It is said that in the West everything is easy, but nothing is possible. Whereas in China nothing is easy, but everything is possible. Those who have been doing business in or with China understand this maxim well. They also understand that in Chinese society, the personal, professional and political spheres overlap. Examples abound of businesses that have failed or succeeded in China depending on their level of understanding of this reality. Google’s attempts to make inroads in the Chinese market are a case in point. After years of struggles, its CEO Eric Schmidt stated “China is a nation with a five-thousand-year history. That could indicate the duration for our patience.” Given the non-confrontational nature of the Chinese culture, messages are never communicated bluntly, but through hints. Because I lived in China for years, I got into the habit of interpreting statements from different angles. While Mr. Schmidt’s statement could be interpreted differently depending on the circumstances, it is clear that it highlights the fact that there are some things that just take time to happen in China. One of those things is building a good relationship with the other party. It is a commonly held view among foreigners that building long lasting relationships with the Chinese party is a pre-requisite to getting anything done. In the Chinese culture, that process often takes place around a tea set or a dinner table.
It is customary to be invited by a Chinese partner to drink tea. Chinese believe it’s better to be deprived of food for three days than tea for one. This emphasizes the tea drinking process as a ritual through which some aspects of the Chinese culture are articulated. Far from being a mundane ceremony, it is an occasion for the Chinese party to size up the other party. When drinking tea, the other party is often asked about their marital status, personal achievements, plans for the future, experience with China, culinary preferences…etc. That exchange is meant to establish where does the guest stand. Is he/she someone that could be trusted or not? Once answers to those questions are established, the Chinese party might start invoking business ideas. If you ask a Chinese businessman whether he would like to do business with someone who is competent or someone who can be trusted, he would choose the latter. The ideal match would be someone who can get the job done, and at the same time could be trusted. But with a population of 1.4 billion people, it might take some time to find that match. And time is a valuable commodity. Once the Chinese party starts transitioning towards the business talk, all topics will be addressed in broad strokes. At this stage, everything will seem opaque to the foreigner businessman who has his mental boxes and checklists. The Chinese party will not answer any key question with a straight yes or a straight no. Not yet, not at this stage. For now, a “basically no problem” means “big problem”, and a “yes” is not an indication of agreement. Things will change and start getting clearer as the exchange progresses, and as the relationship is being cemented. Think of the tea drinking ceremony as an interview to get accepted by the other. Go along with it, sit back, and enjoy it. It is said that patience is also a form of action.
Abdelhak Benkerroum is the author of the book We Have a Deal as well as the founder and director of Eastheimer Training and Consulting. He lives in Shanghai.