance and guidance from the local Canadian consulate or embassy; the Canadian embassy has consular offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Chongqing and Guangzhou. The large cities also have Canadian Chambers of Commerce, which work with individuals and businesses to facilitate success in the country. Due to the importance of rank, status and hierarchy in China, being accompanied by an official of significant status and rank who is knowledgeable about the local community can open many doors.

Dealing with Chinese staff

Hierarchy in China influences many social relationships. Gender differences are of less consequence than age and management status. It is important to be overtly respectful to the most senior person and explicitly include this person in discussions and consultations. Similarly, Chinese cultural expectations tend to dictate that decision-making be deferred upwards to more senior management. Senior managers also have a clear preference to deal with their counterparts on a face-to-face level.

When working with a Chinese team, be conscious of the time it takes to work through an interpreter. Alternatively, if you are communicating in English, ensure that written communication is sent in advance. For many younger Chinese people, their reading and writing competencies in English are more developed than their speaking and listening skills. Therefore, take the time to engage the employees by giving them extra time to prepare for participating in a face-to-face meeting or a conference call.

Rewards and recognition are also different. Consider the importance of the collectivist culture when rewarding a team. A group photograph that is well-framed, publicly presented and displayed in a place of honour perfectly showcases the contribution of a group.

Hospitality matters in a collectivist culture like China. It would be considered impolite to help yourself to food at an event, for example, without also explicitly inviting colleagues to partake or even offering them a serving. At dinner, pour the tea for everyone at the table before you fill your own cup. As a foreigner, you would impress many Chinese with this gesture, which demonstrates how much you know about China.

Local staff will also be curious about Canada. On each visit, people could bring along several coffee-table books about Canada to present as gifts. Canadian pins, scarves, calendars, pens and other souvenirs also make wonderful tokens of appreciation and are well-received.

Relationship-building or ‘guanxi’

“Guanxi,” the Chinese term for “relationship,” plays an important part in how the business and personal world operates in China. The advantage of “relationship” is that it brings with it certain privileges — better pricing, preferred response times, reduced bureaucracy. Again, the value of the collective comes into play: who you are as an individual is not nearly as important as who you are as part of an organization, family, team, or community. Therefore, making good connections and maintaining them will enhance personal, family and organizational status. Part of making and maintaining good connections is giving and returning favours.

Guanxi also provides access — exactly what’s needed in a new and unfamiliar context and society. It is important to continuously work on this aspect throughout an assignment. The notion that connections continue for a long duration is paramount. Some Chinese see North American history as short and our appetite for instant gratification, quick responses and impatience as immaturity. Hard and fast negotiation styles do not work well in the Chinese context. Strong trust relationships are central to developing stable and effective business dealings.

Laraine Kaminsky is executive vice-president of Graybridge Malkam, an Ottawa-based consulting firm specializing in diversity, employment equity, and intercultural effectiveness. She can be reached at

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